*By Brendan M. Crews, Authorized Representative, AVMA LIFE*

Sometimes good financial advice can start out broad to address a goal. It may sound something like this: “Let’s try to increase the amount you are saving for retirement” or “We want to be careful how much debt you take on.” However, to be effective, a goal needs to be measurable. So how do you measure progress towards some of the broadest financial goals like saving or spending? One answer is to lean on financial ratios for guidance. Break out the calculator on your cell phone and let’s review some of the most common.

**Savings Ratio**

Your savings ratio, sometimes called a savings rate, is the
percentage of after-tax income not spent.

**(After-tax income
– Spending) / (After-tax income) = Savings Rate**

If your annual household income, after taxes, was $100,000,
and your spending for the year on essentials (i.e., mortgage, insurance,
utilities, food, etc.) and discretionary purchases (i.e., eating out, movies,
vacation, etc.) was $90,000, then your savings ratio would be $10,000 /
$100,000 = 10%.

Calculating this rate annually is most common, but you can
also do it monthly. Knowing your savings ratio is important so you can get an
idea of how much money you have left once all your expenses are met. Next, you
must prioritize where this money goes. For example, 5% might go into your
401(k) and 5% might go into an emergency fund. Or you may decide to put 5% into
a Roth IRA, 2% into an HSA, and 3% into a 529 account. The “where” comes later;
the first step is figuring out the “how much.”

Over time, reducing your debt payments and/or expenses will
increase your savings ratio and give you more flexibility in times when you
might need to cut back. The same result can by achieved by increasing your
income. Regardless of how it happens, try to find a purpose for any new savings
opportunities, before they get swept away by additional spending.

**Front-end Ratio**

The Front-end Ratio, commonly known as the mortgage-to-income
ratio, is the percentage of your gross monthly income that is spent on your
home payment. In this case, your home payment calculation consists of the
principal, interest, property taxes, and mortgage insurance (PITI).

**PITI / Gross
Monthly Income = Front-end Ratio**

For example, someone with a gross annual income (before
taxes) of $120,000 would have gross monthly income of $10,000. If their
mortgage payment consisted of $300 of principal, $900 of interest, $300 of
taxes, and $120 of mortgage insurance, then their front-end ratio would be
($300 + $900 + $300 + $120) / $10,000 = 16.2%. This number is important for two
reasons.

First, lenders use it when you apply to borrowing money. A
lender’s standard maximum front-end ratio is 28% for most loans and 31% for FHA
loans (although they have flexibility to go higher). FHA loans are government-backed
loans with lower down payments, usually around 3.5%, and lower credit
requirements. If your front-end ratio exceeds these limits, you are unlikely to
be approved for a loan.

Second, and more important, the front-end ratio not only
tells you what is *possible*, but what is *responsible*. Just because
you can get a loan, does not mean you should. When planning for a home purchase,
target a front-end ratio no higher than 20%–25%. And just because today’s low
interest rates mean you can get approved for a larger loan to buy a more
expensive house, doesn’t mean that is the right thing to do. Be careful when
you evaluate what you *can* do versus what you *should* do.

**Back-end Ratio**

The back-end ratio is also known as your total
debt-to-income ratio. This number provides a more holistic view of your current
debt position and your ability to take on additional debt, like a mortgage. Car
loans, student loans, personal loans, credit card payments, alimony, and
homeowner association dues are included with your estimated mortgage when
calculating how much you can afford.

**Total Monthly Debt
Payments / Gross Monthly Income = Back-end Ratio**

Lenders also look at your back-end ratio, although
acceptable levels are higher than with your front-end ratio. The standard
limits with your back-end ratio are 36% on conventional loans and around 41% on
FHA loans. For young home buyers with high student loan debt, this ratio can a
big stumbling block.

**Weighted Average Interest**

The weighted average interest that you pay is simply the
average interest rate percentage paid per dollar of debt. Each individual piece
of outstanding debt you have has an interest rate and represents a certain
percentage of your overall debt. Start with your student loans, which can come
with a double-digit interest rate, then add in all other loans of varying
amounts and interest rates.

**(Debt1% x IR1) +
(Debt2% x IR2) + (Debt3% x IR3) … = Weighted Average Interest**

For example, let’s pick a recent graduate with an auto loan
and two student loans: $20,000 at 5%, $25,000 at 6%, and $55,000 at 7%. This
student’s total debt is $100,000. The first loan represents 20% of the total
debt, the second loan 25%, and the third loan 55%. debt. Next, input those
figures into our formula: (.20 x 5) + (.25 x 6) + (.55 x 7) = 6.35%. That
means, on average, 6.35% interest is being charged on every dollar of this
student’s outstanding debt.

All things considered, a lower weighted average interest
rate is better. But sometimes it’s not that simple. If this student had a “snowball”
debt repayment plan (paying extra toward the smallest debt first, and then move
on to the next smallest after the first is paid), her weighted average interest
rate would increase since the smallest debt has the lowest rate.

Paying off debt in any form is good, but knowing your
weighted average interest rate helps you make better decisions and save money
in the long run. If you pay off your highest interest rate debt first, your
weighted average interest number will decrease over time – which means you will
actually pay less in the long run.

**Financial Ratios as Guideposts**

Financial ratios, like most mathematical formulas, are not
the defining measures of how to live your life. They are guides to help inform
your decisions as you determine the best way to spend – or save – your money to
maximize your happiness. As you know, doing what is mathematically correct is
not the same as what makes you feel the most secure. Paying off smaller debts
or buying a little bigger house for a growing family may bring you enough
security or happiness to be worth it. Everyone’s financial situation is unique,
but these ratios provide measurable insight that everyone can apply along their
own path.