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Walter Updegrave on Having More Money
Walter Updegrave, award-winning journalist, speaker and author, is senior editor of MONEY. He writes "The Long View," a column on retirement, as well as an "Ask the Expert" column that wittily demystifies jargon of the investment world. Updegrave has appeared on national radio and television programs, including “Oprah,” “Today,” “Nightline” and “CBS This Morning.” He is the author of four books: We're Not in Kansas Anymore: How to Retire Rich in a Totally Changed World; Investing for the Financially Challenged; The Right Way To Invest In Mutual Funds and How To Keep Your Savings Safe. We had a chance to speak to Updegrave on having more money.
What would you say is the secret to having more money?
The secret is arranging your life so it’s easy to do the right thing. The single most important thing is to save on a regular basis. That’s difficult for a lot of people. We have a lot of things we have to do—bills, obligations—there’s always going to be something that comes up. If you can set things up so you’re saving automatically, so it’s going on in the background, you’ll have a much greater chance of having what you need down the road. It’s easy for people to say, “You should save 5% or 10% of your salary.” It’s much harder to actually sit down and write out a check each week to savings. Using payroll deduction or automatic transfer, you can do it without thinking about it.
What are the three most important things a person starting off on the road to more money?
1. Sign up for your 401(k) or whatever workplace savings plan you have, especially if you have an employer match, which is essentially free money.
2. Reign in your spending. Most of us tend to live on all of what we make, or more than what we make by borrowing. You need to come up with some way to live a little bit below your means. The only way to have money later in life is to not spend everything you make early in life. How do you reign in this spending? There are a whole host of things you can do. Even better than cutting out lattes and that sort of thing—do things like driving a less expensive car. Don’t drive that status symbol or SUV. Yes, take a vacation, but don’t take such a lavish vacation.
3. Avoid the debt trap. It’s so easy to slip into the debt mindset. We’re inundated with credit card pitches, checks in the mail, zero interest for six months offers—it’s very easy to have this idea that it’s not really costing you very much, that you can handle it. The debt tends to build kind of quickly. And before you know it, you’re boxed in. You owe several thousand dollars. You have a minimum payment each month, so that money can’t go toward something else. It could take ten years or more to pay off that debt. And it leaves you no maneuvering room if an emergency comes up. It’s easy to fall into this situation and very difficult to get out of it.
What emotions do people experience during the first 30 days of having more money?
Guilt probably comes before they make that resolve to change. They feel like they’re not doing the right thing by their family and that they need to change something.
Once people make that decision, the first thing is probably a great sense of relief and optimism. “Gee, now I’m on the right path. Now I’m heading the right way; I’m doing something positive.” Maybe they sign up for their 401(k) or they start paring down their credit card debt.
Then, after a couple of weeks, people start running into some of the practical difficulties. It takes somebody years to get into a position where they see they need to make a change. They’re not going to get out of their current situation right away. There’s a little sense of a letdown. As they see what really lies ahead of them, reality sets in that this is going to take some time.
But then, if they push on, I think they can get this sense of empowerment and think, “I can make a plan here.” They begin to adjust to the reality of what they have to do to change. And if they start making some concrete plans and decisions and taking the necessary steps, they can have a sense of satisfaction, of “Yes, I’m making progress.” They can ultimately come to grips with their situation and move on with some confidence—confidence based on realism.
What advice would you give people to help them stay motivated to have more money beyond the first 30 days?
The key is to stick to the plan. Don’t let it become a resolution that you follow diligently for awhile but then slip back into old habits. By definition, habits are things you’ve done for a long time. So if you have a tendency to run up your credit card debt, it’s very tough to get rid of that behavior. You have to be on-guard so you don’t slip back into old habits.
Over the long term, try to have some goals you’re trying to reach. If your goal is to save more, maybe you increase the percent each year that you put into your 401(k). Maybe you start out at 5%, but then you increase it by a percent each year. And then you see that you’re saving more by the increase in your balance.
I can’t stress enough the importance of arranging your life so that the savings goes on without having to make a conscious decision to do it. Not just for your 401(k), but for other savings vehicles like mutual funds. Once you set up the groundwork, you don’t have to think about it, and that’s terrific. If saving and investing depend on you writing out a check to a mutual fund each week, there are a lot of things that can come up that get in the way of doing that.
How do people overcome the desire for immediate gratification that causes them to spend money?
Choosing to save money instead of spending it requires you have to imagine the benefit way out in the future. But that’s not easy to do. It’s difficult to envision, “This is going to be terrific, because when I’m 65, I can take a trip around the world.” To be honest, I’m not sure there’s a good way to convince yourself that the thing way off in the future is worth it. It’s easier to persuade yourself to put a little bit away now in the least painful way possible. Then you can see your account balance begin to build—the fruits of having put that money in there. Or go online and look at projected returns—that may at least give you a little more sense of reality and show you that it’s not an abstract exercise.
What is the most common mistake people make while trying to save more money?
People think there’s some kind of magic solution out there. They have a lot of debt and they think there’s some sort of extremely creative, resourceful way they’re going to rid of it quickly. People write me with these fantastic—meaning unreal—schemes. They think they’re going to consolidate debt, take out a loan, invest it and use the earnings from the investment to pay off the debt. In reality, the way to improve your situation is gradually. You’re not going to do it overnight. You have to make a long term plan and stick to it.
Is Generation X in denial about their retirement?
One of the big differences between Generation X and previous generations is it’s so much easier for them to get at savings and borrow money, such as a home equity line. That type of credit used to be for a one-time thing—now it’s essentially used as a checking account to write checks against the equity in your house. These situations have made it much easier to give in to the impulse to have something you really can’t afford, and it’s much easier to spend everything you make and maybe even more.
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
If I’m looking to make a change about something, I guess I think “What is my goal here? How is it going to make my situation better? What am I really looking for?” I’ll make a change if I know in some way it’s going to improve my life, whether it’s emotionally or by allowing me to spend more time with my family—not necessarily based on monetary factors. There has to be some kind of benefit. I don’t really seek out change for change’s sake—if I’m bored, for instance. I think then there’s a danger of winding up floating from one thing to another without having a real goal.
The best thing about change is…
…improving your life.
What is the best change you have ever made?
My wife and I were married for a number of years before we had a child. So when we decided to become parents, I obviously didn’t have any experience. I mean, I’d been a kid, but that’s it. But I think in terms of the way I look at life, having a family has been the most profound change for me. The decision to start a family was the best change. It shifted my outlook on life in a lot of ways; it rearranged my priorities. It gave me a better sense of the richness of life, of something outside of myself.
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