Many of us fantasize about buying a house, getting married, having a baby, then retiring at 65—specifically in that order.
In fact, according to recent research by LearnVest, these are the things we define as the American Dream in 2013.
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But the one thing that all four of these goals have in common is that they’re expensive. The cost of raising kids is rising fast; many of us are behind on saving for retirement—or considering taking on a part-time job once we have. So, if you have a major life event you're saving up for, how do you get your finances in order to achieve it?
We asked four people what the next step is in achieving their American Dream. Then we asked David Blaylock, a Certified Financial Planner™ with LearnVest Planning Services, how they can each get one step closer to turning those dreams into reality.
“We're having a baby.”
Hillary Sandbach, 26, married and expecting, works in hotel marketing in Kihei, Hawaii
My husband John and I are having a baby this April. We’re excited, but it was a surprise, so we weren’t saving for it. It gives me anxiety, because we already live close to the margin.
I have a great job with daytime hours and a $52,000 salary. John, 37, left his job as a hotel chef this past June to start a food truck business called Smoke & Spice. He cooks and sells Texas-style barbecue. He mainly caters events in the evenings. His income varies month-to-month. Childcare is expensive, so John will be the primary care provider.
John has a 3-year-old son from a prior relationship, and though we’re not entirely financially responsible for him, it’s more dollars out the door. We live in a four-bedroom home (mortgage is $2,000 a month), so there is room for my stepson and the baby. We don’t have any debt, but the cost of living is high in Hawaii.
I contribute 10% of my salary to my 401(k) and 5% to a savings account. I had to drain my savings, though, due to a surgery and car trouble. Now there is only $1,000 in my savings. John has a 401(k) and contributes a little to a savings account, but I’m not sure how much is in there.
We have jointly saved $5,000 that we were calling a “vacation fund,” but that will be renamed a “baby fund.” We were also hoping to remodel and redecorate our house, but that has to be put on hold.
After the baby is born, we want to start a college savings account. We also have to think about early education. The Hawaii public school system is bad. I’d love to send the baby to private school, but Montessori pre-K is $10,000 a year.
David says: What an exciting time! Many people never feel that they are financially prepared for a new baby, so this couple is not alone.
Hillary and John have made some great decisions here, with putting household renovations on hold and repurposing a travel fund. If the child's learning is important, they could move to a place that has better public education options. They could also supplement with a private tutor, which could be less expensive than private school. After they are sure that they are contributing sufficient amounts to retirement savings and emergency savings, using a tool like a 529 account to save for post-secondary educational expenses could be beneficial.
“We're planning a wedding.”
Timothy Castoro, 29, engaged, works as a hospital engineer and lives in Sayville, N.Y.
My fiancée, Marisa, and I got engaged in August and are getting married next August on Long Island. It’s great to find somebody you want to be with—we want to celebrate that by bringing our families together.
We live in a two-bedroom house that I bought in 2011, before we started dating. I’m a hospital engineer. Marisa, 28, is a teacher. We have a combined income of $160,000.
Marisa paid off her student loans and has $16,000 in savings. She wants to put all of that toward the wedding.
I used to have savings, but I spent that on the down payment and home renovations. I’m still paying $500 a month in credit card payments for Marisa’s engagement ring. I have a 4-year-old son from a prior relationship, so I pay for his expenses ($300 a month).
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Marisa’s parents are generously helping with some wedding stuff, like Marisa’s dress, hair and makeup.
In May, we set up a joint bank account and each of us has been putting $500 into it monthly. By August of 2014, we should have $15,000.
We should have a total of at least $31,000 saved by August of next year—plus whatever our parents contribute. But we have no idea what the total cost of the wedding will be.
Some costs have caught us by surprise. We thought we’d invite 150 people, but our guest list is now closer to 200. A good band will be another big-ticket item. Marisa wants the high, expensive flower centerpieces. We’re shipping in wine from California. But we’re cutting back in some areas, like we decided not to hire a videographer.
If we end up wanting to spend more money than we’ve saved, I have two credit cards. Plus, if we get money from guests as gifts, we might pay off any extra costs with that.
David says: Timothy and Marisa have made some great decisions regarding saving and planning for their future as a couple, but all of that hard work can be undone with this one event. It’s time to tap the brakes and make sure that the wedding is not going to put this couple into financial difficulty. Dipping into the $16,000 that was saved for emergency purposes is dangerous, and they should not use a credit card to finance their wedding.
This party needs a budget, and then they must look for ways to save. Trimming the guest list and selecting a less expensive band or DJ are options. Long Island, where they live, has many wineries. They won’t get everything that they want, but they can still have a memorable day. I would suggest limiting the event to the $15,000 that they are saving, plus the contribution from her parents.
