Everybody hates Todd Henderson.
In case you haven’t heard, he’s the University of Chicago law professor who unwisely blogged last week about his financial woes in a post headlined “We Are the Super Rich.”
Mr. Henderson and his wife, an oncologist, make more than $250,000 a year, and apparently they’re struggling to get by. If President Barack Obama gets his wicked way, and tax rates rise for those earning more than $250,000 a year, Mr. Henderson says it will mean real sacrifice in his family.
It’s too easy to pelt Mr. Henderson with rotten eggs, as so many have now done. (He yanked the post, but way too late—and on the Internet, one’s blunders never die.) But can we, instead, give him some useful advice?
Adjust your expectations. “I can show you a client of mine right now who lives in a suburb of Chicago, he’s a doctor, makes $350,000 a year, and he routinely racks up $25,000 on his credit cards,” says Michael Kalscheur, a financial planner at Castle Wealth Advisors in Indianapolis. The reason? Too many people have “unrealistic expectations,” says Mr. Kalscheur. They figure they should be vacationing in Italy, driving expensive cars, the whole deal. “We need to knock him upside the head. He’s got to stop spending money.” Every financial planner will tell you the same thing: The real challenge is tackling the psychology.
Refinance your mortgage. I have no idea how big and expensive your home is, but you can now get a 30 year jumbo mortgage at around 5.3%. Even on a $1 million loan that comes to $5,500 a month, and it’s tax deductible. If your home is so expensive that you can’t even afford it at these rates, you can’t afford it. Sell it and move somewhere more affordable. If you’re underwater on the mortgage, talk to the bank. Forget about “equity,” which may not exist, and look at the cashflow.
Get a grip on your discretionary spending. Carry a pocket notebook with you for a month, and write down everything you spend. Get your wife and children to do the same. It will help you understand where your money is going. Almost every financial planner will tell you that this is invariably a huge eye-opener. As Jonathan Sard, a financial advisor in Atlanta, says, you may find you spend $100 in Target every time you go in for lightbulbs, or spend $300 taking your kids to a White Sox game. With everyone it’s different, but you need to know where the losses are. If writing everything down is too much of a challenge: Junk the plastic, and just carry cash. This is instant budgeting. If you carry $500 a month, that’s all you can spend.
Stop blaming the government. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a household earning $265,000 a year is in the top 20% in the country, and one earning $395,000 is in the top 10%. (The relevant thresholds are $190,000 and $290,000, respectively. And those figures were from 2007, a more prosperous time). So you’re near the top of the tree in the richest country in history. At the same time, contrary to what you seem to think, federal taxes are not extortionate by modern historical standards. According to the CBO, families in the top 20% pay average federal taxes of 25.1%. The figure in President Reagan’s final year in office: 25.6%.
Think about relocating. No kidding. It’s not about how much you earn, it’s about how much you get to keep, and if you are paying too much to live in an expensive town like Chicago, you may be much better off earning less somewhere cheaper. You and your wife both have highly portable jobs. According to the ACCRA Cost of Living Index, someone earning $350,000 in Chicago could get the same standard of living on just $230,000 a year in, say, Austin, Texas or Cincinnati.
Reconsider the investments. You say you’re putting money into the stock market each month, even though you are paying off huge student loans. You need to do the math. If your investments are through a 401(k), they make sense: They’re saving you taxes, maybe taking advantage of a company match. But if they are in addition to your 401(k) plan, they may not make sense right now. You are probably better off using the money to pay down that debt.
Rethink the two cars. Are you leasing them? How much are they costing you a month? This is one of the biggest ways middle class families blow their cash. I can’t believe the number of people who think these moving white elephants are a status symbol. When I see an expensive car go by, all it tells me is that the owner is (a) insecure and (b) has no sense. These days you can get a decent set of wheels for a lot less than $10,000. Buy used. Pay cash. Run it till it dies.
Rethink the schools. You’re sending your children to private school. But how much is it costing you? I take your point about terrible local public schools, but can you move to a neighborhood with better public schools? Or downscale to less-expensive schools?
Talk to a tax accountant. You say you’re using TurboTax. With your income, you might benefit from some professional assistance. Are there deductions you can take that you’re not using? Are you subject to Alternative Minimum Tax? Should you make your fourth quarter state and federal tax payments before Dec. 31? You may be able to help your financial position.
Go after all the little costs. You’re hemorrhaging money. Get the kids to mow the lawn or do it yourself. Bake your own bread. Cook your own meals. Buy generic brands and bulk brands. Go to Costco, Sam’s Club and other discount clubs. Junk the landline. Junk cable for Netflix. Rethink your banking: You’re probably bleeding money through needless “fees” every month. Forget the “conspicuous consumption.” Go for the conspicuous unconsumption. Brag about how little you spend. Find new ways to avoid spending money.
Oh, and one more thing. Never, ever, ever again blog about how hard it is to live on $300,000 or $350,000 a year at a time when one middle-aged man in four can’t find a full-time job, and one in five can’t find any job at all.