These were some of the questions I began asking myself several years ago. The problem is, it was difficult to find solid answers to these questions. It’s easy to know that you have X dollars saved for retirement or X for an emergency fund. But is that enough, given your specific financial circumstances?
As a simple example, assume two families have $10,000 saved in an emergency fund. Is that enough? Of course, this depends on the specific circumstances of each family, including what their monthly expenses are, how much debt they have, and how much they have saved in other investments.
To answer some of these questions, I devised a 3-step financial checkup. My goal was to keep it simple while also providing some meaningful information to help me assess my financial health. I wanted to put my finances under a microscope in the same way a hedge fund manager might evaluate an investment.
The three steps I decided on were:
- Determine your net worth
- Determine your income and expenses
- Analyze the financial data using several simple ratios and rules of thumb
Table of Contents:
Step 1: Net Worth
Your net worth is nothing more than a list of what you own (assets) minus what you owe (liabilities). If the value of all assets is greater than all liabilities, the difference is your net worth. If not, the difference is a net loss or deficit. I prepare a modified balance sheet, meaning that I exclude all assets that typically depreciate in value over the long run. This would include cars, boats, furniture, clothing, jewelry, and so on. A typical modified balance sheet would have the following accounts:
One note on the liabilities: if a home equity line of credit is used in part to purchase a home, I include that in the mortgage debt. If some or all of the home equity line is used for other purposes, include it in other non-mortgage debt. In my case, I split the outstanding balance between these two accounts.
Resource: Personal Capital offers a free online dashboard to track your net worth, spending, and investments.
Step 2: Prepare an Income Statement
An income statement shows your income and expenses for a given period of time. In a typical income statement, expenses are allocated to a number of different accounts to give some idea of where the money was spent. If income exceeds expenses, the difference is your net income. If not, the difference is your net loss.
For individuals (not companies), we tend to think of a monthly budget. We look at how much we bring home compared to how much we spend. It’s an income statement, but we tend to call it a budget. I like to think of it as an income statement because I like to approach my finances like a corporation.
In my modified income statement, however, I use only four expense categories. Here’s what it looks like:
- Other sources of income
- Mortgage (primary residence)
- Debt repayment (credit cards, school loans, car loans, etc.)
- Other Expenses
Note that I don’t use a category for savings. The reason is simple. If income is greater than expenses, the resulting net income is the amount saved, whether the money is placed in a 401(k), IRA, savings account or even left in the checking account.
Step 3: Using Ratios and Rules of Thumb
With the balance sheet and income statement complete, we can now run the numbers through several ratios and formulas to see where we stand. There are many ways to analyze the numbers, but here are the ones I use the most:
Emergency Fund Ratio (Liquid Assets/Monthly Expenses)
This ratio determines how many months worth of expenses can be funded through liquid assets. Liquid assets are all assets that can be converted to cash in a matter of days without significant penalty. Liquid assets include primarily cash in savings accounts or CDs. You can include taxable investment accounts if you factor in the taxes you would owe when you sold the investments.
The generally accepted rule of thumb is that you need 3 to 6 months of expenses in an emergency fund. To put this in perspective, if you save 10% of your gross income, it will take about 7 months to save one month worth of non-tax expenses.
Let’s assume gross income is $7,000 a month and taxes eat away about 20%, or $1,400. If we are saving 10%, or $700 in this example, that leaves us with $4,900 a month to spend ($7,000 – $1,400 – $700). To calculate how long it will take to save one month of expenses, we simply divide the amount we have to spend ($4,900) by the amount we save each month ($700). The result is seven months ($4,900 / $700).
Note that this works regardless of your income. The only possible adjustment you may need to make is if your income tax liability exceeds 20% (effective tax rate, not marginal rate) by a significant amount.
