Investment Framework

What Should I Do First? 11 Priorities for New Investors

July 15, 2021

Getting started can be intimidating. But that's normal.

First things first. If something here feels wrong for you, it might be. That's because each person's financial priorities are going to be different. To get specifics, talk with your advisor! They will be able to give you the direction you need. Even so, there's a general pattern that we do advise following, and we find that most of these steps apply to the majority of the investors we work with.

Another thing to keep in mind about these steps is that they're in priority order. It's common to work on them concurrently, though. So don't feel like you need to wait to pay off your car because you haven't reached your goal for your HSA. Work towards an ideal sum for each item as you go, but get each item started in the order provided here.

1. Retire bad debt.

You can't run a race efficiently if you need to take back strides at every mile marker. Credit cards or home equity loans can prevent progress more than you might think. If you're ready to invest, getting rid of those high-interest loans is the first order of business.

2. Save $10,000 for monthly cashflow.

Having some cash handy makes sure you don't have to worry (as much) when something goes wrong. Even if your job is safe, it helps to have for smaller emergencies, like a new transmission.

3) Maximize your employer's 401(k) match.

This is high up on the list for good reason. Your 401(k) match is part of your compensation. If you don't take advantage of the match your employer offers, it's net worth you could have, but won't. Not now, and not in the future.

4) Save $25,000 for prolonged emergencies.

There are some things you can't anticipate (like getting laid off from your job). But just because you won't see them coming doesn't mean you can't plan for them. The good news: you can invest this amount if you like. It just needs to be accessible.

Keep in mind. These steps are in priority order, but it's common to work on them concurrently.

5) Contribute to your HSA, if you're eligible for one.

For many known reasons, a health savings account, or HSA, is a wonderful resource. They're funded through pre-tax contributions, and in some cases, employers match the contributions you make to your HSA. Fantastic. And then, when you need money for a medical procedure, you have something saved for the occasion.

In addition to these well-known features, HSAs can be eligible to rollover to an IRA. After you turn 65, you can even take non-medical withdrawals from the HSA penalty-free, and pay taxes on the distribution just like you would on an IRA. Because of the flexible way HSAs work, they are superior to IRAs. The value can be used to pay for medical expenses (completely tax-free) or they can be withdrawn like an IRA. On top of that, there's no required minimum distribution either.

6) Contribute to your Roth IRAs, if eligible.

There's plenty to know about a Roth IRA, but the gist is simple. You pay taxes on them when you contribute, and they will accrue value over time. You won't pay taxes when you withdraw. So if your income is still such that you're eligible to make those contributions, it's more than worth the investment.

7) Maximize your 401k contribution.

If you're already maximizing your employer's 401(k) match, the next step is to contribute as much of your income on top of that as your arrangement allows.

8) Pay off other debt, excluding mortgage (cars, low interest rate loans)

Anytime you can free yourself of interest payments, you're preventing the problem of giving away money to a bank. Owning your cars outright is a way to improve financial security and add to your financial assets, too.

9) Fund 529 accounts

If saving for education for a loved one is something that applies to you, it's smart to prioritize it in your early considerations.

10) Save an amount equivalent to the value of your residence.

When's the best time to pay off your home? We say don't do this unless you have that much in savings/investments already, and you're in a good position to allocate those funds. Once you've reached this point, it's now a decision you should base on priorities. (This is an instance where an investment manager comes in handy, because they can help you decide which option—investing or paying off the house—would serve your overall goals and priorities).

Some of the considerations you'd make with your manager will include how useful this money would be to you elsewhere. For example, paying off one’s house is reversible, but not an easily reversible decision. If you pay off your home but leave yourselves only $25 thousand saved up, you're still taking a risk. That's because $25 thousand might buy you six months of income if you lost your job, but not 12 months. So, say you have your house paid off but run out of cash, then you now have to use your house as collateral for a loan. Yikes.

Also consider that many times job losses occur during recessions. When you might hypothetically need money, it’s a bad time to take out of investments.

While worrying isn't useful, an investment manager can help you decide what to prioritize once you're approaching the amount of savings needed to pay off your home.

11) Consider paying off your mortgage.

If it serves, all your best interests, owning your house outright isn't just liberating. It's convenient. You get to do away with your mortgage payment (what would you do with that extra cash every month?), and also have security in one of the most important ways a person can–a guaranteed place to live. If you're thinking about providing an inheritance for loved ones, a property leaves a special type of legacy that most other areas of the estate can't compete with.

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