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Zillow study illustrates home value disparity between races

Typical values for Black and Latinx-owned homes still lag behind overall U.S. home values, but the gap is narrowing. A new Zillow analysis shows homes owned by Black and Latinx households are worth 16.2% and 10.2% less, respectively, than the typical U.S. home. Homes owned by non-Hispanic white and Asian families, meanwhile, have typical values […]

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What Should Your Net Worth Be?

I recently received a voicemail question from an anonymous caller who says:

“Hi, Laura. I’ve really been enjoying the Money Girl podcast! I have a question about net worth and couples. I heard on a previous episode a guideline for comparing net worth to see how you’re doing as an individual. But how should I compare me and my husband together?”

This is a great question that I’ve never been asked. (And by the way, if you have a money question or comment, I’d love to hear from you. Just call our voicemail at (302) 364-0308 to leave your message.)

In this episode, you’ll find out what net worth is and if you’ve accumulated enough wealth as an individual or as a couple. Plus, I’ll give you a free tool that makes it easy to figure your net worth and track it over time.

What Is Net Worth?

You probably heard the term “net worth” as it relates to super-rich celebrities or famous CEOs. Like Beyonce has a net worth of $500 million or Jeff Bezos is worth $133 billion. But what you may not realize is that even for the rest of us non-famous folks, it’s important to calculate and monitor your net worth.

Here’s an excerpt from my new book and audiobook, Debt-Free Blueprint: How to Get Out of Debt and Build a Financial Life You Love, that explains net worth and how to determine yours:

The first step on any journey is to assess the situation. You have to be clear about where you are right now and where you want to go. So, we’re going to really assess where your finances are right now.

Being clear about your current financial situation can be difficult and even a little scary, especially if you’re struggling with debt and don’t want to face it. However, embracing reality makes you better able to make positive changes.

The first priority in assessing your financial situation is getting organized so you understand your level of financial fitness. I’ll explain how to easily create an important tool to track the state of your finances throughout your life.

I call it your Personal Financial Statement, or PFS. It’s critical for gauging your financial health because each time you update it, you calculate your net worth. What exactly is net worth? 

The definition of net worth is summed up in a very simple formula: Net worth equals assets minus liabilities.

The definition of net worth is summed up in a very simple formula: Net worth equals assets minus liabilities.

Let me define what that means.


Your assets are things you own that have real value. Your liabilities, on the other hand, are the opposite of your assets.  Liabilities are your financial obligations to others. When you subtract your total liabilities from your total assets, you’ve figured your net worth. It’s really that simple.

Here’s an example: If you own $200,000 in assets, but have $175,000 in debts, your net worth is $25,000. If you have $200,000 in assets and $200,000 in liabilities, your net worth is zero. And if you owe more than you own, such as $200,000 in assets and $250,000 in liabilities, your net worth is negative $50,000.

Since everyone’s financial situation is unique, there’s not a magic net worth number that you should have, but obviously the higher the better.

Net worth is an important number because it reveals your bona fide financial resources at a given point in time. Tracking your net worth keeps you focused on increasing your assets and shrinking your liabilities, which is the key to building wealth. Click here for the free Personal Financial Statement. Use this workbook to keep tabs on your net worth and make better financial decisions.

I recommend updating it on a regular basis, perhaps annually or quarterly. It’s the best way to get a complete view of your current situation and should be your financial “reality check”—something like stepping on the scale if you’re watching your weight.

As you update your PFS in the future, you’ll be able to track whether your net worth is increasing, flat, or decreasing. The goal is to slowly raise your net worth by reducing and eventually eliminating your non-essential debts. When you see your net worth increase slowly over time, pat yourself on the back and know that you’re making the right financial decisions.

How Much Net Worth Should You Have?

Once you calculate your net worth, you’ll probably wonder what it should be. We typically compare wealth across age groups. Older folks generally have more economic advantages, such as more job experience, higher pay rates, or a spouse or partner who contributes to household wealth.

