Americans are enthusiastic consumers. We save significantly less than people in most other countries, and when we come into wealth suddenly, we often spend it quickly and unwisely. Just consider the thousands of professional athletes who end up bankrupt soon after their playing careers are over.
However, it's not just pro athletes who get in trouble buying houses and cars and expensive gifts for their family and friends. Big-ticket purchases can and do sabotage the best-laid financial plans of middle-class Americans, too.
In fact, spending decisions often have a far bigger impact on the average American's future standard of living than do investment decisions.
Whether it's a vacation home, a dream car you've always wanted or even college tuition for the grandchildren, major purchases can throw a serious wrench into a financial plan. And the decisions are often made impulsively, without appreciating how it can change your financial position and outlook for retirement.
"People can get very emotional about big-ticket purchases," said Mark Cortazzo, a certified financial planner and senior partner at Macro Consulting Group. "They can be cost-conscious, frugal individuals on a day-to-day basis, but when it comes to some incredible extravagance, their practicality goes out the window."
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Cortazzo, like many financial advisors, considers it part of his job to play devil's advocate with clients when it comes to making large expenditures that can compromise other financial goals they have.
"It's my job to do the math on what a large expenditure could cost a client over time and help them understand alternatives," he said. "If there's a high probability that a big-ticket purchase could jeopardize a client's needs and adversely affect their future standard of living, we have much firmer conversations with them.
"We have to tell them what they need to hear, not what they want to hear," Cortazzo added.
What they often need to hear is that they shouldn't be spending the money—or at least, that they should not be spending as much as they are. At the end of the day, however, individuals will determine what is most important to them.
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"It's hard providing the oversight for clients," said Lazetta Braxton, a CFP and founder of advisory firm Financial Fountains. "It's their money, but this is what they've hired me for.
"I don't tell clients not to make a purchase, but I help them see what the trade-offs are when they spend large sums of money."
Braxton's middle-market clients typically don't have enough assets to make large purchases without affecting other financial goals they have and/or their retirement plans. A purchase of a vacation home costing $50,000 or more in annual mortgage payments and maintenance expenses usually means cutting corners somewhere else.
"It's hard when they tell you after the fact," Braxton said. "I've seen people cut their contributions to retirement saving when they make a big purchase and that's money that never compounds. It changes things."
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Jon Yankee, a CFP and senior financial advisor at FJY Financial, often gets involved in determining the best tactics for clients who have already decided to make a big-ticket purchase. That can involve whether to use savings, credit cards or a home equity loan to finance a down payment on a second home. It can be as simple as ensuring that funds intended to pay for a daughter's wedding next year aren't still sitting in stocks.
"People sometimes come to us in the midst of a big purchase decision or just after they've made one and they're in a bit of a hole," Yankee said. "We're not miracle workers, but we can usually create a plan to pay for it and reduce the impact on their cash flows and quality of life."
His advice to people who don't have a financial advisor is to not make decisions in a vacuum and to have a plan for managing large purchases before you pull the trigger. Yankee even suggests spending a couple of hours with an advisor willing to charge on an hourly basis to go over the logistics.
Cars, homes, gifts and university educations are the things that people work for. It's not that people should avoid buying the big-ticket items, but that they should appreciate what they're getting into and how it can affect their financial lives.
"Our job isn't to make decisions for clients but to help them make informed decisions," Yankee said. "There are reasons for and against any major financial decision, and people need to understand the consequences on both sides of it."