Getting started: Simple financial plan is a good way to achieve goals

McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 11, 2015

Coming up with a financial plan can be a daunting task no matter what your age, but perhaps even more so when youíre in your 20s and just getting started.

How do you plan for a retirement thatís some 40 years away? What if you get married? Have a baby? Go to graduate school? Switch careers?

With so many unknowns, planning may seem like a pointless exercise, but Carl Richards, a financial planner who writes the "Sketch Guy" series for The New York Times, says itís more valuable than you might think. In his latest book, "The One-Page Financial Plan," (Penguin Group, $24.95), he argues that listing a few important goals on a sheet of paper can go a long way toward making smarter decisions about money ó even if those goals change a few (or more) times in the future.

Here, in an edited version of our conversation, he answers questions about how to apply this strategy when youíre just starting out.

Q: How do you write a one-page financial plan when youíre in your 20s?

A: Make some guesses about where you think you want to be five or 10 years from now. Just some guesses. Put them on your one-page plan. You donít have to carve it in granite with a chisel because we know itís going to be wrong at some point. So give yourself permission to let go of that false sense of precision. Youíre not committed to the plan. Youíre committed to the process of guessing. Itís sort of like being a pilot. You have a flight plan, but the wind ends up being different than you thought. Just make a course correction. Thatís OK.

Q: How does the plan help you better reach financial goals?

A: My financial plan is up on the shelf in my office. Just this morning it came in handy because I was offered an opportunity to invest in a company that sounds exciting and fun. Itís a startup and all cool. And then I thought, oh wait, that plan up there says weíre saving up money for a down payment on a house. OK, let it go. I spent three minutes on the offer instead of three weeks researching it. Itís along the lines of the old Stephen Covey quote: "Itís easy to say no when thereís a deeper yes." I like the idea of having some document there thatís your much deeper yes.

Q: What goals should go on your plan?

A: I think the stuff that ends up on the one-page plan is the stuff youíre working on right now. On mine, it says fully fund retirement accounts for me and my wife, save money each year for our kidsí education, and save for a house. Now, if I were recently out of school and I had a little bit of debt, Iíd probably have something like pay down my debt, start saving for a trip that my wife and I want to go on, and save for a down payment. I think the goals that drive actions every day or month are what end up on that plan.

Q: What is the value of writing a plan if your goals are bound to change?

A: I think itís incredibly valuable just because of the increased awareness youíll have when you make decisions. At least youíre noticing what youíre doing. Most of us are walking through our financial lives with our eyes closed.