You hear wedding bells. You have a baby on the way. You're facing a job loss. You're going through a messy divorce. Good or bad, these are all major life transitions that carry daunting challenges along with them. And these huge changes don't just affect your life - they have a major impact on your finances, as well.
If you're lucky, you'll have plenty of time to discuss and prepare for these momentous events and put a winning financial game plan into place. However, more often than not, major life changes can take you completely by surprise. Either way, it's important to make sure you are financially prepared for practically any situation.
Here are a few tips on how to keep your finances healthy through four significantly life-changing events:
1. Going to the Chapel
There's no doubt that getting married has an enormous impact on any person's finances. Not only does marriage join two incomes, but it often combines two sets of debt. This is why it's important to talk about money before you even take that stroll down the aisle. While your charming and handsome fiancé may seem perfect in every way, behind that gleaming smile he could be hiding the fact that he's lugging around $50,000 or more in debt. (For more insight into this problem see Does marrying someone with bad credit affect my credit score?)
After the big day, one of the first things you happy newlyweds should do is sit down together and set some joint financial objectives. The honeymoon's officially over. Now it's time to talk money. Make a list of your financial priorities and discuss your goals for the future. For example, do you want to start saving up for a home or would you rather put money away for a worldwide travel adventure? Do either of you plan to go back to school or are you ready to have a baby? (For more tips, see Say "I Do" To Financial Compatibility.)
Once you agree upon some clear objectives, you can then figure out the best way to pay for these goals. Most financial experts suggest that you set up both short-term and long-term savings accounts. For long-term savings, sign up for your employer's 401(k) plan. Try to contribute the maximum amount allowed to these accounts, or at least give as much as possible.
You should also meet with a financial advisor to discuss other ways to invest for the long term. He or she may suggest that you put some money into an individual retirement account (IRA) or a mutual fund.
For short-term savings, you and your spouse should set up a high-interest savings account. You can use this money for more immediate expenses, like a new car, your next vacation or a down-payment on your first home. You should also set up a second savings account that will act as your emergency fund. Keep at least six months' worth of living expenses in this fund, and don't touch them unless you're facing an emergency, like an unexpected medical expense, a major car breakdown or a job loss.
2. Baby on Board
You may start thinking about expanding the family after you've been married for a year or so (or maybe after just a few weeks, for those with a loudly ticking biological clock). Ideally, you've paid off most of your debts, established good credit, and set up both long-term and short-term savings accounts by now. If not, these are all goals you should attempt to achieve before that bun comes out of the oven.
However, having a child calls for a complete financial overhaul. After all, babies aren't cheap. As a matter of fact, some estimates show that a child will cost you between $200,000 and $250,000 over its lifetime.
So, how do you plan for such a major financial impact? First of all, you'll need to build up your cash reserves. Before the baby's due date, try to save up at least six months' worth of living expenses. Once the baby arrives, consider purchasing a life insurance policy as soon as possible. Life insurance will ensure that your child is financially protected if something were to happen to you or your spouse. (For more tips on how to prepare for this major life change, see Budgeting For A New Baby.)
Do you have a hunch that baby is going to be a super-genius? Even if you're certain that your little Einstein will win countless scholarship offers and you won't have to pay a dime for his schooling, you may want to go ahead and set up a college fund. There are countless college savings plans available, so talk to your financial advisor to discuss which option makes the most sense for your family.
3. Facing the Firing Squad
In today's tough economy, layoffs have become as common as baseball and apple pie. Whether you are fired, laid off or resign at your own will, losing a job can send shockwaves through your finances. Unfortunately, many recently unemployed people make a grave mistake. They stick their heads in the sand and continue to spend just as much money as they did when they had a job.
If you or your spouse has recently become unemployed, put down your credit card and listen up. The first thing you need to do is cut back on spending - waaaay back. Sit down and compile a list of all your living expenses. Then, calculate all of your current income. If your living expenses add up to more than your income, you're in dire straits. That means it's time to trim some fat.
Cut out the luxury expenses first. Get rid of your monthly manicures, weekly restaurant dinners, expensive cable or satellite TV package, extra cell phones, movie rental memberships and other unnecessary extras. If your expenses are still too high, it may be time to slash high car payments and even investment contributions. (Yes, that may mean you'll have to sell your beloved Mustang or your Harley, but it will be worth it in the long run.)
Try to find a part-time job, even if it means flipping burgers. It's important to make as much dough as you can while you search for a new full-time job. Your goal here is to make ends meet without going into debt until you can replace the missing income. (To learn more, read Laid Off? You Can Still Retire.)
4. The Big Breakup
Sadly, the sound of happy wedding bells often turns into the morbid melody of a divorce. As a matter of fact, more than 40% of all married couples end up divorcing. On top of the overwhelming emotional stress, divorce can also create some huge financial problems.
If you're going through a divorce, you should meet with your financial advisor as soon as possible. He or she can help you reorient your financial goals and reorganize your investment portfolio. If you're struggling to make ends meet on one income, you may consider liquidating some of your investments if the tax consequences aren't too high. (To learn more, read Get Through Divorce With Your Finances Intact.)
Whatever you do, don't stop saving. Although you may have less money now, you can still build up a healthy nest egg.
There's no question that life can be like a roller-coaster filled with unexpected twists and turns - some exhilarating, others terrifying. If you're not ready, one major shift can throw you off track and send your finances plummeting into an abyss. The key is to stay prepared for anything and act as quickly as possible when change comes your way. The sooner you adjust your finances to your new situation, the better off you'll be.