By Dwight Harshaw, BBA, Personal Finance Counselor
Recently, a story came to light in my hometown about a 27 year old woman who was cited for a misdemeanor sex charge. She was caught by an undercover detective in a sting operation targeting escort services. It was her first night on the job. How did she get there? She said she lost a second job, she was going through a bankruptcy, and her wages were being garnished. Her financial problems overwhelmed her and drove her to making an unfortunate decision, which destroyed her young career. I don’t know her and this is not a condemnation. I have great empathy for her. I am captivated by her story because-before she resigned-she was a high school algebra teacher, with a master’s degree, in her fifth year of service. What happened?
I don’t know any more than what has been publicized but in looking and speculating about her situation through a personal finance lens, I think she may have found herself in the circumstance that a lot of young people and people in general are in; they are besieged with debt. The average college graduate is nearly $20,000 in debt. (Source: Demos.org, “The Economic State of Young America,” May 2008) Many have fallen prey to the constant stream of messages (advertising) that are designed to persuade people to value things (depreciating assets, junk) more than money (financial security). Once young graduates get their credentials and jobs, they want the material accoutrements that they believe they should have. On top of school loans and credit card debt, they pile on more debt. And then, there are the ordinary living expenses of life to contend with. Before they know it, they find themselves in unsustainable financial predicaments. More attention needs to be given to the importance of wealth building, especially at the start of a career.
Wealth building is simply being knowledgeable about money and making it work for you more than it works for others. To become a wealth builder, there are 4 things you should do. You should steer clear of new debt, establish an emergency fund, pay off your student loan debt early-if you have any, and save for your long term future.
The young lady is bankrupt and suffering wage garnishment. When credit is so easy to obtain, it is hard to be responsible. We use it to buy non-financial things that give us temporary pleasure. We buy expensive wardrobes of which the styles come and go; we buy new cars which lose value as soon as the deal is done; and we purchase things that we simply don’t need, but the debt on those things goes on, long after the usefulness and excitement is over. Credit should be used responsibly-never! Okay rarely. Debt avoidance is a virtue.
If she had an emergency fund, she might not have been faced with a decision that put her career in jeopardy. An emergency fund is a fund dedicated specifically for extraordinary immediate crisis needs; it smoothes out a rough financial time. Car repairs, job lost, medical bills, household maintenance problems or things that cannot be paid for with out-of-pocket cash qualify as emergencies. It should be a priority to fund it with at least 1 to 2 thousand dollars initially and with 3 to 6 months of your take home pay ultimately.
Pay off student loan debt
Some are fortunate to not have student loan debt when college life is over. If that is not your fate, I have this advice; pay your loans off as soon as possible. Double your payments or add an extra amount to reduce the total interest and time that you will pay on your loan(s). Be sure to follow the protocol of the lender for early payoff. The sooner you pay off your student loan debt, the sooner you can get on with building wealth.
The money you save early on in your career will be the most valuable when you retire. The elements of time, dollar cost averaging, and compounding are a wealth builder’s best friend. Save to the maximum level in tax advantaged retirement plans offered by your employer. If nothing is offered or you can afford to save more, establish a traditional or Roth IRA and fund it to the max or with as much as you can. Ultimately you want to save at least 15% of your annual income for the future because the burden of providing for your retirement is on your shoulders. The money you save early will be worth more and be more useful in the years to come than the value of any consumer item you may buy today.
Her story is all of our stories. All of us have made unwise financial decisions. On a positive note she is young, smart, and hopefully ambitious. She will recover over time and this will all be a distant memory. Time heals. When you find yourself off track financially, get back on. To be a wealth builder, remember this; it is wise to pay with cash rather than with credit, have money set aside for a crisis, pay your debt off early, and save for your long term future.
About Dwight Harshaw: Dwight Harshaw is a personal finance counselor, realtor and writer. He has a BBA from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock in Finance with an emphasis on financial planning.
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