But the Federal Reserve regularly publishes net worth statistics by many factors including, age, education, homeownership, and race. So, you can analyze net worth through a variety of lenses.

While age can be a useful way to think about a net worth goal, don’t get upset if you’re behind the U.S. average for your age. You can’t change your past financial life. Your job is to stay focused on what you accomplish with your money going forward.

On average, a household in the U.S. has a net worth of $692,100. That’s a pretty high number because it’s skewed by the super-rich with sky-high net worth.

A better measure is the median net worth. That’s the number found in the middle, where half the households have higher net worth and half have less. The U.S. median net worth is $97,300. Let’s break it down by several age groups.

What Should Your Net Worth Be in Your 30s?

Your thirties are an important time in your financial life. You might be getting married or starting a family and seeing expenses rise. If you can rein in costs while your income goes up, you can build significant net worth. Likewise, if you go deep into debt and live beyond your means, your net worth will stay flat or go down.

According to the Federal Reserve for 2016, the average net worth for U.S. households under the age of 35 is $76,200. And the median net worth is $11,000.

For those in the age range of 35 to 44, your average net worth is $288,700 and the median is $59,800. Again, remember that the average is skewed by a small number of very wealthy households. If you’re like most, you have student loans or a home with little equity that’s dragging down your net worth.

While you may not be able to eliminate much debt in your thirties, you can make a savings goal to build wealth. A good target is to accumulate the equivalent of your annual salary by age 30 or 35.

For example, if you earn $50,000 a year, try to have at least that much in your bank savings and retirement accounts before your 30s come to an end. Make it a habit to save money on a regular basis, even if you can only save small amounts. It will really add up and lay a rewarding foundation for your future.


What Should Your Net Worth Be in Your 40s?

As your career progresses and you build experience, you typically have the opportunity to earn more in your forties. Plus, you may own real estate that you’re paying down and that also appreciates in value. That can turbocharge your wealth accumulation.

However, this is also a decade when you may launch kids out on their own or to college. Be sure that you protect your wealth and don’t overcommit to education loans and expenses. Your children have the opportunity to apply for scholarships, take student loans, and work while they’re in school.

The Federal Reserve reported that the average net worth of households between the age of 45 and 54 is $727,500 and the median is $124,200. A good savings goal during your 40s is two times your annual income.  

See also: IRA or 529 Plan–Which Is Better for College Savings?

What Should Your Net Worth Be in Your 50s?

By the time you’re in your 50s, you’ve had three decades to make contributions to your retirement accounts and savings. Starting at age 50 you qualify to make additional “catch up” contributions to most types of retirement accounts, such as a 401(k), 403(b) and IRA.

This decade is also when many people enjoy their peak earning years. You may also have mortgages and other debt finally paid off. Therefore, this is the time to really step up your savings to four times your annual income.

The Federal Reserve shows that the average net worth for households in the age range of 55 to 64 is $1,167,400 and the median is $187,300.

What Should Your Net Worth Be in Your 60s?

Most people in their 60s are seriously considering when and how to retire or semi-retire with a second career. You may not have dependents counting on you for financial support or much debt to speak of at this point.

Your 60s is a good time to downsize your lifestyle to reduce your overall cost of living as you glide into retirement. If you qualify for Social Security retirement benefits, you must decide whether to take them early at age 62 or to wait for a higher benefit at your full retirement age of 66, 67 or beyond.

The amount you can save in your 60s depends on whether you’re still working and whether you’ve accumulated a nest egg that’s large enough to last the rest of your life. A wise savings goal is to have accumulated at least 8-10 times your salary during this decade.

The Federal Reserve data shows that the average net worth for Americans between the ages of 65 and 74 is $1,066,000 and the median is $224,100. By this time, your net worth is an indicator of the type of lifestyle you can enjoy in retirement. In fact, the average and median are nearly the same for those over age 74.


How Much Do You Need to Save for Retirement?

Now that you understand what net worth is and how it relates to your financial future, let’s get back to the anonymous caller’s question. She wants to know a good way to measure her net worth and her husband’s together.

