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Where to Save Money For Long-Term vs. Short-Term Financial Goals

We all have financial goals — sometimes they’re shorter-term things like buying a car, and sometimes they’re longer-term like saving for a child’s education or our own retirement. But how do we meet both without sacrificing one or the other? Can we still achieve our long-term goals while also satisfying short-term needs? Here’s how.

How to Satisfy Both Short-Term Financial Goals and Long-Term Goals

In a perfect world, we’d all put our investible funds in a long-term investment account and continue to build those assets by methodically contributing as much as we can for the next several decades. If we all follow this blueprint, our significant financial decisions will be about maximizing our returns in varying market environments, keeping risks within our comfort zone, and managing related taxes. Then—voila—we’ll all likely have a tidy nest egg to fund our futures.

If only it was that simple.

During those “several decades” while you are saving for your future—life happens—and investment decisions become a bit more complicated. For example, you need a down payment for a house; funds to purchase a new car; or a surprise expense, such as dental surgery or another medical expense. So how do we balance these shorter-term saving goals with our longer-term goals that investing will probably be the best tool to help us achieve?

Goal Setting for Short-term Versus Long-term Savings

These competing short and long-term goals require some additional thinking about the best positioning of your investible assets. When parsing out how to balance your short- and long-term savings goals, the first question to ask yourself is: what specific shorter-term goals are you trying to achieve and when will you need the money?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer because in addition to the nearly unlimited things people save for in the short-term, there are also several additional variables beyond when you need the money. For example, you should also ask yourself about the flexibility of your timeline, your risk tolerance and even the urgency or importance of your goal.

Let’s use a down payment for a home as an example. How much do you need? Let’s assume $100,000. When do you need it? We’ll say five years. Is homeownership an urgent or important goal at this point in your life? Maybe, maybe not, or maybe you need to adjust the amount. But your answers to these questions will determine not only how much you need to save and when, but also how much risk you can take with the money in order to meet your timeline. These are decisions that you, with the help of a financial advisor, can determine based on your personal circumstances.

Once you’ve clearly identified a realistic goal and determined the amount, timeline, and urgency of the goal, the next step is deciding where to put your money to maximize its value while you work toward realizing your goal. There are no hard guidelines here, either, so a financial advisor’s input can be invaluable.

Here Are Some General Guidelines Based On When You Will Need Your Funds:

You’re probably asking yourself: what actually constitutes a short-term goal? How short is short-term?

We generally consider a short-term goal to be something that you will need money for in less than 18 months. Here’s how we recommend allocating savings for a short-term goal:

If you need the funds in less than 18 months: Consider a high-yield savings account to keep your money FDIC insured and readily available to meet your goal.

We usually say that something you’ll need funds for in 18 to 36 months is a “mid-term” goal. Here’s how we recommend allocating savings for mid-term goals:

If you need the funds in 18 months to 36 months: Your decision may vary depending on how much of your net worth the goal amount represents.

  • If the amount is less than 10% of your net worth, your most effective course will likely be keeping your money invested with your current strategy, or a slightly less aggressive, but till long-term, strategy for some investors or goals.
  • If the amount represents more than 10% of your net worth and your timeline is inflexible, consider a high-yield savings account to keep the funds protected and readily available.

Anything that won’t require cash for more than 36 months is generally what we consider a long-term saving goal. Here’s what we recommend:

You won’t need access to the funds for more than 36 months: Again, your decision may vary depending on the goal amount’s impact to your net worth.

  • If the amount is less than 10% of your net worth, your most effective course will likely be keeping your money invested in accordance with your current investment strategy.
  • If the amount represents more than 10% of your net worth, you may want to consider moving the funds to a more conservative long-term investment strategy, particularly if your current investment style is aggressive. If you have some flexibility in the timeline, however, you may just want to stick with your current investment strategy.

Personal Capital Tip: We usually recommend that you keep between 3- and 6-months’ worth of living expenses in cash as an emergency fund. It’s important to have funds readily available if you need them in the event of a job loss, major medical expense, or other emergency situation. But don’t let your cash languish in a traditional saving or checking account – put it to work in a high-interest account so you’re still earning on the money you have stashed away for emergencies. Learn more about building an emergency fund here.

The Bottom Line

While these guidelines are helpful, it really all depends on you. I wish I could give you iron-clad advice here, but “one-size fits all” guidance rarely actually works when it comes to investing and personal finance. So, remember to ask yourself about the urgency of your goal, what your timeline is, and how all that jives with your investing style. For example, how inflexible is your goal? In the example we used earlier – the down payment — is it a “must” to be in a house within five years, or could you wait longer? What is your risk tolerance? If you keep your goal money invested long-term, will you fret every time the market takes a turn?

Now weigh those variables against how your decision will impact your ability to complete your goal. For example, putting funds that won’t be needed for more than 36 months in a savings account may feel safe, but it is likely counterproductive because of the opportunity costs. Your money won’t be growing much while you wait to spend it. Will forgoing potential returns on your money delay your goal?

For most investors and for many goals with a mid- and long-term time horizon, it’s probably worth the risk to maintain a long-term investment approach so that you can benefit from the better return potential. Your advisor can help you clarify your personal risk tolerance and the best place to park funds for your different financial goals so you can comfortably work towards them — whether they be shorter or longer term.

Disclaimer: The content contained in this blog post is intended for general informational purposes only and is not meant to constitute legal, tax, accounting or investment advice. You should consult a qualified legal or tax professional regarding your specific situation. No part of this blog, nor the links contained therein is a solicitation or offer to sell securities. Third party data is obtained from sources believed to be reliable; however, Personal Capital Corporation (“Personal Capital”) cannot guarantee the accuracy, timeliness, completeness or fitness of this data for any particular purpose. Third party links are provided solely as a convenience and do not imply an affiliation, endorsement or approval by Personal Capital of the contents on such third party websites. Certain sections of this blog may contain forward-looking statements that are based on our reasonable expectations, estimates, projections and assumptions. Past performance is not a guarantee of future return, nor is it necessarily indicative of future performance. Keep in mind investing involves risk. The value of your investment will fluctuate over time and you may gain or lose money. Any reference to the advisory services refers to Personal Capital Advisors Corporation, a subsidiary of Personal Capital. Personal Capital Advisors Corporation is an investment adviser registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Registration does not imply a certain level of skill or training nor does it imply endorsement by the SEC.

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