The Great Recession whacked American companies, well run and not, fairly indiscriminately. You can learn a lot from how execs at the best ones responded and returned their businesses to record profitability in what now seems like the blink of an eye.
In 2008, for instance, Wal-Mart leaders knew they had to continue cutting prices to keep financially strapped customers coming in the door. To do so without hurting the bottom line, top brass suspended a stock buyback program and reduced spending on new supercenters, focusing instead on remodeling existing stores. The payoff: Wal-Mart revenue kept growing during the financial crisis, and its market share has increased in basic goods, such as groceries.
You may not have the financial muscle that Wal-Mart does. But like any sound business, you should know what your spending priorities are and where you have room to cut. Here’s how you can apply these principles to your personal finances—and prosper.
Control your outflow
Just as company executives contract and expand outlays to fit the company’s business cycle, so should you.
Take your savings rate. Conventional wisdom suggests you should save a steady 10% or so a year for retirement throughout your career. Instead, says Maspeth, N.Y., financial planner Michael Terry, you’re better off adjusting that rate to fit your financial situation—pulling back to, maybe, 5%, when your kids are in college and the budget is tight, then ramping up to 10% to 15% after they graduate. Once your mortgage is paid off, Terry says, boost your rate again, say, to 25%.
Odds are good that you’ll come out ahead with less pain. Take a typical 50-year-old who earns $70,000 a year, saves at a steady 10% clip, and has $350,000 socked away in his 401(k)—the target for that age. Assuming standard 2% raises and average annual returns of 5%, he’ll amass $916,500 by 65. If instead he lowers his savings rate to 5% until his kids are out of college, bumps up to 15% at 55, and to 25% at 60, he’ll have $980,000 by the time he retires.
Don’t be shortsighted
When the going gets tough, CEOs who want to sound tough often impose across-the-board cuts. Yet be careful when trying to impose this tactic at home. If you’re looking to boost your cash flow through higher wages, for instance, cutting as much from your career development spending as from your vacation fund is counterproductive. Things like “continuing education and networking are worth the money,” says financial planner David Blaylock.
Lower your operating costs
Another way corporate America improves its cash flow was by reducing its borrowing costs. While it’s likely you’ve missed rock bottom on interest rates, they’re still low by historical standards. “If your debt is three years or older, take a hard look at refinancing before the window of opportunity closes,” advises LearnVest financial planner Tonya Oliver-Boston.
The savings can be substantial, particularly if you shorten the term of your loan. Say you refinance a 30-year $250,000 mortgage that you took out in 2007 when rates were about 6.35%, and roll the remaining debt into a 15-year loan at 3.25%. You’d have roughly the same monthly nut, but you’d save nearly $160,000 in interest and retire the debt nine years sooner. That would free more cash for savings in the years before retirement.
You can apply the same strategy to other higher-rate debt. Say you’re currently shelling out $500 a month to pay down $10,000 in credit card balances at an average 15% rate and $25,000 in college PLUS loans for parents at 7.9%. Refinance that debt with a home-equity line of credit, recently around 5%, and your payments will drop to about $275 a month. True, the rate on a HELOC is variable, but lifetime caps on increases should keep it well below PLUS loans and plastic.
Price yourself right
A business knows how to price what it sells competitively. In your household, your salary is the equivalent of your price, and nabbing a higher one is a sure path to greater profitability.
Developing a rep as a top performer is critical: Make a strong case for yourself in your annual review by quantifying what you’ve done to boost revenue or cut costs, such as bringing in new clients or switching to lower-cost suppliers. “Adding more value is about bottom-line impact,” says New York City career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine.
Coming to your boss with a counteroffer from a competitor can also lead to a bump in pay, but it’s risky. A less threatening route, says Ceniza-Levine, is to reach out to recruiters to see what salary you could command. Then you can say to your boss, “Recruiters are coming to me with offers that are 20% above where I am, but I like it here. Is there anything we can do?” Framing the situation as a shared problem reinforces that you’re still loyal.
Then again, if your efforts are unsuccessful, it may be time to look elsewhere. Even a small bump in pay can have a big impact on your bank account over time.
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