We’re deep into 2017 and I’m excited to get started with a new year of goals to strive for. Before getting to those, I’ll look back on the year that was.
My goal for 2016 was both overly simple and ambitious at the same time.
I was riding high at the start of 2016 having finally paid off enough of my debt to get it to be less than my retirement savings. Put into numbers, my $85,000 in debt was less than my $100,000 in retirement savings — a combined net worth of $15,000.
In previous years, I’d set multiple goals to attack the multiple ways that to hit a net worth of $100,000.
2016 results and a comparison to previous years
Let’s look at the numbers:
- Debt: Paid off $20,000 to get to $66,000
- Retirement: Added $66,000 to get to $166,000
- Net worth: Added $85,000 to get to $100,000
Yes, I just barely reached my goal and joined the hundred-thousandaire club at year end, but that annual gain is what I’m most proud of. This is the biggest yearly gain I’ve had since I started this blog to track my debt payoff at the beginning of 2013.
The shape of this graph — dipping after 2013 before going back up — may seem odd. My best explanation is the effect of two big factors:
- The instant payoff of low hanging fruit
- The slow payoff of making underlying improvements
I’ll dive a little deeper into each of these.
The instant payoff of low hanging fruit
When I first started my debt payoff journey, I was surprised at just how many options were immediately available to me.
I used a big balance transfer to lower the interest rates on my $35,000 in credit card debt from as high as 22 percent to 0 percent for one year. Thanks to the flexibility this gave me, I was able to pay those cards off before the year was up.
When I refinanced my mortgages, the difference was just a couple percentage points, but because their total amount is in the hundreds of thousands, the savings was huge.
I also switched my savings to bank accounts with sign-up bonuses that paid higher interested rates, and switched to credit cards with sign-up bonuses and higher rewards.
Finally, I moved my retirement savings to low-fee index funds at Fidelity and Vanguard.
All of these took relatively little time and didn’t require any change in lifestyle. All in all, the total value of this hustling was worth around $11,000 that first year — and that’s a big part of the story of why my 2013 was so fruitful.
The slow payoff of making underlying improvements
But after that first year, ways to get easy savings started to dry up.
But after that first year, ways to get easy savings started to dry up. Yes, I still sign up for a couple new rewards cards a year and I’ve shifted my retirement portfolio around a couple times to pay fewer expenses. But these net me just a few-hundred last year and it’s clear that the days of hustling for annual savings in the tens of thousands are long gone.
No, 2016’s gains were mostly the result of years of slow, long-term plans and lifestyle changes, rather than any big single moves.
Paying off $20,000 in debt happened almost invisibly. I’ve long gotten rid of my high-interest debt through rapid payoff sprints and refinancing, and I set up automatic payments so it comes out of my paycheck before I have a chance to even think about spending it.
And the 66-percent increase in my retirement savings last year didn’t come from me picking the one stock that took off like a rocket ship, but rather was the result of sticking to low-cost index funds, and finding a stock-bond ratio suitable for my risk tolerance and time horizon for retirement.
But the most important part of my long-term plan were sticking to a low spending plan so that I’d have money available to pay down debt or invest. And as usual, it’s worth mentioning that my savings came through pretty boring means like cooking at home, taking public transit, and splitting rent and utilities with someone.
I’m bored just typing that out, but I’m very glad that they’ve worked so well at giving me a great start to 2017!