Kick Start the Year with a New Financial Plan
January is a great time to take a fresh look at your finances, especially if you’re saving for a home or other major purchase. Key to starting the process is making a budget. If you already have a budget, take the opportunity to re-evaluate your goals and the progress you’ve made and make any necessary adjustments.
What’s your budgeting style?
The term budget can mean many things. There are budgeting systems as complex as Internet-based programs that track and classify your every expenditure and track your progress toward monthly goals, longer-term goals and lifelong goals such as retirement savings, and those as simple as a handwritten tally of monthly income and expenses. A budget doesn’t have to be complicated, but the more detail you put into it, the more you’ll be able to keep track of how you’re doing and make adjustments.
Most online budgeting programs also come with an app, so you can keep tabs on your money on the go. Can you afford to splurge on a love-it-but-don’t-need-it pair of boots or the latest tech gadget? Check the app.
Quicken is a popular online tool for tracking checking, savings and investment accounts, and it integrates well with Quicken’s TurboTax software. Do you frequently travel for work? Mark all your work-related purchases with a “work” tag and compile reports for reimbursements, or for deductions at tax time. PocketSmith is a similar online tool, with the ability to project cash flow and balances for years to come. You can budget monthly expenses and get myriad reports that analyze your progress.
Mvelopes is an online tool based on the envelopes method of budgeting in which you put certain amounts of cash into envelopes marked for specific purchases, never dipping into other envelopes for more funds. Mvelopes bases your budget on virtual envelopes, with the site’s developers touting the ability to “recover 10 percent of your income from hidden spending, eliminate existing debt and effectively manage credit card spending.”
I personally use QuickBooks Online (QBO) to track my personal finances. It is a tool meant for small business accounting and offers more business-grade features than Quicken. I’m used to it in my business and thus use it for personal finance, too. Tracking every transaction of personal finance is a major undertaking, and you will reap the benefit only after you develop the discipline to do it for a full year. For most people, Quicken is a good starting point.
Start saving slowly
Technology has you covered when it comes to finding ways to save, as well. Acorns is a website and app that employs a tactic called micro investing. Acorn links to your checking and credit card accounts, then rounds your purchases to the nearest dollar and socks away the change for small but steady savings growth. You also can set up recurring savings account deposits or make a one-time contribution.
To further pad your savings, look for ways to cut down on your monthly expenses. We all know that forgoing a pricy latte or making your own lunch can trim your spending, and that negotiating your credit card interest rates and calling your cable provider for current specials can keep more money in your pocket. If you’ve already done these basics, consider some useful apps. Paribus tracks your online purchases by checking your email, and if it spots a lower price within a particular retailer’s price adjustment policy period, Paribus files a claim with the retailer on your behalf, then takes its fee as a percentage of the savings. Other price matching apps, such as Walmart’s Savings Catcher, refund the price difference if a competing retailer offers a better price.
Hire a planner
How much will it cost to put your kids through college? When you retire, will you still be able to afford your lifestyle? A financial planner can help you make smart decisions about short- and long-term goals. The only way to be sure your planner has only your best interests at heart is to pay a flat fee for professional services. Planners who offer their services for free in affiliation with a specific broker or bank will tend to nudge you toward that company’s products. The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors offers a guide to help you choose the professional who can best meet your needs.
Do you still carry full-coverage insurance on a car that’s paid off and depreciated considerably in value? Are you still paying for replacement coverage on valuables you’ve sold? Has your life insurance policy kept up with your earning potential? Checking into these issues can save you money on premiums or help you and your family stay prepared to meet financial obligations if you die or are seriously injured. It’s a good time to give your insurance agent a call and evaluate your coverages.
Max your contributions
Are you contributing the maximum amount possible to your retirement savings plan or college savings plan? Are you getting the maximum employer 401k match? If not, you’re missing out. If you can’t contribute the maximum, challenge yourself to increase your contributions each year, and take the first step now. Any small increase in the money you tuck away now will multiply through the years.