Economists at Fannie Mae expect that the sale of new and existing homes will increase by more than 4 percent this year, and purchase loan originations are expected to improve by more than 15 percent, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. While that’s certainly good news for real estate agents, it doesn’t mean the housing market is out of the woods just yet, and no one is predicting a housing boom in 2013.
Independent real estate agents have the challenge of living on an income that’s dependent on the success of the housing market. If you play your cards right, however, there’s no reason you can’t succeed in bad times as well as good. The key lies in knowing how to budget your finances effectively on a fluctuating income. Here are five tips to get you started:
Create a Personal Budget
A great place to start is by getting yourself on a strict personal budget. You can use an online service such as Mint or just a simple Excel spreadsheet if you prefer. List your itemized income opposite your expenses. From there, it’s simply a matter of cutting your spending until it’s outweighed by the money you’ve got coming in.
Since your income as a real estate agent varies from month-to-month, you need to create a flexible personal budget. If you can, use your worst month from last year as a conservative estimate of your monthly income. Or, consider crafting two separate budgets – one for the solid months and another for the leaner months. This strategy can be especially helpful if you don’t yet have an emergency fund built up.
Get an Emergency Fund in Place
If you don’t already have one, you need to start an emergency fund. This will keep you from racking up credit card debt when you can’t cover all your monthly expenses. With a solid emergency fund, you can cover rent, utilities and groceries while working to bring in more money.
Most experts recommend keeping at least six months’ worth of living expenses in your emergency fund, but considering the issues that have plagued the housing market, you should shoot for 12. When you receive a big commission, bulk up your emergency fund before you spend a dime.
Save for the Future
If you’re a sole proprietor like most real estate agents, you may not have a robust retirement fund. You can contribute to a Roth IRA or even set up an individual or solo 401(k) to save for retirement. When those big commissions come rolling in, make saving for the future a priority.
That said, it’s important to put away something every month if you can, even if it’s a small contribution like $50 or even $25. Of course, you want to leave your retirement savings alone until you eventually call it quits. But if a major expense unexpectedly surfaces that wipes out your emergency fund, or you have a long run of dry months, you can always withdraw contributions from a Roth without penalty.
Don’t Overdo It
You want to impress upon people that they should call you the next time they buy or sell. But you don’t want to overspend to do it. When it comes to buying client gifts, paying for essentials like business cards, or refreshing your wardrobe, shop smart.
You don’t have to spend an arm and a leg to look good. Your image is important, but unless you’re selling multimillion-dollar estates, your clients won’t notice if your suit is an Armani. And instead of a thick, double-sided, multi-colored business card, impress clients with a digital card they can view on their smartphone. Being smart and cost-conscious will secure more business than throwing money around. And it’s guaranteed to save you a bundle.
Pay With Cash After Bad Months
Using your credit card when you don’t have the cash to pay it off is a surefire way to dig yourself deep into debt. If you’ve had a string of less-than-stellar months, try to limit yourself to paying cash for all your purchases. Break out that “worst case scenario” budget discussed above, and make sure you know what you can comfortably spend. And, before you reach for your wallet, always ask yourself, “Do I need to buy this?” If you’re completely honest, you might find the answer in most cases is no.
The key to living well with a fluctuating income is discipline. Implement your monthly budget and stick to it. Don’t overspend when you’ve had a good month or when you’ve just gotten a signed contract (wait for it to close). Being in business for yourself has a lot of benefits, but it’s critical that you devote the proper care and attention to your financial picture. The last thing you want is to have to go back to a 9-to-5 position.