If you receive a large windfall from an inheritance or lump sum settlement, you’re suddenly faced with financial decisions you weren’t expecting. Getting a lot of money at once can be a blessing and a curse. You’re not only dealing with the emotions of receiving this money (maybe from a loved one who passed away, or a lawsuit resulting from an accident), you’re also dealing with the logistics of how to spend or save it.
What you end up doing depends on your personal financial situation, but a good rule to follow is this: give yourself some time to process it all, and then make a solid plan for the money based on how it affects the rest of your finances and your life goals.
Step 1: Do Nothing for Six Months
I know it sounds crazy, but you’re going to make some snap decision in the first few months that you may later regret. One of the best tips I learned from the book Sudden Money by Susan Bradley and Mary Martin was to wait awhile before making any decisions. They suggest a six month waiting period and I agree with them.
I’ve seen people buy new cars, give a bunch of money away, or upgrade their homes, and later regret it. Don’t be one of them. Put the money in a high-interest savings account for a few months while you decide what to do next.
Step 2: Keep a Low Profile
Avoid sharing the news of your windfall with too many people. Your loved ones might come to you with an outstretched hand, asking for a loan or gift. You could be treated differently by friends or relatives who are jealous of your inheritance.
After evaluating your financial situation, you might decide that you are in a position to help some loved ones out, or donate generously to charitable organizations. But don’t give your money away until you’ve put together a plan. Which brings me to the next step…
Step 3: Assemble Your Dream Team
As well-meaning as family can be, don’t turn to them for financial advice. You need expert, unbiased advice. If you don’t work with a financial planner, accountant, or attorney now, you should start. Together, they can help you decide on how to allocate your funds, plan your estate if you’d like to pass some of the money down to the next generation, and deal with the tax implications of the windfall.
Step 4: Attack Your Debt
Being debt-free is the ultimate freedom. If you’re sitting on high-interest credit card debt, consider this windfall to be your reset button. Pay that debt off and don’t get into credit card debt again.
If you also have student debt, you can use this money to pay that down as well. Many people who own their home use a windfall to pay off their mortgage completely, but interest rates are so low right now that investing that money in a retirement account might yield a better return in the long run. Talk to your financial planner about which direction might be best for you based on your current financial situation.
Step 5: Save For Retirement
Take advantage of being young and having a long time to build up your retirement savings. If you wait until right before you want to retire to begin saving, you might not be able to save enough to support yourself when you stop working.
Many Millennials hold off on saving for retirement because they don’t have any money available after paying their bills. Now that you have a bigger financial cushion, you can allocate more of your pre-tax income toward your 401(k). Make sure to save enough to get your company match.
Next, fund a Roth IRA (up to $5,500 per year) if you qualify. If you can save even more after that, try to increase your 401(k) savings to 15% of your pre-tax income, or save more slowly by upping your 401(k) contribution by 1% per year. If your windfall is significant, aim to max out your 401(k) every year. The current max is $18,000 per year. This will help lower your tax bill because you fund your 401(k) with pre-tax dollars.
Step 6: Splurge a Little — Responsibly
This is not the time to blow all of your inheritance money or cash settlement on a fancy car, luxury condo, or designer clothes. You want to make this money last, and it’s not going to go as far as you think if you use it to inflate your lifestyle.
Instead, pick a few small, meaningful splurges. Can you finally afford to travel to the one place you’ve always wanted to go? Have you been saving up for a down payment, and this windfall finally makes home ownership affordable for you? Are there any goals you have that you can now afford? Maybe you wanted to return to school so you can advance further in your career or change careers entirely. Maybe you’ve dreamed of relocating to a new city, but didn’t want to risk it with so little money saved. This windfall can give you the chance to change your life!
While some windfalls are large enough to let you quit your day job and live a life of luxury, don’t spend that money frivolously. According to the National Endowment for Financial Education, 70% of people who receive a windfall spend all the money within a few years! Like this guy.
With the right professionals on your side, and a solid plan for spending, saving, and investing your money, you can take full advantage of receiving a large sum of cash.