Whether Minnesota should have been surprised by the huge budget surplus given the economic and stock market recovery is far less important than how it approaches this unexpected windfall.
Most of us don’t treat money that we didn’t expect to receive in the same way that we handle our day-to-day budgets. When we receive a gift or an inheritance, we feel temporarily rich. This may lead us to behave in ways outside the ordinary.
Money should be fungible. It should make no difference whether we received something from our work or our good fortune. But it doesn’t always work that way.
Since how we receive money affects how we use it, there are certain ways to work with this. Here are some ideas.
Include expected inheritances in your planning. Clients hate this. They love to come in and say that their 95-year-old parent is going to live forever and they don’t want to count on any inheritance. Here’s the problem — if the inheritance is segregated from planning, it will lead to decisions that are not as good as those that would be made using realistic expectations. And if it is highly likely that you are going to receive something like an inheritance in the future, doesn’t it make sense to potentially save less today so that you can equalize your lifestyle?
Let your children know in advance whether you expect to make annual gifts to them.
People hate to feel trapped, so they don’t want to commit to something that they may not be able to sustain. But if you are in a fortunate position where you can provide support to your children, let them know so it can be part of their budget. This will make them use the gift more effectively. If you are not able to make a regular commitment, then decide whether you want to do something that benefits yourself as well as your children.
One of our clients rents a large vacation home every other year, and the children come with their grandchildren. If one of the kids doesn’t want to come for any reason, they don’t have to. The clients don’t have to worry about everything being equal, because the offer is extended to all, even if they all don’t partake in it.
Don’t be beholden to an annual budget. When people do their budgeting, they look at easily understood annual budgets, and discount lifetime budgeting. In certain instances, this is counterproductive. If you are a doctor making relatively little income during your residency, it makes sense to incorporate some of your expected future earnings into your cash-flow decisions. If you are a class-action attorney subjected to feast and famine years, why would you use an annual budget process?
This isn’t blasphemy; it’s reality. Many aspects of life are unpredictable or uncertain, but it doesn’t mean that we pay attention only to what is right in front of our noses. If income swings are variable, then you save more during the flush times and spend more during the tough times. This smoothing effect creates optimum decisions (companies and governments take note).
This is especially important for those planning a career change. The best way to prepare for an expected drop in future income is by spending less today. This serves two purposes: it helps you adjust to living off less and it builds your reserves so that the shift doesn’t need to be as dramatic.
When something truly unexpected happens, pause. One of our clients received a significant inheritance from an aunt that she barely knew. This felt like found money to her. The money could have been spent almost before it was received. But instead, we took several months to plan around this windfall so that we could integrate with the rest of her life. For example, the client was not inspired to remodel her kitchen before the inheritance came, so why should she do so now? Instead, the money could be set aside to be spent on research traveling to communities where she may wish to retire.
Another client felt guilty from a windfall and impulsively gave the money away. While she was always philanthropic, a more deliberate charitable strategy would have created longer term benefits for both her and the places she wished to support.
Most windfalls aren’t really unexpected, so we shouldn’t treat them as such. As the state deals with its current abundance, they can certainly make decisions regarding what a reasonable tax rate is for its citizens while incorporating the investments it needs to make for the future. While there will be arguments around what tax rates should be and what our future may encompass, any decisions should reflect the variability of our economy and recognize that today’s boon could be tomorrow’s bane. Short-term thinking and political infighting could waste an incredible planning opportunity.
Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.