Ask Stacy: What Should I Do With a Windfall?

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Most of us, at one time or another, will get some unexpected money. Being confused as to what to do with it is a nice problem to have, of course, but a problem nonetheless.

Here’s this week’s reader question:

What is the best way to deal with a large inheritance? Something that is well into the $400,000 to $850,000 range? Age is only in middle 50s. — Tina

As it happens, Tina, I covered this topic in a video and article about a year ago. Take a look, then we’ll continue on the other side.

Now, here’s what to do, step by step.

1. Say nothing, do nothing

Don’t do anything at first: No shopping sprees, no donations to charity, no lending money to friends and family. Don’t even tell anyone. The last thing you want to do is risk wasting your windfall by acting on impulse, or encouraging friends or distant relatives to hold their hands out.

The greater the sum, the longer you should take to assess your financial situation and identify some short- and long-term goals. If the amount is significant, a month isn’t too long to wait. The money’s not going anywhere.

2. Define your goals

Most of us have a vague idea of what we want from life. Now’s a great time to turn those vague thoughts into an action plan by establishing specific goals.

One way to approach goal-setting is to imagine yourself on your deathbed. As your life passes before you, what would you be thinking about? Unless you’re as shallow as a puddle, you probably would be thinking a lot more about the times you had than the things you had. You’d likely be remembering the people you touched and who touched you.

When you’re able to wrap your mind around the things in life that truly make you happy, all that’s left is to use your resources — both time and money — to bring more of those things into your life.

For example, if helping your family brings you fulfillment, make it a goal that within X years, you’ll have saved X amount to help with things like college. If charitable work does it for you, make it a goal to donate X dollars by X date. If seeing the world is your dream, decide when you’re leaving and exactly how much it will take. If you love laughing with your spouse, make it goal to retire in X years with X dollars so you can spend more time with that person.

Once you know what you want, you’re better prepared to point your time and money in that direction and avoid getting sidetracked by other things.

There’s no limit to the goals you might have, and there’s no shame in putting things like a nice house, car or vacation on your list. But no matter where you want to end up, the shortest route is to decide in advance where you’re going.  

3. Remove the roadblocks

Once you’ve established some financial goals, start removing the impediments to reaching them. One of the worst is debt.

If you have debt, especially the high-interest kind, pay it off. If you’re paying 20 percent interest on a credit card, paying it off is like earning 20 percent, tax-free and risk-free. That’s better than any investment. So paying off debts, especially the high-interest kind, will make you richer and thus put you in a position to reach your goals faster.

There are instances where paying down debt makes less sense. For example, if you’re paying 3 percent on a mortgage and can earn 8 percent in the stock market, you’ll obviously come out ahead by leaving your debt intact. But in general, debt is a monster that devours your available resources and puts you farther from the finish line. Destroy it with a windfall, or any other way you can.

4. Grow the rest

If you’re fortunate enough to inherit $850,000, the best thing you can do with it is make it into $1.7 million. How? By investing it. If you’re not sure what to do, now’s the time for a little research. Check out articles like “Beginning Stock Investor? Here’s All You Need to Know” for tips like:

  • Don’t be a dope. Day trading, penny stocks and buying based on rumors are sucker bets.
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Diversify: stocks, real estate — maybe even turning a hobby into a business. Spread it around.
  • Kiss the money goodbye for a while. One of the luxuries of a windfall is it allows you to invest longer term without worry. Things like stocks and real estate take time to blossom. A windfall buys you that time.

That is, provided you:

5. Expect the unexpected

The only thing that’s certain in life is that nothing is certain. Always keep some powder dry. If you put all of your money into things that fluctuate in value, like stocks or real estate, and then need the money, you could be forced to sell at the worst possible time.

Your emergency savings will be kept in a bank or money market fund that will pay nearly nothing. Discouraging, but better than being forced to fire-sale illiquid investments. Don’t think of these savings as a wasted opportunity. Think of them as what they are: an insurance policy.

Always have at least six months’ living expenses in your emergency fund. A year’s worth would be better.

6. Seek expert advice

It’s best to hire an expert if your windfall is of considerable size. Interview several financial advisers who are paid by the hour, never by commission. And don’t ever deal with anyone without checking their credentials.

Ask friends for referrals, check the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors, preferably both.

And don’t ever simply turn money over to someone else. Helping you understand your investments is their job. Being responsible for your own money is yours.

7. Enjoy yourself

Last, but definitely not least, use some of that money to treat yourself to a great experience, like a trip to a place you’ve always wanted to see. One of the main reasons to have money is to enjoy it.

Obviously, the weight you’ll put on the steps above will depend largely on the amount of your windfall. Inheriting $400,000 is different from getting a $2,000 bonus at work. But the principle is the same: Take your time, think it through and decide how best to use the money to get the things you want from life.

Got a question you’d like answered?

You can ask a question simply by hitting “reply” to our email newsletter. If you’re not subscribed, fix that right now by clicking here.

The questions I’m likeliest to answer are those that will interest other readers. In other words, don’t ask for super-specific advice that applies only to you. And if I don’t get to your question, promise not to hate me. I do my best, but I get a lot more questions than I have time to answer.

Got any words of wisdom you can offer for this week’s question? Share your knowledge and experiences on our Facebook page.

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Comments & discussion

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  • pbelhumeur

    The most important thing to do is the one you left off the list and the one we were instructed to do…….GIVE.