“I want to buy a house.”
Adrienne Raimo, 32, single, works as a registered dietitian nutritionist, and lives in Columbus, Ohio
I earned three different college degrees, so when I finally graduated in 2009, I had a lot of student loans.
I decided to start my own business as a nutritionist. So I kept living with my parents to save money. I became debt-free in March of 2011. About six months ago, I moved out of my parents’ house and rented a one-bedroom loft that costs $750 a month.
I’ve been contributing $125 a month to a mutual fund since I was 22. That totals $20,000. I have a checking and savings account, and there’s a combined total of five figures in those. I also have a separate bank account for a side job that I do—I knit hats with cat ears on them and sell them online and at craft fairs—and there are four figures in that account. I have two retirement accounts that total in the five figures.
"I would like to buy a house by the age of 35. A lot of mortgages last for 30 years and 65 is a common age to retire, so buying a house then would make financial sense."
I would like to buy a house by the age of 35. A lot of mortgages last for 30 years and 65 is a common age to retire, so buying a house by 35 would make financial sense. I hope that by then I might be married. It’s hard to justify owning a multi-bedroom home for just one person. But when I rent, I’m throwing money away, so it would be nice to invest. It would also be nice to have a husband so someone else could chip in money.
I would love to have at least a 30% down payment. For that, I want to combine my savings with my mutual fund. My dream home will probably cost $350,000. But as a small business owner, it can be difficult to get a loan, because my income fluctuates.
David says: Ah, the American dream of homeownership. Adrienne is following a great strategy of planning for this major purchase by making sure that she has enough money for a sizable down payment. In most cases, 20% or more is a solid goal.
The next few years are likely to bring a lot of change. Waiting at least that long will allow her to become more stable in her career and maybe even meet Mr. Right! In her situation, delaying the purchase of a home is the best option. While she may not be building equity, she’s also not risking making a poor decision that she can't easily escape.
“I want to retire at 62.”
Arlene Sahraie, 61, divorced with a 32-year-old son, works as an administrator at a library consortium and lives in Fort Lee, N.J.
After being married for 27 years, I got divorced in 2006. I had to move out of our home and suddenly support myself on one income.
I bought a high-rise, one-bedroom co-op. My mortgage plus maintenance totals $2,400 a month. I’m paying a lot for my apartment, but I had to leave a house that I loved, so I felt that I deserved to live somewhere beautiful.
I first worked as a librarian and left the job in 2003 after 25 years to take an early retirement. I get a pension of $2,000 a month from that job—though it would have been $300 more a month if I hadn't retired early. Since then I’ve worked as an administrator of a library consortium, where I make $80,000 a year.
At this job, I have a 403(b) retirement account. As an incentive, my employer was initially putting in the equivalent of 10% of my salary, and as I've gotten raises, I've opted to have them contribute that amount to this retirement account rather than add it to my paycheck, so, by next year, that will be 18%. I also fund my 403(b) with my salary to the max—$23,000 per year. Currently my 403(b) contains $300,000.
I also moonlight as a reference librarian twice a month, tutor a kid in writing and sell vintage items online. I have $30,000 in savings. I have $180,000 in an annuity. I have no debt. I’ll have to pay a $15,000 one-time fee soon to fix structural problems in my building.
I would love to retire for good next year. I’d like to volunteer at hospital or teach ESL. I’d like to get to the gym more and visit any kids that my son might have someday. My brother has dementia, so I’d like to visit him more in Tennessee. While the going is good, I’d like to enjoy my time. But I’m not sure what my income would be if I quit my job at 62.
David says: Arlene has made progress, in terms of recovering from a major financial setback. But her mortgage and maintenance fees are significant. Staying in her current home will likely mean that she cannot retire next year. I would encourage her to look for more affordable housing.
Through the combination of her retirement accounts and her pension, Arlene may be able to draw approximately $45,000 per year throughout her retirement. This does not include any potential Social Security benefit. She could work another year and spend that time selling her condo. By working part-time for the next few years, she could delay taking her Social Security benefit until the full-retirement age of 66, which will increase the monthly benefit.
LearnVest Planning Services is a registered investment adviser and subsidiary of LearnVest, Inc. that provides financial plans for its clients. Information shown is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended as investment, legal or tax planning advice. Please consult a financial adviser, attorney or tax specialist for advice specific to your financial situation. The people interviewed in this piece are neither a client, employee nor affiliate of LearnVest Planning Service. LearnVest Planning Services and any third-parties listed, discussed, identified or otherwise appearing herein are separate and unaffiliated and are not responsible for each other’s products, services or policies.