Dear Readers: It's hard to believe we're already in 2020. But rather than lament the passing of time, I like to think of a new decade as a time of renewal — a chance to look at what you've accomplished and what you still want to achieve.
Especially when it comes to financial security, the new year is a perfect opportunity to review where you are and recommit to getting on top of your finances. Need a nudge to get going? Here are 10 steps that can help put you on the right track — and help you follow through all year long.
1) Take stock.
You can't make meaningful financial changes in the new year unless you know where you are right now. A good place to start is with a snapshot of your overall wealth, otherwise known as your net worth. Add up your assets (what you own); then subtract your liabilities (what you owe). This will show you whether you're in the plus or the minus, and will help you plan and prioritize your spending, saving and investing. It also provides a benchmark against which you can measure your progress over the years.
Next, look at your cash flow over the past year. What came in each month? What went out? If you regularly spent more than you earned, decide what changes you'll make to turn things around.
2) Set goals, and prioritize.
What's top on your list of goals this year? Whether you want to save more, pay off debt, start a college fund or help a family member, prioritize those goals so you have a clear idea of where to put your money first. Whatever your other goals, don't neglect regular contributions to your retirement accounts.
3) Spend mindfully.
Then create a budget that will support your new goals. Itemize monthly expenses, both essential and nonessential. Make sure any top priorities, such as savings or debt reduction, are line items on your list of essentials. When you make a spending decision, make it in the context of your goals. And if you spend beyond your budget, do it with a conscious understanding of how you're going to make adjustments to your future expenditures so you don't fall into more debt than you can handle.
4) Plan for the unexpected.
Make sure you have the right type and amount of insurance. Health insurance is a must. So is automobile insurance if you have a car and homeowner's insurance if you own your home. Also consider life, disability and renters insurance, depending on your circumstances. Likewise an umbrella policy if you have substantial assets.
Build an emergency fund in an easily accessible account, ideally with enough cash to cover three to six months' essential expenses in case of a job loss or illness. Don't touch this money except in an emergency.
5) Invest like a pro.
Review your portfolio at least quarterly, and rebalance yearly to make sure you're still investing according to your goals and timeline. If you didn't do a 2019 year-end review, start 2020 by looking at your asset allocation and making whatever changes are necessary to keep your investments on track. Take advantage of online tools and quarterly reports that may be available from your broker. If your investments have grown beyond your own comfort level in managing them, consider seeking out a financial advisor.
6) Set up support systems.
Make day-to-day financial management easier by putting as much on automatic as possible. Use auto pay for recurring bills. Consider automatic deposits to savings and retirement accounts.
And don't forget about personal support systems. If you need more reinforcement, consider setting up quarterly meetings with an advisor or other financial professional who can provide added insight and guidance.
7) Optimize your resources.
Use the new year as motivation to review employee or government benefits that may be available to you. Are you eligible for a pension from a former employer? Could you get better insurance coverage through a spouse's plan? If you're approaching retirement age, think carefully about the best time to file for Social Security. Do you have any amounts left over in your health or dependent care flexible spending account that you need to use? FSAs can be great options to help you save money, but they have use-it-or-lose-it deadlines.
It's also a good idea to periodically review the professionals you work with — your accountant, attorney and financial advisor — to ensure they're still meeting your needs.
8) Create your legacy.
I think of my estate plan as a way to support the people and causes that I care about most. You may not need a complex plan, but at least create a simple will, especially if you need to appoint a guardian for minor children. Beyond that, think carefully about how you'd like your assets to be distributed, and work with an attorney to prepare the appropriate documents. An advance health care directive is a necessity to protect both yourself and your loved ones. And be sure to review and update beneficiaries on retirement accounts and insurance policies.
9) Open up communications.
If you haven't regularly included your spouse or partner in financial decisions, now's the time. Share your priorities, budget and documents as appropriate so that everyone in your family is onboard and willing to do their part. You might even set up regular financial meetings to keep everyone up to date and motivated. It's easier to change habits when everyone involved supports one another and is working toward the same purpose.
10) Stay involved.
Steps 1-9 can put you on the path to a more financially secure 2020, but to stay there, you have to remain involved. Stick to your budget; keep striving for your goals; talk to your family; and measure your success. Most importantly, make these steps the foundation of good financial management not only this year but every year.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, Certified Financial Planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of "The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty." Read more at http://schwab.com/book. You can email Carrie at [email protected] The information provided here is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal or investment planning advice. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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