Mar 18, 2010

Dear Investing Newbie and Simple in France

Since both of you left such great comments on my last entry, I thought I'd follow up in another entry to clarify, while still being vague enough to hopefully keep anyone who finds my blog from knowing who I am. (It's getting tougher and tougher to do that while being 100% honest on my earnings!)

Simple in France recommends that, since I don't know exactly what my income will be over the year, I budget for one that's "shoestring" and save everything else. There's no harm in saving. And I agree. I have a feeling my income this year will double, if not triple the $60k I was making last year. Yes, there is a chance, albeit a small one, that I could even hit $200k. I could also "hit" $10k - if for some reason after a week into the job they end up hating me. Not saying that's going to happen, but anything is possible. And it's so easy for them to say so long when you're not a full-time employee. I can't count on anything.

I'm trying to continue my goal of having diverse income streams, but it is difficult to maintain more than one job when one is a major 40+ hour-a-week commitment. The good thing about being on an hourly contract is that you're pretty much limited to 8 hours a day of work. That means you probably won't be working 60 hour weeks at one job, or if you are, you're getting paid for those extra hours. So that leaves room for picking up (or keeping) other freelance gigs. My biggest concern, though, is that I'll be asked to work those extra hours and I'll struggle to keep the balance of my diverse income streams. At least when I'm in a contract position I feel like it's fair to accept other work (unless the contract is salaried and specifies they own you for a set period of time). I never want to only have one income stream, I know I can be laid off at any time, or a company could go under. I don't care how much I'm making at one job, I need something else that at least covers the rent and minimal food just in case. At the moment, I have a part-time contract gig that moved from 8 hours a week to 16 hours a week recently. That pays slightly less than the 40 hour a week gig, so if I had to chose one to keep it would definitely be the 40-hour-a-week one. But there's no harm in working 4 hours extra 4 days a week (or spreading out my time even more) to save more money. And that's my goal. Save as much as possible this year. I'll probably -- best case scenerio -- get myself into a ridiculously high tax bracket, have to pay self-employment tax on some of my income, and end up earning not as much as I could have at a lower-paid, full-time job with benefits. But, I think it will work out ok, as long as I can keep this all going. And I'm going to make this work somehow. To prove to myself I can. And to save a lot of money. Because right now I'm either look at going to grad school or buying a condo (???) in the next 1-2 years and I don't mind keeping my spending low to increase my savings.

Investing Newbie asks if I know what I'm guaranteed as income, and that I should budget based on that. Yes, and no, is the answer. As stated above, in a contract role "guaranteed" for only half the year, the most I'm guaranteed for -- even if I am amazing at my job -- is 6 months worth of work. They also are perfectly free to tell me that they don't want me to come back in to the office at any time. They could even tell me that before I start my first day. I doubt they will, but I accept weirder things have happened. Then, my other income streams, while smaller, are a little bit more predictable. I have a blogging gig which, at the most, can bring in $500 a month. That I've been doing for a while. I got behind badly in Feb but did well in March. I just need to get up early and spend about 30 minutes to write a blog post for 20 posts a month. It's totally do-able. That gig is probably the most stable of them all, but the company that runs the blog could chose to shut it down at any time. Then there's the 16-hour-a-week project I noted above, which is sort of guaranteed at 16 hours per week for the next two months. It's with a stealth startup where I'm doing some writing work that I can basically do whenever (ie, night time, after work, weekends.) That also could end at any time. So the simple answer is -- I have no idea what my gross income will be for the year. There's a good chance it could be way more than I've made in the past. There's a chance it will be less. I don't know what to plan for. Other than to plan for a little bit of income ($35k about) and budget off of that.

Investing Newbie also writes that I could open up a plain savings account with a good rate and save up money for 40+ years or to invest if I feel comfortable with it. I do have savings accounts and investment accounts, and I plan to split my earnings among those accounts. Since I started working, I've put $5,000 a year into my Roth IRA, but if the best-case scenario works out this year, I won't qualify for a Roth. Again, not the worst problem in the world to have, but I would like to put money away for retirement. I also don't want to put everything away for retirement because -- as I said -- I either want to buy a house or go to grad school in the next 1-2 years. So where does that savings go?