The Federal Reserve statistics that I’ve reviewed are by household. Couples who plan to share their financial lives and eventually retire together should plan together. Start by completing the Personal Financial Statement for everything you both own and owe and compare your combined net worth to the median data for your age.

It’s no surprise that wealth is correlated with family structure, such as being married, single, or having children. Having more earners or lower living expenses allows a household to attain higher levels of net worth.

If you and your spouse or partner have a household income of $150,000, you might aim for a combined nest egg of $1.5 million.

Most couples need to accumulate about 10 times their household income to generate enough retirement income. So, if you’re married and have one breadwinner who earns $100,000, having $1 million is a wise goal to maintain your lifestyle in retirement. If you and your spouse or partner have a household income of $150,000, you might aim for a combined nest egg of $1.5 million.

However, if you plan to significantly increase your spending in retirement by traveling or owning a second home, you may need more. Likewise, if your dream is to simplify your life and downsize your lifestyle, you may need a smaller nest egg to be comfortable.

It’s reasonable to assume that you could get a 5% return on your wealth in retirement. That comes to investment earnings of $50,000 a year from $1 million or $75,000 from $1.5 million.

Remember that once you or your spouse collect Social Security benefits, you’ll have that additional income to count on. But the longer you delay taking it, the bigger your monthly retirement check from the government will be.

There are many unknowns in retirement planning but using these savings goals and basic income calculations give you a target to shoot for. You can also use a good retirement calculator to figure out if you and your spouse or partner are saving enough each month to hit your savings goal.

You’ll find a link to my favorite online retirement planning calculator in the free Personal Financial Statement. If you’re not on pace to have what you’ll need, you may need to delay your retirement age, radically decrease your cost of living, or step up your savings rate.

Get More Money Girl!

To connect on social media, you’ll find Money Girl on FacebookTwitter, and Google+. Also, if you’re not already subscribed to the Money Girl podcast on Apple Podcasts or the Stitcher app, both are free and make sure that you’ll get each new weekly episode as soon as it’s published on the web. The show is also on the Spotify mobile appClick here to sign up for the free Money Girl Newsletter!

Stack of coins and clock hands image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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Food delivery and ridesharing are great ways to earn extra income. The market for food delivery has increased as restaurants have had to adapt to COVID-19 precautions, and just about everyone could use some extra income as we continue to navigate life during a pandemic. If you’re considering joining a food delivery or rideshare company as a… Read More

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Got Cash? What to Do with Extra Money

I received a great email from Magen L., who says:

I no longer have any retirement savings because I cashed it all out to pay my debt. We also sold our home and moved into an apartment just as the pandemic was hitting. With the sale of our house, the fact that my husband is working overtime, and the stimulus money, we've saved nearly $10,000 and should have more by the end of the year. My primary question is, what should we do with it?

Right now, I have our extra money in a low-interest bank savings [account], and I'm considering moving it to a high-yield savings [account] as our emergency fund. Is that a good idea? For additional money we save, I intend to use it as a down payment on a new house. However, should I be investing in Roth IRAs instead? What is the best option?

Another question comes from Bianca G., who says:

I have zero credit card debt, but I have a car loan and a student loan. I will be receiving a large amount of money sometime next year. If my fiancé and I want to buy a home, is it better to pay off my car first and then my student loan, or should I just pay down a big portion of my student loan?

Thanks Megan and Bianca for your questions. I'll answer them and give you a three-step plan to prioritize your extra money and make your finances more secure. No matter if you're a good saver or you get a cash windfall from a tax refund, an inheritance, or the sale of a home, extra money should never be squandered.

What to do with extra cash

Maybe you're like Magen and have extra cash that could be working harder for you, but you're not sure what to do with it. You may even be paralyzed and do nothing because you have a deep-seated fear of making a big mistake with your cash.

In some cases, having your money sit idle is precisely the right financial move. But it depends on whether or not you've accomplished three fundamental financial goals, which we'll cover.

To know the right way to manage extra cash, you need to step back and take a holistic view of your entire financial life.

