Any time of year, but particularly the start of a new year, is a good time to reflect on how you are managing your finances and to consider whether you would benefit from some changes. Here’s a checklist of questions and suggestions that can help you better evaluate and meet your goals.
What are my current short-term and long-term financial goals? Write them down. They may include paying off a debt, buying a home or a car, or financing a child's college education. With goals and target dollar amounts in mind, you may be more motivated to save money and achieve your objectives.
Can I do better making automatic transfers into savings? Arranging for your bank or employer to automatically transfer funds into savings or retirement accounts is a great way to build savings, but don't just set it and forget it. Ask yourself whether you should increase the amount you are automatically saving.
Do I have enough money in an emergency savings fund? The idea is to cover major unexpected expenses or a temporary reduction in income without borrowing money. Figure out how much you would need to pay for, say, three to six months of essential expenses (housing, transportation, medical costs and so on). If you don’t have that much money in a savings account, start setting aside what you would need. For anyone struggling to build a "rainy day fund" or reach any major savings target, setting up automatic transfers is a steady way to work toward that goal.
What about retirement savings? Start by calculating how much money you will need for retirement, perhaps by using an online estimator. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), most financial advisors say to aim for a combination of Social Security payments, pensions and personal savings that equal at least 70 percent of your pre-retirement earnings in order to maintain your pre-retirement standard of living. Even if you are just starting out in the working world, look into all your retirement savings options, as they may come with tax savings and employer matches.
Am I adequately insured? Having enough life, health, disability, property and other insurance is essential to protect your finances from a sudden shock. You may find savings on your existing policies by getting updated quotes from your current insurer and comparing them to quotes from at least two other companies.
Am I prepared financially in case of a fire, flood or other emergency? In addition to having your most important possessions insured, ask yourself how your most important documents would be saved from ruin. For more information, including how to assemble a preparedness kit if you had only a few moments to evacuate your home, read tips from FEMA — the Federal Emergency Management Agency — at www.ready.gov.
If there's been a death in the family, have I reviewed what that could mean for our FDIC deposit insurance coverage? It's especially important to make sure your accounts are properly structured if a co-owner or a beneficiary you named has recently died. As an example, if you have a joint account with a co-owner (such as a spouse) who passes away, the FDIC will continue to insure the account as if the co-owner is still alive for a maximum of six months. That six-month grace period is intended to give survivors or estate executors a chance to restructure accounts, if needed, to stay within the insurance limits. After six months, if no change is made, the account will be insured for a maximum of $250,000, and you will be considered the sole owner of the funds. Similarly, if you have one or more payable-on-death (POD) accounts that include a beneficiary who has died and you have not replaced that person with another beneficiary, the amount of insurance coverage will decrease immediately; there is no six-month rule for deceased beneficiaries.
Do I have the necessary legal documents for managing my money if I become disabled or when I die? These may include a “power of attorney” permitting someone else to handle transactions and make decisions on your behalf if you are unable to. And if you haven’t already done so, consider consulting with an attorney about creating or updating a will and/or a trust to guide the distribution of your money and property after you die.
Am I keeping the right financial records? When it comes to paper versions of records like old bank statements, credit card bills and receipts, consider keeping only those you may need to protect yourself in the event of, say, a tax audit or a dispute with a merchant or manufacturer. Documents you don’t need can be discarded, but shred or otherwise securely destroy records that contain personal information. It’s also good to keep a list of your financial accounts and personal documents in one secure place, so that a loved one responsible for your affairs could easily find it.
Do I have a good plan for how I spend my money? Start by listing how much money you take in over a typical four-week period, what expenses you need to pay, and how much goes to savings. Include any large expenses you pay annually or semiannually, such as taxes or insurance premiums. Also pay attention to small expenses, from entertainment to snack food, which can take a toll on your finances. Then jot down ways you can control your spending. Online tools also can help you develop a more comprehensive budget.
Are all the expenses I'm paying for automatically each month really worth it? Some expenses you've put on auto-pilot may look small but can add up over the course of a year. Start by reviewing your credit card and checking account statements for expenses that get charged on a recurring basis. Consider whether you still get value from each product or service. Also find out if you may already be receiving the same benefits elsewhere or if you can negotiate a better deal with the company.
Am I reviewing my credit reports for accuracy? Correcting errors may help you improve your credit history and credit score, which can save you money when you need to borrow money. And reviewing your credit reports can help you detect identity theft or errors that could cause you other hassles, such as higher insurance premiums. Federal law gives you the right to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months. There are three major nationwide consumer reporting agencies (also called "credit bureaus") — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — and each one issues its own report. Go to www.AnnualCreditReport.com, or call toll-free 1-877-322-8228, to order your free credit reports from each agency.
Is there more that I can do to cut the costs of a mortgage loan? For example, if you have an adjustable-rate mortgage with an interest rate about to go up, find out if there are lower rates for which you might qualify. Also inquire about your options for refinancing into a different, better loan. You also can research the pros and cons of making additional payments to principal (to pay off the loan sooner) or even paying off the mortgage outright.
Can I do more to reduce the interest I'm paying on other debts? Any reduction of outstanding debts, particularly those that charge you the highest interest rate, will bring you savings in interest expenses. For example, look into paying all — or at least more — of your credit card balance.
Am I truly benefiting from my credit card rewards programs? These features can be beneficial, but you have to know what to do to earn extra cash or keep "points" or miles. A rewards program also may have changed since you last looked at it. Also, don't let the allure of rewards be the only factor in choosing a credit card. If you're considering closing a credit card account that you’ve managed well for a long time, instead consider the alternative of keeping the card but not using it. That's because closing the account could adversely affect your credit score, which lenders often use to determine your interest rate.