How to Handle an Unexpected Financial Windfall

How to Handle an Unexpected Financial Windfall
Photo: WAYHOME studio, Shutterstock

A financial windfall can come in many forms — inheritance, from a trust, stock options or winning the lottery. It’s very common for people to spend much or all of a windfall right away, leaving them little to show for it. This is why you need a plan.

Why a plan matters

Your windfall won’t last if you don’t plan for how you will preserve the money. As an example, a third of Americans will blow through an inheritance within two years and be left with negative savings. Even lottery winners are more likely to declare bankruptcy within three to five years than the average American, the reason being that when managing money isn’t already a strong suit, misspending will simply scale up to match the amount of money there is to spend.

While your financial situation and the size of the windfall may vary, financial advisors commonly suggest the following items as part of your spending plan:

Assess your financial goals

First, you’ll want to determine the net amount of your windfall and whether it’s taxed or paid out in installments, as that will affect your windfall spending plans. As an example, inheritance of a taxable asset can have complicated tax implications, and will have unique rules about when you have to take the funds. If the amount of your windfall is substantial, you might want to hire a financial planner to help you navigate through a plan that will minimise unnecessary taxes.

Once you have a clear assessment of your windfall, reassess and prioritise your financial goals (saving for college, early retirement) against outstanding liabilities like debt. Again, your financial advisor can help you with this, as it can get complicated — you might strategically want to keep some (low interest) debt in order to further some of your larger financial goals, like building your retirement savings.

Pay off “bad” debts like credit cards or high-interest loans

A windfall can be an instant boon to your ongoing monthly cash flow if you use it to pay off or pay down your “bad” debt. The opportunity cost is pretty straightforward: You get nothing for paying 16% annual interest on your credit card balance, but that monthly payment could be invested in retirement savings with, say, a 10% return that compounds over time.

Start or add to an emergency fund

The pandemic has been an object lesson in why an emergency fund is important, and a one-time windfall will not preclude you from needing a “rainy day” fund to pay for unexpected expenses, especially if you suddenly become unemployed. Putting money aside for three to six months of expected expenses is typically recommended, although if you receive a large windfall, you might want to bump that up to twelve months.

Play catch-up with your retirement accounts

According to Fidelity Investments, you should plan to save 10 times your income if you want to retire by age 67. The best way to do that is through retirement investments that will grow with compound interest over the years. Also, some accounts allow you to “catch up” and contribute additional funds if you are over 50.

Take care of home repairs

Neglecting home repairs can end up costing you more the longer you put them off. You won’t get any tax deductions for most home repairs, but some of them — like fixing a leaky roof or faulty HVAC — are ticking expense bombs that can be avoided with an injection of capital early on (home repair is often a reason why homeowners take out home equity and personal loans).

It’s ok to splurge a bit

Again, this depends on your financial situation and the size of your windfall, but it’s also ok to splurge — within reason. A common rule of thumb among financial advisors is to spend 5% of your windfall on whatever you want, providing that you’ve taken care of your debt and put money toward your financial goals. If you’re feeling generous, you can also make tax-deductible donations to charity, or give directly to another person, like a friend or family member.

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