To know the right way to manage extra cash, you need to step back and take a holistic view of your entire financial life. Consider what you're doing right and where you're vulnerable.

Try using a three-pronged approach that I call the PIP plan, which stands for:

  1. Prepare for the unexpected
  2. Invest for the future
  3. Pay off high-interest debt

Let's examine each one to understand how to use the PIP (prepare, invest, and pay off) approach for your situation.

How to prepare for the unexpected

The first fundamental goal you should have is to prepare for the unexpected. As you know, life is full of surprises. Some of them bring happiness, but there's an infinite number of devastating events that could hurt you financially.

In an instant, you could get fired from your job, experience a natural disaster, get a severe illness, or lose a spouse. If 2020 has taught us anything, it's that we have to be as mentally, physically, and financially prepared as possible for what may be around the corner. 

While no amount of money can reverse a tragedy, having safety nets can protect your finances. That makes coping with a tragedy easier.

Getting equipped for the unexpected is an ongoing challenge. Your approach should change over time because it depends on your income, debt, number of dependents, and breadwinners in a family.

While no amount of money can reverse a tragedy, having safety nets—such as an emergency fund and various types of insurance—can protect your finances. That makes coping with a tragedy easier.

Everyone should accumulate an emergency fund equal to at least three to six months' worth of their living expenses. For instance, if you spend $3,000 a month on essentials—such as housing, utilities, food, and debt payments—make a goal to keep at least $9,000 in an FDIC-insured bank savings account.

While keeping that much in savings may sound boring, the goal for an emergency fund is safety, not growth. The idea is to have immediate access to your cash when you need it. That's why I don't recommend investing your emergency money unless you have more than a six-month reserve.

The goal for an emergency fund is safety, not growth.

If you don't have enough saved, aim to bridge the gap over a reasonable period. For instance, you could save one half of your target over two years or one third over three years. You can put your goal on autopilot by creating an automatic monthly transfer from your checking into your savings account.

Megan mentioned using high-yield savings, which can be a good option because it pays a bit more interest for large balances. However, the higher rate typically comes with limitations, such as applying only to a threshold balance, so be sure to understand the account terms.

Insurance protects your finances

Another critical aspect of preparing for the unexpected is having enough of the right kinds of insurance. Here are some policies you may need:

  • Auto insurance if you drive your own or someone else's vehicle
  • Homeowners insurance, which is typically required when you have a mortgage
  • Renters insurance if you rent a home or apartment
  • Health insurance, which pays a portion of your medical bills
  • Disability insurance replaces a percentage of income if you get sick or injured and can no longer work
  • Life insurance if you have dependents or debt co-signers who would suffer financial hardship if you died

RELATED: How to Create Foolproof Safety Nets

How to invest for your future

Once you get as prepared as possible for the unexpected by building an emergency fund and getting the right kinds of insurance, the next goal I mentioned is investing for retirement. That’s the “I” in PIP, right behind prepare for the unexpected.

Investments can go down in value—you should never invest money you can’t live without.

While many people use the terms saving and investing interchangeably, they’re not the same. Let’s clarify the difference between investing and saving so you can think strategically about them:

Saving is for the money you expect to spend within the next few years and don’t want to risk losing it. In other words, you save money that you want to keep 100% safe because you know you’ll need it or because you could need it. While it won’t earn much interest, you’ll be able to tap it in an instant.

Investing is for the money you expect to spend in the future, such as in five or more years. Purchasing an investment means you’re exposing money to some amount of risk to make it grow. Investments can go down in value; therefore, you should never invest money you can’t live without.

In general, I recommend that you invest through a qualified retirement account, such as a workplace plan or an IRA, which come with tax benefits to boost your growth. My recommendation is to contribute no less than 10% to 15% of your pre-tax income for retirement.

Magen mentioned Roth IRAs, and it may be a good option for her to rebuild her retirement savings. For 2020, you can contribute up to $6,000, or $7,000 if you’re over age 50, to a traditional or a Roth IRA. You typically must have income to qualify for an IRA. However, if you’re married and file taxes jointly, a non-working spouse can max out an IRA based on household income.