Up until now, I've been fairly aggressive in my Sharebuilder investment account, in terms of stock and ETF purchases. I started slowly and was down a lot (like everyone else) when the markets crashed, but kept investing when they were down (bought a lot of a few companies I thought were on sale) and am now up 25% and have an account worth about $10k total. Still, I only invest $100-$400 a month. It would be a lot harder to put $2000 a month into my volatile stocks and ETFs. I also have a Vanguard account (besides my Roth IRA) that's just a mid-cap index fund. It's doing ok. I could put more money into that (or open up another taxable Vanguard fund) but I'm still a little nervous for shorter-term investing. Granted, I'm young enough where if my networth goes down I can recover. Maybe I'll have to take out a bigger loan for grad school or not buy a house in the near future, but it wouldn't kill me. I'm fine renting and living with roommates. I don't need a lot to be happy.

So, yes, I could just put whatever extra money I make over my shoestring budget and put it directly into a basic savings account or FDIC-insured laddered CDs. I'll probably lean more towards investing anything over my monthly expenses. I think for the first time in my life I'll have access to a 401k plan (though I'm not sure how good it is) so it probably makes sense to put some money away pre-tax. It's SO HARD to figure out if that makes sense, though. If my yearly income is less than $80k (or whatever the cut-off is for a single person this year) I am better off funding the Roth IRA first. But if it's more than that, the 401k makes a lot of sense. I probably won't know until next December which of those will be accurate. I guess there are ways to fund one thing and move money around until the year is over, but that's a huge pain. I'd like to just pick something and stick with it. The Roth IRA has been the no-brainer for the last few years, but it sounds like I should take advantage of the 401k while I have access to it.

Other places I could stash my cash? The 529 plan (which has, like, $1200 in it right now (enough for - what - one month's worth of MBA textbooks?) which is only free from federal taxes... I could buy a condo now and give up on my grad school dreams... and also trust that I can continue earning some decent income for the next 50 years, I could put about $2500 more into the HSA plan which I may or may not continue... I'd have to get it in there before I cancel the insurance, and pay a yearly fee forever to keep the account open, but that's a place where I can put pre-tax money and not have to pay taxes if I use the money for health expenses... and that makes more sense than the FSA which is also available with my new employer. I don't like the idea of FSA's since you lose the money if you don't spend it at the end of the year.

Anyway, I'm going off topic. I'm in a good situation right now all things considered, but the way I look at money, and savings, is drastically changing. I don't understand how to lead a six-figure lifestyle. Especially one that isn't guaranteed to be a six-figure lifestyle. It's fine to live this year like I'm making $35k and ignore anything above that I make. But when in my life will it be ok to stop and live a slightly nicer lifestyle? Go for a massage every once in a while? Buy a good road bike? Get a better car (mine will die soon, so I will need to invest in another car anyway)? Sign off on a condo or small house? All these luxuries... at what point in income and income stability do I need to be at before it's ok to spend more than a shoestring budget? Or is the key to never do that, no matter how much money you make?


Simple in France said...

Hey, thanks for the great answer. I like seeing how other people handle their investing--it always teaches me something.

I see what you mean about 'how long do I have to live on a shoestring?' And depending on where you live, living under 10k can certainly be tough (but it's doable in many places).

You could always put your savings into an emergency fund with a year or two of your shoestring expenses in it to create a little stability. (you could even include the cost of a mortgage in your calculations in case you decide to buy some day).

Anyway, good luck with your new job. I think it's smart of you to hope for the best but keep in mind and plan for the worst case scenario as well.

Investing Newbie said...

I think you should be able to enjoy any luxury in life as long as it won't negatively impact your future financial situation. Seriously, getting a 1 hour massage is not going to mean that you will living in poverty in your retirement and I think a lot of people that are in the PF world need to come to grips with that. Sometimes, it really is about enjoying the money you've worked so diligently to save.

As to your point on living as if you are on 35K: do it. The best advice my first boss ever gave me was to learn to work with my first salary. Any raises thereafter should be put into savings/retirement. I made 34K at my first job. I make 45K now, yet I still "budget" on my 34K salary. Ok, maybe I budget as though I'm on a 38K! The point is, I am saving a lot, and it gives me enough of a cushion to treat myself from time to time.

eemusings said...

I definitely agree with living on a shoestring budget - personally I wouldn't feel comfortable otherwise without a fairly steady income.

I agree with Newbie - you have to live your life TODAY, you can't deny yourself everything for the sake of retirement. As for how far that goes is up to you - within "reason" for me might not be the same for you.

Anonymous said...

I think it's time you stop thinking that you're going to make all of this money and set up business accounts to take in all of your money and pay yourself a regular salary out of that. That way you won't have highs and lows in case you do get fired.

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