Dear Carrie: I'm in my late 30s, have a great job and about to get married. Unfortunately, though, I don't feel that I have a real handle on my finances, especially as I look ahead to married life. Is there a good way for me to get up to speed? -- A Reader
Dear Reader: Great question -- and a great time to be asking it. With a good job and an upcoming marriage, you're poised to begin an exciting journey -- one that will have a number of financial destinations along the way. But to keep moving forward -- and help you steer the clearest path -- you need a good map. To me, one of the best guides you can have at a time like this is a financial plan. Here's why.
*Why a Financial Plan Makes Sense
First, a financial plan isn't just about managing your money. It's about identifying your life goals -- some that you've already thought about, and some that may not be obvious. The process itself will help you think big and sort out your priorities. It can also be an excellent opportunity for you and your fiancee to explore your goals together.
Second, a comprehensive financial plan is comprehensive. It looks at all the interrelated parts of your financial life -- money in, money out, investments, retirement planning, insurance, taxes, estate planning -- to make sure they're all coordinated.
Finally, a good financial plan is actionable. It will give you concrete steps to take as you move toward your goals, and can also help you understand how to adjust if your goals change down the road.
*What a Financial Plan Includes
A comprehensive financial plan has many parts, including:
--A personal net worth statement -- a snapshot of what you own and what you owe. This will help you know exactly where you stand, and also give you a benchmark against which you can measure your progress.
--A cash flow analysis -- so you can see how much money comes in and goes out every month. This is the foundation for your budget (including identifying what's fixed and what's discretionary) and can also help you get a handle on your debt.
--A retirement plan -- specifying how much you need to save each year.
--A plan for funding education.
--An investment plan based on your goals, resources, and risk profile.
--A review of your insurance coverage -- making sure you have the right types and amounts.
--A review of your income tax profile.
--The foundation for an estate plan -- which is important for everyone, but especially when you have children.
Putting all this together takes time and expertise -- and that's where an experienced financial planner comes in. By gathering your information, evaluating your financial status, and developing and helping you implement specific recommendations, a financial planner can help your get your financial life on track.
*Working With a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER Professional
There are many types of financial planners, but I recommend working with a Certified Financial Planner professional. The individuals with this credential have completed extensive training, passed a rigorous test and meet ongoing continuing education requirements.
The key is to find a financial planner that you trust and are personally comfortable with. Many offer a complimentary initial consultation, so you can ask questions and see if you're a good fit. You might start with recommendations from friends, colleagues or other financial professionals. Make an appointment for a consultation and, before you meet, make a list of questions. Ask about cost, background, types of services and number of clients. Ideally, you and your fiancee should decide on a planner together as you consider how you're going to handle your finances as a couple.
*An Extra Word About Cost
Financial planners can be compensated in different ways. Some may charge an hourly fee; others may give you a set price based on the complexity of your financial situation. Be cautious when it comes to financial planners who are paid by commission. When interviewing a potential planner, be sure to ask if he or she is compensated for selling you any particular financial product. If so, consider how that inherent conflict of interest may impact his/her ability to provide you with the best and most objective advice for your situation.
Many people think a financial plan is only for the wealthy. But to me, it can be well worth it for most everyone, and can more than pay for itself if you follow the recommendations. In fact, in today's complicated financial world, it can be the one guide you need most.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz's column, "Ask Carrie," can be found at creators.com.