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Financial Planning at an Early Stage: Is It Just Guessing?

A reader writes in, asking:

“I’m 26, single, with a good job. I have been saving 10% of each paycheck since I started working. I’m starting to read more about investing, and I’m using calculators online but one thing I can’t wrap my head around is isn’t all of this just a wild guess? Like, I’m supposed to input a return and an age when I’ll retire. But…I don’t know? And when people talk about Roth and Traditional accounts, they always talk about tax rates. I’m not even sure what my tax rate is this year, but somehow I’m supposed to know what it will be when I’m 70??”

You are absolutely right.

You don’t know what investment returns you’ll get. You don’t know how much you’ll earn each year through your career. You may not, right now, even be able to predict what career you’ll be in 10 years from now — much less the specific position and income. We don’t now what’s going to happen with Social Security. We don’t know what’s going to happen with tax law. You, likely, don’t know if you’re going to get married or what that person’s career will be like. Or how many kids you’ll have, if any.

So, if you’re trying to do projections out to age 65 to see how much you’ll be able to spend based on your current plan, yes, it’s just a wild guess.

But that’s okay!

As you get closer and closer to retirement age, more of those things will become known. You don’t need to know them right now.

Right now, early in your career, the focus of financial planning is mostly about building good habits.

Make a habit of periodically checking that you have proper insurance: health, disability, auto, and renters (or homeowners if/when then becomes applicable). If anybody else is dependent on you financially, you should have life insurance as well.

Get in the habit of tracking your spending so that you know how much you’re spending and on what. For many people, when they do that for the first time, they find that they’re spending a lot on some things that really aren’t that important to them. Whenever you find that to be the case, you have identified an easy area for improvement.

Build an emergency fund of safe, accessible assets. At least a few months of living expenses. Gradually, seek to build that up to 6 months of living expenses. (The primary purpose of an emergency fund isn’t for an unexpected spending need, though those do arise. The primary purpose is to make sure you don’t have an absolute disaster if you lose your job unexpectedly and it takes a while to find a new one.)

You’re already saving a significant part of your income each year, which is great. Admittedly, there’s no way to know how much is “enough” this early. We can make some reasonable guesses (see Wade Pfau’s “Safe Savings Rate” research, for example), but it’s still a guess. The critical thing at this stage is that you have started a habit of saving. Whenever your income goes up, save more.

Get in the habit of investing those savings (other than your emergency fund), in a low-cost and diversified way. Most often this means a single target-date fund or a simple portfolio of 2-3 index funds/ETFs.

And get in the habit of investing in that same simple portfolio, every paycheck, regardless of what the market has done recently. A market downturn isn’t a problem for you — it’s a bargain-buying opportunity.

With regard to accounts, if your employer offers a matching contribution to a 401(k)/403(b), make sure that you’re contributing enough to get the maximum match. And, if you can, contribute to a Roth IRA, rather than just saving in a taxable brokerage account.

It’s true that you can’t predict the future 30, 40, 50 years from now. But that’s OK. There are still a lot of things you can do right now that will improve your future, even if there’s no way to know precisely how that future will look.

(For further related reading, see A Basic Financial Planning Checklist or What is Comprehensive Financial Planning?)

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