Some of my clients want to know how to put their finances on autopilot. They don’t always say that explicitly, but I can tell by their behavior. They tend to be very active in implementing all my recommendations. They hope that they can put every small part in place once and for all in a short amount of time, and let the machine run on its own.
Most of the time, however, they find that they still need to think a lot about their finances after working with me, and they get frustrated. “Why can’t I move on to more fun parts of life already?” they say. “I thought this would be easier.”
While I sympathize with the sentiment, I do often question whether we can put our finances on autopilot. Is it ever possible to achieve that state, where you just live your life without thinking about money at all? Being able to do just that is probably the number one reason why people want to become rich.
I’ve come to the conclusion that unless you have unlimited resources at your disposal, thinking about finances will be part of your life. Like I’ve said many times before on this blog, every decision you make has financial consequences. That is life. At the most basic level, life is consuming resources to remain present, no matter how unique your life is.
In addition, life happens. No matter how well we plan for what we anticipate, there is always something beyond our knowledge or control. You thought you would stay single forever but you found the one. You lost a dear family member unexpectedly. Your found out your daughter is so gifted in music that you need to fund more lessons.
That said, I am not advocating thinking about money constantly either. Some people do this as a habit. Talk to the frugal living experts or people fixated on getting higher returns on their portfolios. They think about optimizing their finances all the time not because they need to, but because it excites them. That’s great for them, but it doesn’t mean that you have the same interest.
Many people just want to live life without constantly worrying about the constraints. I understand that. We all want the freedom to choose the way we want to live.
Unfortunately, none of us have unlimited resources. What we can do then is simply try to put a system in place to minimize the adhoc decision-making. This way you trick yourself into thinking that you are not making decisions about money- even though you are, just in a more efficient way that does not drain your brainpower.
Build your system
How do you build a financial system that allows you to go on autopilot from time to time? Below are the different areas you can focus on, starting from the easiest to the hardest to put on autopilot.
You might be surprised that I list investing as the easiest to put on autopilot. For most people, it sounds the most complicated. However, if you subscribe to the low-cost passive investing philosophy, you really don’t need to do much after you decide on the asset allocation that may help you meet your goals.
Now more than ever, there are many innovative products and the technology to help you autopilot your investments. A target date fund will automatically change the asset allocation as you move closer to the date you need the money. A robo-advisor such as Betterment or Wealthfront will daily rebalance and harvest tax loss to optimize your portfolio when given asset allocation.
All you really need to do is set up automatic contributions so you continue to accumulate assets. You may want to look for a financial planner to help you decide on the asset allocation that works for you, if you are uncomfortable doing it on your own. Also as your life evolves, you may need to adjust your asset allocation going forward.
We use insurance to cover events that are unlikely but have catastrophic financial costs, such as death, disability, or the need to have full-time care for a long period of time.
Whenever you determine a need for an insurance policy, you can put the premium payment on autopilot. The main hurdle to jump through is actually getting the policy. Depending on how time consuming it is, many people simply do not follow through.
I find that one of my values as a financial planner is to push my clients through the insurance underwriting process. Knowing you need insurance coverage does not help you. You need to actually get the coverage.
Like all other aspects of your finances, you may need to update your coverage after a major life event. Nevertheless, having to revisit coverage should not be an excuse for you to skip it in the first place.
You thought you have taxes withheld every paycheck so you don’t have to pay more. Wrong. You need to make sure the withholding matches your tax liability if you want to truly put taxes on autopilot.
If you are a salaried employee, the good news is that you can estimate your taxes using this IRS calculator. Once you submit the desired withholding parameters with your HR department, it’s on autopilot until next year.
This is not as easy for self-employed individuals who don’t really know their real profit at year end. The closest thing you can do is to be on top of your quarterly estimated tax. You may not be able to match your tax liability to withholding perfectly, but at least you won’t be scrambling to make payments come tax time.
Many people don’t spend the money they don’t see. If you set up an automatic transfer from your paycheck to a savings or investment account, you won’t have to think about it much. The questions is, how much should you save?
I talked about this decision process before in another post. It’s mainly driven by what you are saving for. Remember, saving is future spending. Unless you want to give your savings away, either to your heirs or a charity, saving gives you nothing if you don’t spend the money eventually.
Once you determine your goals, it’s fairly easy to decide how much you may need to save to meet the goals. The problem is that you may not be able to save that much yet, because you also need to spend now to stay alive.
This is where a financial planner can help determine what you should save now. Once your life situation changes, such as when you make money, you can adjust your autopilot system so you are more likely to meet your long-term goals through saving.
Spending might be the trickiest one for putting on autopilot. If you can make purchases without looking at prices, how much money do you think you will end up spending?
I think if you can spend like you have unlimited resources, you will end up spending way too much. We have some perfect examples from professional athletes who earned hundreds of millions of dollars and still went broke. Alas, in the world of reality, there is no such thing as unlimited resources.
Once we accept that our resources are limited, we can put boundaries on our spending and design a system for it. This is why we budget, because we don’t have all the money in the world to spend.
The first step of budgeting is separating out all the fixed bills you have to make. Debt payment, rent, and utilities are all good examples. Make sure your income after taxes and savings can cover these basic expenses. If not, re-evaluate your life to make some necessary changes.
Outside of your bills, you have discretionary spending. To truly go on autopilot on discretionary spending, you need to have a system that drives every decision. I talked about using your values to accelerate the decisions. You can also create simple rules and build habits around them.
For example, you can decide to only go out to lunch once a week, or limit your lunch to no more than $10 per day. Once you make rules that also allow you to enjoy life, you will stick with these habits and put your spending on autopilot.
When not to put finances on autopilot
Creating a system sounds great. Why can’t we just do it once and be done with it? Here are a couple of reasons why you can’t stay on autopilot forever.
First of all, as humans we have the behavioral urge to take control. We generally do not like to be in a situation where we cannot make changes on the spot.
In our office building, we have a high-tech elevator where you have to select the floor you wish to go with a secure key card before you get in. Once you are inside the elevator car, there is no button. Every time I get in, I always feel fidgety because I can’t control where I’m going anymore. I automatically look for the “call” button, which is the only button on the panel, subconsciously preparing for something bad to happen.
The same thing happens to the “drivers” of driverless cars. The first smart automobiles did not have a steering wheel at the driver’s seat. Why? Because the car is supposed to drive itself! It turns out that the drivers secretly panicked inside and did not want to get back into the car. The engineers ended up putting the steering wheel back, even though you do not use it.
So, don’t put yourself in an autopilot situation that deprives you of final control. If you are enlisting the help of a technology or an advisor to handle everything for you, learn how the system works and how to switch it off in advance.
Secondly, there are situations that require you to take the autopilot off. When you are flying a plane, it may be for landing, take off, or emergency. It’s the same for your finances. When you encounter a life event, you will need to re-evaluate your systems and make changes. Don’t expect one system to work in all life situations.
Unfortunately, some people encounter life events more than others. We globetrotters know it well. A relocation every few months to years means that our system is almost always in flush.
For others, it may just be normal life events filling up your life. In Chinese we have a saying, “Giving birth, growing old, getting sick, and dying are all just part of life.” We tend to focus on where we are now, discounting the changes in the future. However if you look at it objectively, you are likely to encounter a major life event for you and your immediate family members every few years. So, expect to turn off the autopilot quite frequently to update your system.
So do you have an autopilot system? Share with me.