(Steve is a guest blogger from Think Save Retire.)
During her commencement address at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Former Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz told a group of graduating college students to look past the doom and gloom headlines because "your work life is very, very long." She then dropped the bomb: "You're the first generation that is preparing for a 50-year work life, and you know why. You have to support all of us." Gee, thanks for the inspiration, Ms. Bartz!
If you are as disheartened by that statement as I am, that's good. It means that you recognize working 50 or more years doesn't need to be reality for all of us. If we live above our means, then yes, 50 is probably an accurate number of years required to pay for all that stuff. But a more sensible lifestyle shaves decades of required work off of our lives and puts us on the fast track to financial independence and maybe even early retirement.
Contrary to popular belief, saving for retirement is not tough. The concepts are actually quite simple:
Maximize earnings through jobs and side hustles
Save [much] more than you spend
Resist lifestyle inflation as pay increases
Keep expenses low by understanding true happiness
Happiness cuts to the heart of virtually everything we do with our money. In theory, we spend money on the things that make us happy. Expensive cars. Designer clothing. Jewelry. Big homes. The nicer things in life supposedly make us happy, but these "nicer things" are also responsible for draining our bank accounts.
The average size of new homes built in 2013 increased to an all-time high, 2,679 feet, while the living space per person has doubled over the past four decades. Not surprising, the average purchase loan size has grown to a record high in 2015, peaking at $294,900 - a whopping $50,000 higher than in 2007.
I believe a primary reason for this cycle stems from our insistence that happiness is derived from stuff, yet all this purchasing isn’t increasing our happiness levels.
Worse, this headstrong pursuit of the accumulation of stuff continues to push retirement further and further into the distance for the majority of people.
All of this can be distilled down into a single encompassing concept: live below your means. In other words: Just because you can doesn't mean you should.
For example, even though you may qualify for a $300,000 mortgage, doesn’t mean you must spend that much. Save your bonuses at work rather than spending them. After each raise cycle, push more and more into your savings instead of increasing your lifestyle. These principles are easy to do in concept, but much harder to make happen because it takes discipline.
Challenge yourself to consider your lifestyle independent of future raises and bonuses. When pay goes up, your lifestyle stays the same.
Imagine pulling down $80,000 but living like you make $40k. You would probably be retired in no time, and that is what aggressive savings and living below your means enables. Flexibility. Options. In many cases, retirement.
You're 40 and realize now that all the stuff you have does not truly make you happy. Your job is growing old and you wonder more and more if retirement will ever find you. Finally, you've had enough of the standard operating procedure in your life and want something different. Something better.
First, congratulations! You are already ahead of the game. Realizing that changes are needed in your lifestyle is the first step towards making progress. Here are the 5 main strategies you should use to really get the ball rolling.
Go through your bank and credit card statements to figure out where your money is being spent, then decrease those expenses. Cook at home, figure out whether you really need that 200+ channel cable package, and carefully analyze your recurring bills.
If it's tough to get rid of some of this stuff, ask yourself a simple question: Retirement or X? Would I rather retire before I hit 60 or keep working until 65 so I can watch HBO? Is buying an extra bottle of X, or buying product Y worth potentially pushing retirement back a month? It never is. I've never met a scenario where I actively said "Yes!", I want this more than I want to retire.
If your employer matches a certain percentage of your salary to your 401k retirement account, be sure to AT LEAST devote the matched amount. Extra credit if you can completely max out your contributions every year. The less money that hits your bank account, the less you have to spend.
Long commutes are extremely taxing to both your car as well as your wallet. Gas, car maintenance and repairs all add up, and how much is your time worth? Could a closer job mean more time with your family, less of a commute and ultimately an increase in your quality of life?
Almost anyone can decrease the amount of money they spend at a moment's notice, but not as many people can magically increase their income.
Take the easy route to setting your retirement savings into overdrive. Live below your means. Understand where your money is going. Prioritize your retirement by asking yourself point blank if spending money on THIS or THAT is worth an additional week, month or even year at work. More times than not, the answer will be no.