Recent events and ongoing economic problems have many people looking to do something — anything — to feel financially grounded again.
Here are some things you can do immediately, in the coming week, and for the month that can help set a direction for your finances.
Make a budget. The first step in any personal finance effort is getting a handle on the amount of money you have coming in and going out. Making a budget lets you do that. And, in the process of putting one together, a budget helps you think about the priorities you have for your finances.
If you already have a budget, you may want to revisit it and make adjustments, especially if your income has changed or you have incurred a major expense recently. (Related: Your family budget and an unexpected expense)
Establish an emergency fund. If you don’t have an emergency fund, you need to start one. And you need to make consistent contributions to it as part of the budgeting process.
Generally, financial professionals suggest that the fund be held in a liquid interest-bearing account, like a money market account, savings account, or even a short-term certificate of deposit. Such accounts are generally straightforward and relatively quick to open. The money in your emergency fund typically should cover three to six months’ worth of living expenses, although recent bouts of severe unemployment have led many money mavens to suggest putting aside even more. (Related: Emergency fund basics)
Get a Green Line report. Whether your retirement is looming or still a long way off, it’s a good idea to keep track of what your financial resources are likely to be. Social Security will likely be one of those resources. The Social Security Green Line Report (an account statement so named for its appearance) used to be mailed to every U.S. worker to let them know how their own, personal Social Security account was shaping up. However, due to budget cutbacks, the report is now only available online for those younger than 60 years of age.
Many people don’t keep track. But it’s important information since it can flag retirement income issues you may face while you still have the time and the means to address them. So take a few minutes to go to www.socialsecurity.gov/myaccount and follow the prompts. (Related: Why your Green Line Report matters)
Check your retirement contributions. A lot of times, people take a set-it-and-forget-it approach to their retirement accounts, especially those that are part of their workplace benefits, like 401(k)s. But it is important to periodically review such accounts and make sure you are getting the maximum benefit.
First of all, make sure that you are signed up for the plan. Some companies have a waiting period, and employees, having fallen into a routine after a few months, forget to take action. Then keep vigilant.
For instance, if you got a promotion or raise, you may want to consider increasing your contributions accordingly. Or, if you are old enough, you may have an opportunity to take advantage of some of the catch-up provisions available for those looking to bolster savings as they approach retirement.
And, perhaps, your company has changed matching levels for its 401(k) or has added investment options since you last checked. You’ll need to reach out to your benefits department to get the latest information and updates on your company-sponsored retirement plan sent to you. Once you read through the material, you may want to make changes. (Calculator: Retirement contributions)
Prioritize your debt. As part of the budgeting process, you no doubt got an idea of your debt load. The next, deeper step is to sort out those obligations. Generally, you want to pay off higher interest debt — like a credit card — first, while keeping current on less impactful debt. (Related: Setting debt goals)
It is also important to get your credit report from one or more of the major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Experian, and Equifax. All three provide a free annual report. From a credit report you can tell your overall score and what debt or loans may need to be rectified to improve it. (Related: Improving your credit)
Find a financial professional. For many people, expert financial advice can end up saving them lots of time and money in the long run. But it’s a relationship that has to connect on a number of levels. So taking time to research and consider the right professional for you is important.
You may want to look at professionals or services near you and ask friends, colleagues, or family for recommendations. If there is a financial services firm you particularly like, you can reach out to that firm directly. Many, including MassMutual, offer search tools to help connect you with a professional nearby. (Related: Finding a financial professional)
Once you have a few candidates, you may want to talk with each over the phone for informational interviews and, after settling on the one you think is most suitable for your needs, set up an appointment.
Of course, if you already have a financial professional, you should revisit when you last talked with them and decide whether another discussion is appropriate.
Portfolio review. It's important to go over your investments periodically, especially in the face of changing circumstances and environments. You should dedicate a little time to it.
First of all, you need to collect information and examine all your investments, be they retirement accounts, like 401(k)s or IRAs, or brokerage accounts holding stocks, mutual funds, bonds, or exchange-traded funds. Then, you should look at the performance and nature of those investments and assess whether or not they still fit your goals and risk profile.
Remember, your risk profile is likely to change over time. Younger investors can tend to take on more risk, since they have time to recover from downturns, while older investors likely want to have less risk in their holdings, since retirement is nearer.
With that in mind, you can look at the entirety of your portfolio and determine if you have the proper asset allocation in place. That is, whether you have the right mix of higher risk and lower risk investments. Depending on the outcome, you may want to start making changes. But it should be a careful, well-thought-out process of research and consideration. You want to take some time with this effort. (Related: Understanding asset allocation)
Taxes. Most people only think about taxes at year-end or around the tax-filing deadline. But it can pay to assess where you stand more frequently.
Specifically, taxpayers should check their withholding and make sure they’re on track to pay what they owe and nothing more. If you withhold too much, you’ll get a refund, but you will have missed a chance invest that money for compounded growth or to pay off debt. On the other hand, if you withhold too little, you could be surprised by a tax bill (or worse, an underpayment penalty) when you file your income taxes. (Related: Tax planning)
If you do need to make an adjustment, you’ll need to contact your human resources department for a new W-4 form to make the change. Or, if you're in business for yourself, make a change to the estimated taxes you pay quarterly.
Meet your financial professional. Assuming you took the step above, your meeting with your financial professional should come within the month. You need to prepare for it, especially if it is your first meeting.
You need to approach it with an idea of the goals you want to accomplish and the topics you wish to discuss. Some questions to consider include:
- Is your retirement plan on track?
- Do you need to adjust your asset allocation?
- Do you need help setting up an estate plan?
- Is the appropriate amount of insurance protection in place for your family should something happen to you?
Also, you’ll need to gather information that the financial professional will need to evaluate your situation and recommend a course of action. This can include investment and retirement statements, tax returns, and life insurance policies. (Related: How to prepare for your first financial professional meeting)
Obviously, there are more steps you can take, throughout the year or even a lifetime, to help keep your financial situation grounded. But the steps here — for a day, a week, or a month — can give you a start.
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