For workplace retirement plans, such as a 401(k), you can contribute up to $19,500, or $26,000 if you’re over 50 for 2020. Some employers match a certain percent of contributions, which turbocharges your account. That’s why it’s wise to invest enough to max out any free retirement matching at work. If your employer kicks in matching funds, you can exceed the annual contribution limits that I mentioned.

RELATED: A 5-Point Checklist for How to Invest Money Wisely

How to pay off high-interest debt

Once you're working on the first two parts of my PIP plan by preparing for the unexpected and investing for the future, you're in a perfect position also to pay off high-interest debt, the final "P."

Always tackle your high-interest debts before any other debts because they cost you the most. They usually include credit cards, car loans, personal loans, and payday loans with double-digit interest rates. Remember that when you pay off a credit card that charges 18%, that's just like earning 18% on an investment after taxes—pretty impressive!

Remember that when you pay off a credit card that charges 18%, that's just like earning 18% on an investment after taxes—pretty impressive!

Typical low-interest loans include student loans, mortgages, and home equity lines of credit. These types of debt also come with tax breaks for some of the interest you pay, making them cost even less. So, don't even think about paying them down before implementing your PIP plan.

Getting back to Bianca's situation, she didn't mention having emergency savings or regularly investing for retirement. I recommend using her upcoming cash windfall to set these up before paying off a low-rate student loan.

Let's say Bianca sets aside enough for her emergency fund, purchases any missing insurance, and still has cash left over. She could use some or all of it to pay down her auto loan. Since the auto loan probably has a higher interest rate than her student loan and doesn't come with any tax advantages, it's wise to pay it down first. 

Once you've put your PIP plan into motion, you can work on other goals, such as saving for a house, vacation, college, or any other dream you have. 

Questions to ask when you have extra money

Here are five questions to ask yourself when you have a cash windfall or accumulate savings and aren’t sure what to do with it.

1. Do I have emergency savings?

Having some emergency money is critical for a healthy financial life because no one can predict the future. You might have a considerable unexpected expense or lose income.  

Without emergency money to fall back on, you're living on the edge, financially speaking. So never turn down the opportunity to build a cash reserve before spending money on anything else.

2. Do I contribute to a retirement account at work?

Getting a windfall could be the ticket to getting started with a retirement plan or increasing contributions. It's wise to invest at least 10% to 15% of your gross income for retirement.

Investing in a workplace retirement plan is an excellent way to set aside small amounts of money regularly. You'll build wealth for the future, cut your taxes, and maybe even get some employer matching.

3. Do I have an IRA?

Don't have a job with a retirement plan? Not a problem. If you (or a spouse when you file taxes jointly) have some amount of earned income, you can contribute to a traditional or a Roth IRA. Even if you contribute to a retirement plan at work, you can still max out an IRA in the same year—which is a great way to use a cash windfall.

4. Do I have high-interest debt?

If you have expensive debt, such as credit cards or payday loans, paying them down is the next best way to spend extra money. Take the opportunity to use a windfall to get rid of high-interest debt and stay out of debt in the future. 

5. Do I have other financial goals?

After you’ve built up your emergency fund, have money flowing into tax-advantaged retirement accounts, and are whittling down high-interest debt, start thinking about other financial goals. Do you want to buy a house? Go to graduate school? Send your kids to college?

How to manage a cash windfall

Review your financial situation at least once a year to make sure you’re still on track.

When it comes to managing extra money, always consider the big picture of your financial life and choose strategies that follow my PIP plan in order: prepare for the unexpected, invest for the future, and pay off high-interest debt.

Review your situation at least once a year to make sure you’re still on track. As your life changes, you may need more or less emergency money or insurance coverage.

When your income increases, take the opportunity to bump up your retirement contribution—even increasing it one percent per year can make a huge difference.

And here's another important quick and dirty tip: when you make more money, don't let your cost of living increase as well. If you earn more but maintain or even decrease your expenses, you'll be able to reach your financial goals faster.

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