Whether you’re just starting out in your career or approaching retirement, organizing your finances and knowing exactly what you need to do to prepare for the future can feel daunting.
It doesn’t have to be.
While paying your bills on time and living within your means are great places to start for a healthy financial life, there are some other steps you’ll want to take to help secure your future and protect your family.
While some items are more urgent (like paying off high-interest credit card bills), others you can take some time to organize. The key is approaching the checklist one item at a time and giving yourself a deadline to get everything in order.
The freedom you’ll feel with knowing exactly where you stand financially is well worth the effort.
1. Make a simple budget.
This can be as easy as taking out a piece of paper to write down how much you bring in each month after taxes and subtract your monthly expenses (mortgage, rent, car payments, etc) to know where your money is going. It’s important to know how much you earn and how much you spend, so you ensure you are not going into debt.
If you need an easy way to track your expenses, you can use a mobile app such as Mint, which will track your spending for you and remind you when you’re hitting your budget limit.
“You can think about money all you want, but you actually have to manage it,” says Hilary Hendershott, a certified financial planner with Hendershott Wealth Management, LLC, in San Jose, Calif. “You have to understand and have your arms wrapped around your cash flow. And, you have to measure it in small enough time periods that you can actually wrap your brain around the numbers.
“When money becomes real to you, there is real clarity.”
2. Pay down your debt.
If you have a mortgage, car loan, school loans, credit card debt or any other form of loan, write them down along with how much interest you are paying on each one and the minimum payments required. Then create a strategy for paying them off as quickly as possible.
Never miss a payment and look at your budget to see if there is a way to pay more toward the loans with higher interest (usually credit cards).
If you have a large amount of credit card debt that you can’t immediately pay off and you have excellent credit, consider applying for a credit card with a long introductory period of no interest, where you can transfer your debt (with a transfer fee) and make a plan to pay it off in full before the intro period ends.
3. Create an emergency fund.
The best way to stay out of debt is to have a dedicated fund for unexpected costs (job loss, medical bills, car repairs). If you can immediately put 6 months salary away in a separate account, that’s ideal.
If you’re currently just getting by, then start with $25, $50 or $100 a month and work your way up to at least $1,000 so in an emergency you don’t start racking up credit card debt to cover the cost.
4. Cancel cards if necessary.
If you love a good intro bonus, you may succumb to every great credit card offer that comes your way.
If you can handle that and pay off your balance in full each month for every card, great. However, if you’re starting to feel overwhelmed keeping track of all your cards, then start canceling the ones you’ve opened most recently.
It’s always a good idea to keep your oldest credit card open for credit score purposes, but if you find you can’t control your spending when you have a card, then consider cutting it up so you can’t use it.
5. Renegotiate terms and cancel unused subscriptions.
Make it an annual practice to renegotiate the terms on some of your expenses, such as car insurance, cable television, insurance policies and phone plans.
You may qualify for lower rates or your current provider might meet an offer a competitor is making.
Check your health care insurance policies as well and see if there are ways you could save some money by tracking steps or participating in online health courses.
If there are things you’re paying for that you never or rarely use, cancel them.
Even saving $10 a day and putting that into an investment fund can add up thousands of dollars in retirement, depending on your age.
6. Contribute to a retirement fund.
No matter what stage you are at in your career, put money away for retirement.
If you work at a company that offers to match your 401(k) contributions, make sure you are contributing enough to get their maximum match (this is free money). If you are self-employed or work freelance on the side, there are options like a traditional or Roth IRA, Solo 401(k) or SEP IRA.
The younger you are, the better, since time is the best way to grow investments, but it’s never too late to get started.
Not sure how much to put away? New York Times Bestselling author and financial expert David Bach suggests putting away one hour a day of income, no matter how much you make.
“Whatever you earn, the first hour a day of your income comes right off the top and goes into your 401(k) plan,” he says. “That happens to be 12 1/2 percent of your gross income. If you can do more, do more.”
7. Get insured.
If you don’t get health insurance from your work, find another plan that you can afford, but don’t wait until an emergency to figure it out.
If you have children or dependents, you’ll also want to make sure you have a good life insurance policy. It’s not fun to think about medical emergencies or death, but planning ahead is critical to ensure your family won’t be without a home or basics in the event of tragedy.
8. Draw up a will.
Having a legal Last Will and Testament is imperative if you have children, as you’ll want to make sure they go to the right guardian and have a fund in place to cover their needs. If you’re older, a Will makes life much easier for your family and loved ones. You’ll want to do this through a lawyer so it’s done right.
9. Put money away for college.
If applicable, start putting money away in a 529 plan for your children’s college. This tax-advantaged investment vehicle is a great way to fund college over time and lessen the burden of college loans for your children.
It’s important to note that it’s more critical to fund your own retirement before funding college, as your kids can always apply for a school loan, but you can’t apply for a retirement loan.
10. Organize all your accounts.
If you’ve switched jobs or have multiple investments, you might have accounts out there that you have lost track of. Whether it’s a former 401(k) or investment plan, sit down and figure out where all the accounts are, how much they contain and ensure beneficiary information is up to date. If you can roll former 401(k) plans into a single account, that will make life easier.
Organize all this information: bank accounts, retirement accounts, insurance policies, property, other investments, estate plans and your Will into one binder or filing cabinet where the information is easy to access and up-to-date.
It’s a good idea to also make copies and keep in a safety deposit box or other location as well.
The bottom line
By making a plan to pay down your debt, stay within your budget and prepare for your future, you’ll not only make your own life easier, but also the lives of your loved ones. A few simple steps now can allow you to concentrate on what’s important and take care of emergencies when they arise, without the extra stress of financial strain.