Your finances: it’s about healthy balance sheets

2013-10-16 00:00

HOW do you measure your financial health — by the amount you earn or the amount you save?

Does your sense of financial wellness come from the car you drive and the house you live in, or do you measure it by the amount of emergency savings you have, and whether you are on track for your retirement?

Do you sleep well at night because you have Egyptian cotton 1 000-thread sheets, or because you know your house is fully insured, along with your life, should the unexpected happen?

The reality is that most people judge their finances by their income, rather than their balance sheet.

Last year, I gave a presentation at a conference on healthy finances. After the event, a few of the older attendees spoke to me about the changes they had noticed in their staff’s consumption-driven lifestyle over the years.

One man told me that 20 years ago, only the executives in the company drove luxury cars, and even then they were basic BMWs not Maseratis. The rest of the car park was filled with basic models made by Toyota and Mazda.

Today, as an executive himself, he drives one of the least expensive cars in the parking lot, which is now filled with Jaguars, Mercedes, BMWs and Audis — not even the junior staff are driving Toyotas anymore — unless it is a Land Cruiser.

He said his staff look only at their immediate cash flow. If they can buy a luxury car for R3 000 a month they ignore the massive residual payment that will need to be met in seven years’ time and forget to calculate the real cost of that car over the period once they add in the interest.

Their pensions are underfunded, they have no savings plan for their children’s education and they have insufficient insurance and medical cover for their families.

Yet they believe they can “afford” the car.

If an MRI was done on these people’s finances it would show up a lot of unhealthy organs. These people are heading for a financial stroke or heart attack.

The Alexander Forbes retirement barometer has revealed some scary statistics on what we really need to be saving in order to retire comfortably.

Most retirement planning works on the assumption that if you save 15% of your salary from the age of 25, then you will have enough in retirement to provide you with an income equal to 75% of your final salary.

However, Alexander Forbes’s research has shown that a 25-year-old needs to save nearly 20% of his or her salary in order to achieve the 75% mark in retirement.

This is due to a variety of factors.

A young person today faces the reality of a stock market that will not deliver the returns we saw in the past, where markets delivered anywhere from 15% to 20% a year.

Most financial gurus believe we will average returns of 10% to 12% per year in a balanced fund. This means we will have to save more as the market will deliver less.

Secondly, when they retire, many people purchase an annuity to provide them with an income for life.

These rates are based on two calculations — the current interest rates as well as how long you are expected to live.

As interest rates have fallen, so has income from annuities.

We will need to have more money in order to buy the same income that current retirees enjoy.

The average 25-year-old is also expected to live much longer than current retirees, which means their income has to last that much longer, providing less on a monthly basis.

Another scary figure is the rising cost of medical care. According to Alexander Forbes, a 40-year-old couple will need R1,2 million (in today’s value) in retirement just to cover the cost of a comprehensive medical plan.

So, if you think, for example, that R5 million will be enough to retire on, 20% of that will go to your medical costs.

Ultimately, younger people need to reconsider the amount they put away for retirement, which will need to increase significantly in order to make up the shortfall in market returns.

It is also very unlikely that a 40-year-old today will be able to afford to retire at the age of 65, especially if they are expected to live into their 90s.

It also means that we need to refocus our attention on making sure our balance sheets are healthy, rather than simply living from pay cheque to pay cheque.

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