Conventional Wisdom #1: Invest in a 401(k). Period.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it is not gospel that you should invest in a 401(k). To clarify, that doesn’t mean it’s not for you; just know that you don’t have to participate just because a 401(k) is offered to you. A 401(k) can be good. It can even be great—but it all depends on you, your debt situation, your goals and your company plan. If your employer doesn’t match contributions, or if there are high fees involved, or if the plan doesn’t come with the right investment choices for you, you might want to rethink it. In this scenario, you can and should take control and plan for retirement yourself—and choose another option or options for retirement like a Roth IRA or solo 401(k).
So how do you know if a 401(k) is right for you? Well, it is only if you have your financial house in order. 401(k)s are a good way to grow retirement savings, but you shouldn’t take one on in lieu of accumulating an emergency fund or paying down/taking on debt. Make sure your cash flow and debt situation can support 401(k) contributions. And, ideally, that your employer matches those contributions.
Conventional Wisdom #2: Buying > Renting.
If you haven’t already noticed, owning a home is almost universally considered a good thing. You’ll hear it touted by your favorite spewers of conventional financial wisdom. After all, they say, it’s the American Dream. I say, when it’s good, it can be a great thing but it also might not be right for you at this particular time in your life. Here are the three things you need to say YES to before even considering buying a home:
- Are you going to live in it for a while? Because you need to—for at least five years. Sure, things change, people move, get fired, promoted, hitched, pregnant, etc. Life happens unexpectedly, but if you know or have a hunch you are going to need to move soon for whatever reason, you should not buy. A home is not just about playing house. It’s an asset, and it’s illiquid, which means it’s hard to “melt” into cash when you need it. And if you need to move, you’re going to be thirsty for money, but that home is going to take time to sell.
- Can you afford it? Almost everyone needs a mortgage to be able to buy a home, especially first time buyers. Typically you need about 20% of the total cost of the house in cash for a down payment, although in some cases you might be able to put down less in exchange for a larger mortgage loan. Do you have that? Also keep in mind closing costs. You’ll need to set aside approximately 3% of the purchase price (as much as $10,000 on a $350,000 house) in closing costs on top of the down payment (including lawyer fees, home appraisal fees, property survey fee, home inspection, pest inspection, local property taxes, local sewer fees, homeowners insurance, title insurance, realty transfer fees, clerk fees, etc.).
- Do you have a steady job that you love? If you’re unhappy about your job and looking into new opportunities, you can forget about buying. Job uncertainty makes for terrible timing to make an investment this enormous. You should also leave the door open for any opportunity that might come up which, should you take the job, might demand moving.
Can’t answer YES to all of these questions? Rent on, my friend.
Conventional Wisdom #3: Pay off those student loans ASAP!
All in all, you ultimately pay two to three times the principal you started with to finish off student loans. Criminal, I know. But that doesn’t mean you should start throwing extra money you might have come into at your loans haphazardly. If you got a raise at work or inherited some money, congrats. So maybe you’re thinking, “Time to get this student debt monkey off my back.” But sometimes, this can bite you in the backside instead. Ramp up payments only if you’re prepared to sustain that amount for a while, not just one beefy hit-and-run check. If you drastically increase payment from what you’ve paid in the past only to lower it again, this can look bad to the credit agencies. Not totally sure you can keep up with the higher payment? Go for a more manageable payment amount, one that you can stick to in the long-term. It might not feel as gratifying as taking a big bite out of your painful student debt loan, but in this case, slow and steady wins the race.
And keep in mind: just like your clothing taste and size changes over time, so will your financial demands. So that “one size” that fits you right now may not be the right size down the road. Continue to “size yourself up.” Your money will continue to grow and evolve, and so should your thinking (and rethinking).