Happy Spring! If you’re like most people, the first quarter of the year, in terms of your finances, tends to be focused on tax preparation but not much else. Now that tax season is over (whew!), one of the best presents you can bestow on yourself and your loved ones is the gift of proper preparation for rest of the year. Want to get a jump-start on it? Here are 10 financial best practices to energize your financial management efforts.
- Get a handle on your budget. How much did you spend last year? How much do you intend to spend in the year ahead? After current spending, can you still afford to fund your future plans? Do you have enough set aside in a rainy-day fund to cover the inevitable emergencies? These days, there are apps available to help you track your spending; you may be surprised by what you learn about your spending habits.
- Take control of your debt. Investment returns will only take you so far if excessive debt is weighing you down. Prioritize paying down high-interest credit cards and similar high-cost debt first, and at least meeting minimums on the rest. You may also want to revisit whether you still hold the best credit cards for your circumstances. Do the interest rates, incentives, protections and other perks still reflect your needs? Ditto on that for your home loan.
- Check up on your credit reports. Speaking of those credit cards, have you been periodically requesting your free annual credit report from each of the three primary credit reporting agencies? Be sure to use AnnualCreditReport.com for this purpose, as it’s the only federally authorized source for doing so. By staggering your requests – submitting to one agency every four months – you can keep an ongoing eye on your credit, which seems especially important in the wake of various security breaches of companies like Equifax and Target.
- Verify your valuables are still covered. Most households have insurance: home, auto, life … maybe disability and/or umbrella. But when is the last time you’ve checked to see if these policies are still right for you? Over time, it’s easy to end up with gaps or overlaps, like too much or not enough coverage, deductibles that warrant a fresh take, or beneficiaries who need to be added or removed. If you’ve not performed an insurance “audit” recently, there’s no time like the present to cross this one off your list.
- Ensure your estate plans are current. Do you have wills and/or trusts in place for you and your loved ones? If so, when is the last time you took a look at them? Your family may have experienced births, deaths, marriages or divorces. Dependents may have matured. You may have acquired or sold business interests, and added new assets or let go of old ones. Your original intentions may have changed, or government regulations may have changed them for you. For all these reasons and more, it’s worth revisiting your estate plans annually.
- Have a look at your healthcare directives. As healthcare becomes increasingly complex, advance directives (living wills) play an increasingly vital role in ensuring your healthcare wishes are met should you be unable to express them when the need arises. Don’t leave your loved ones unaware of and/or unable to act on your critical-care or end-of-life preferences. If you don’t already have a strong living will in place, Aging with Dignity’s Five Wishes (agingwithdignity.org) is one helpful place to learn more.
- Give your newly adult children the gift of continued care. Have any of your children turned 18 recently? You may send them off to college or a career, assuming you can still be there for them should an emergency arise. Be forewarned! If you don’t have the legal paperwork in place, healthcare providers and others may be unable to respond to your requests or even discuss your adult child’s personal information with you. To remain involved in their healthcare interests, you’ll want to have a healthcare power of attorney, durable power of attorney, and HIPAA authorization in place. It may also be prudent to establish education record release authorizations while you’re at it.
- Get ready for tax time… with a twist. Wait – already?!? You may want to fire up those tax-planning engines on the early side this year: depending on your unique situation, there may be tax planning opportunities or challenges to consider. Under the TCJA, with the increased standard deduction, fewer taxpayers are able to claim itemized deductions. Do you fall into that category? One way to maximize deductions is to open a Donor Advised Fund, which will allow you to gift highly appreciated stock into a charitable giving account and take an immediate deduction, thus allowing you to itemize and receive the tax benefits for that year when you otherwise might not be able to. [See more details about Donor Advised Funds in this blog post.]
- Save today for a better retirement tomorrow. Are you maxing out pre-tax contributions to your company retirement plan? Taking full advantage of your and your spouse’s company retirement plans is an important, tax-advantaged way to save for retirement, especially if your employer matches some of your contributions with “extra” money. And, by the way, if you are 50 or older, you may be able to make additional catch-up contributions to your plan, to further accelerate your retirement-ready investing.
- Give your investments a good inspection. Where do you stand with your personal wealth? Have you got an investment strategy to see you through? Does your portfolio reflect your personal goals and risk tolerances? If you experienced strong growth in previous years, is it time to lock in some of those gains by rebalancing your portfolio to its original mix? Investment management is a marathon of patient perspective rather than a short-sighted sprint of mad dashes, so it’s never too late to turn your focus to this very important topic.
Staying on top of the details is challenging. Life never stops. Don’t despair if you can’t get to all ten of these tidbits at once. Take on one or two each month, and you’ll still have a couple of months to spare before we’re ringing in the new year.
Better yet, don’t go it alone. Let us know if we can help you turn your financial planning jump-start into a mighty wealth management leap. It begins with an exploratory conversation.