Doomsday Fund Ratio (Financial Assets/Monthly Expenses)
The Doomsday Fund is what I call the situation where the financial wheels of your life have come off in a big way. Everyone in the family has lost their jobs and you can’t find work–how long could you last without moving? Unlike liquid assets, financial assets include retirement accounts and other accounts that would levy a penalty for liquidating the account (e.g., a 529 Account, certificates of deposit, a 401k). Of course, you have to deduct the penalties and taxes from your account balances before including the numbers in the formula. The Doomsday Fund Ratio is actually helpful in retirement planning, but more on that at another time.
Example: $150,000 (financial assets after taxes and penalties) / $4,900 (monthly non-tax expenses from the example above) = 30.6 months.
Mortgage Payment Ratio (Monthly mortgage payment/monthly income)
The mortgage payment ratio shows how much of your gross monthly income goes to your mortgage payment, including taxes and insurance. As a rule of thumb, anything more than 28% can get uncomfortably high. My preference is for this number not to exceed 20%. Of course, the interest rate you are paying on the loan makes a big difference with this formula, so be sure to check out the best mortgage rates if you think you may be able to refinance.
Example: $1,700 (mortgage payment) / $7,000 (monthly gross income) = 24.3%.
Mortgage Debt Ratio (Mortgage balance/Yearly Income)
This ratio compares your mortgage debt to your annual income. A good rule of thumb is that mortgage debt should not exceed 2.5 to 3 times your annual income. In some areas of the country, however, this is a very difficult limit to meet. And some mortgage companies today approve loans that significantly exceed this amount. Also, as you near retirement, this number should go down as your mortgage balance decreases (hopefully).
Example: $300,000 (mortgage debt) / $95,000 (yearly income) = 3.1
Total Debt Ratio (Total Debt / Net Worth)
This ratio compares total debt (including mortgage) to net worth. As a rule of thumb, this ratio should be below 1. Of course, if you’re just out of college and have school loans, the number can significantly exceed one.
Example: $300,000 (total debt) / $400,000 (Net Worth) = .75
Total Debt Payment Ratio (Monthly Debt Payments / Monthly Gross Income)
This ratio compares your monthly debt payments (including mortgage) to your monthly income. As a rule of thumb, anything greater than 38% can get uncomfortable. My goal is to keep this ratio below 25%.
Example: $3,000 (monthly debt payments) / $10,000 (monthly gross income) = .30 or 30%
Liquidity Ratio (Liquid Assets / Non-Mortgage Debt)
This ratio helps determine your ability to cover your non-mortgage debts. My goal is to have liquid assets equal to or greater than my non-mortgage debt. In other words, this ratio should be at least 1.
Example: $50,000 (liquid assets) / $40,000 (non-mortgage debt) = 1.25
Net Worth Ratio (Net Worth / (yearly income * age / 10))
This ratio looks more complicated than it really is. The idea is to evaluate your net worth in light of your age and income. Two individuals may both have a net worth of $500,000, but that number alone doesn’t tell you where they stand. If one is a 35 year old school teacher making $45,000 a year, and the other is a 62 year old engineer making $125,000 a year, their respective net worth will look very different. As a rule of thumb, you want this ratio to be 1 or higher, which is achievable if you regularly save at least 10% of your gross income.
Example: $300,000 (net worth) / ($100,000 (yearly income) * 35 (age) / 10) = $300,000 / $350,000 = .86
Retirement Fund Ratio (Retirement Savings / Yearly Income)
This compares your retirement savings to your yearly income. Like the Net Worth Ratio, it gives some meaning to how much you’ve saved for retirement, rather than just looking at an account balance. According to an article written by Charles Farrell and published in the Journal of Financial Planning, the goal is to retire with at least 12 times your annual income. I think this number will vary significantly based on individual circumstances. My personal goal is 15 times annual income. As for where you should be at a given age according to Mr. Farrell, see the savings to income column in the chart to the right.
Example: $350,000 (retirement savings) / $95,000 (yearly income) = 3.7
There are other ratios and formulas you can apply to personal finance. But the ones above should give you a clear picture of your financial health. They will help to identify those areas of your finances that are on track, and those areas that need improvement.