How to do an annual financial checkup
By Aaron Crowe
The start of a new year is a chance to start with a clean slate and plan for a better year ahead. If your finances didn't fare so well in the previous year, it can be a time to rethink your approach and give yourself a financial checkup to ensure you're on the right path.
An annual financial checkup doesn't require hiring a financial adviser or an investment broker to go over your documents. It can be done at home with a few hours of planning. Here are some things to go over:
Start by checking how your financial goals from the previous year were met, and how you should modify them in the coming year. Do you have enough money saved in an emergency fund to pay for six months to a year's expenses if you lose your job? Are you regularly contributing to a retirement account, putting money in a high-yield savings account, and regularly funding other expenses you'll have over the year such as vacations, property taxes and insurance?
If you've just had a child, are you saving for his or her college education? What other life events have changed that will change your goals for the year? If you've gotten divorced, married, changed jobs, moved or are retiring, your financial goals for the year may change dramatically. You may spend more or less money, or earn more or less money, than you did last year.
Protect yourself and your assets by evaluating if you have enough insurance. Did you buy a new car or home? Did you add a room on to your home? Will your teenager start driving this year? Do you have long-term disability insurance in case you get injured and can't work? It's also a good time to review your will and update it if you have any changes to make.
Getting rid of debts can be like giving yourself a raise. You'll have that much more money to invest, save or spend by paying off credit card debts. Do you have a plan to pay off credit cards with money on them? A zero percent balance transfer is one way to save on credit card debt, but make sure you can pay off the new balance before the zero interest offer ends.
It's also a good idea to get a free copy of your credit report and make sure all of the information on it is accurate. Also check your home mortgage loan interest rate and see if you can get a better deal.
Whether or not you have an investment broker to show you how to rebalance your portfolio, most investment advisers will tell you that your investments should be rebalanced each year to ensure you have a good mix of stocks, bonds and other investments. You also don't want to be too heavily invested in one area, so be sure to diversify. Check that your investment strategy matches your risk tolerance and meets your time horizon for when you'll need the money.
Making the maximum contribution to your 401(k) or other retirement account is a smart way to reduce your taxes and make sure you're financially ready for the future. If you're employer doesn't have a retirement plan, or your self-employed, open an IRA account yourself and contribute as much as you can to it.
If you didn't look at ways to reduce your income taxes before the end of last year, now is a good time to get a headstart on finding deductions for this year's taxes. If you itemize deductions, check out last year's tax return to make sure you'll have the same deductions this year.
Go over all of the household bills you get each month: power, water, mortgage, TV, phone, maintenance, gas, clothing, etc., and see if there are any areas where you can cut from or expect to increase in the new year. Are you spending within your budget?
After doing all of this, the last thing you may want to do is get a physical checkup from your doctor. There's no point in getting a financial checkup if you're not going to be around to enjoy it.
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in personal finance topics.