Our minds are wired to prioritize the near-term over the long-term. We shouldn’t be surprised that a new survey by New York Life shows most parents list paying down existing debt as their number one financial priority over longer term goals like saving for college or retirement. However, the number of American parents focused on primarily paying down debt is astonishing, with roughly 72 percent of parents saying their primary financial focus in 2019 will be debt management.

The number was even higher for younger parents, ages 18-34. Roughly 80 percent said debt reduction is their primary focus. While debt management is extremely important, it appears many Americans are losing sight over long-term goals in favor of short-term planning needs. This focus on the near term at the expense of long-term planning is concerning as many of the survey respondents showed a narrow view of their financial wealth. When asked what they would do with a hypothetical $5 million lottery windfall, most respondents, 58 percent stated they would rank paying down debt as their top priority, while only 33 percent stated they would put it toward retirement. Furthermore, only 28 percent of parents surveyed stated it was important to have a financial plan in place for what would happen to their kids in the event something happened to them. This focus on debt management is leaving themselves and their families at a disadvantage. The lack of focus on long-term financial health is a reason Americans seek financial planning help from professionals.

However, the same individuals who were primarily focused on paying down debt in the survey are not all that focused or interested in getting expert help. Only 30 percent of the respondents stated they plan to seek expert help in 2018, down from 38 percent in 2018. This leaves Americans in a tough spot. They aren’t doing long-term planning for themselves and they don’t plan on getting financial advice. It also highlights issues that could create a perfect storm. Americans don’t view financial advice as a solution to their financial woes, yet they have difficulty planning for the future. Nearly 42 percent of Americans have less than $10,000 saved for retirement. Americans generally struggle with financial literacy, so it’s not surprising their planning suffers as they try to do it themselves. Without help, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of trying to tackle the financial issue right in front of you instead of balancing it with other needs.

Financial planning helps you balance the near term with future goals. For instance, if you are paying off student loan debt at a 2.5 percent interest rate instead of saving in your company 401(k), thereby giving up a company match, you are not improving your financial situation. In fact, you are giving up money and long-term gains for not much of a near-term benefit. If you are one of the individuals who finds yourself in debt and behind on your savings, consider taking these three simple steps to kickstart your financial wellness.

  • Don’t Spend What You Don’t Have: Debt is much easier to fall into than climb out of. To avoid it, you need to be proactive and not spend what you don’t have. This really starts by setting and sticking to a budget. One tip to get started is to track your expenses for a month. For the next month, label them as either necessary or discretionary expenses. By doing this, you will better visualize your spending patterns. Once you can see how you spend, it will be easier to prioritize.
  • Save Your Raises: If you get used to spending what you make, it’s hard to cut back spending. So, when you get a new raise or bonus, save it instead of spending it. This will help you create healthy saving habits. The earlier you get used to saving, the better your long-term financial wellness will be. Forgoing a discipline of saving at a young age will only make catching up later on more challenging.
  • Invest in Your Future: Saving and paying off debt isn’t always enough to create lasting financial wellness. Instead, you need to invest. Investing means putting your money aside for long-term goals and the earlier you start investing, the sooner you can put the power of compound interest to work. Investing for the long term often means taking on some risk. While safer investments like CDs, bonds and money market accounts play a role in financial planning, their long-term returns tend to be very low compared to investing in the stock market.

While it can feel daunting to balance debt with saving for future goals, it is crucial for your financial wellness. Giving up investment growth, savings opportunities and compounding interest in favor of paying down debt might sound great, but it isn’t always the best strategy. Instead, try to see beyond the narrow view of focusing only on one planning point so you can get a more holistic plan in place. Lastly, consider working with a financial advisor to develop a financial plan that can help you achieve your long-term goals, manage debt and protect your family.

This was originally published in Forbes

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