Top 10 Personal Finance Tips for the Long-Term
Personal finance software can help you keep track of bills.
While complete financial independence is a difficult goal to reach, most people want to at least avoid spending their lives struggling to make ends meet. Planning can help you meet your money goals, but only if you put the plan into action.
Assess Your Net Worth
It's always a good idea to know your bottom line. Gather all of your financial statements - bank accounts, bills, mortgage statement, credit cards, pay stubs - and enter the details into a financial software program. Include the current balance, interest rate, monthly payment and limit. Also enter the current value of your car, house and major pieces of jewelry or art. The financial software will subtract your liabilities from your assets to determine your net worth.
Develop a Workable Household Budget
Creating and sticking to a spending plan is one of the best ways to help you meet your financial goals. Be sure your budget is realistic and appropriate for your actual needs, cautions Lee E. Holland, CPA, CFP. "People have a tendency to slash their spending allowances far below sustainable levels and then give up on the entire budget when it doesn't work for them."
Instead, evaluate your spending habits before creating your budget. Track every penny that crosses your path, incoming and outgoing, for a month. Use personal finance software to record and categorize your income and expenses - many programs will download the data directly from your bank and credit card accounts and will develop a budget for you based on the recorded information. Use this as a starting point, and re-evaluate after three months, six months and then annually. Tweak your budget as necessary to create a plan you can follow that also allows you to achieve your goals.
Save For Your Retirement
If you're fortunate enough to have a job that offers an employer-sponsored retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), take advantage of it. Holland recommends contributing enough to take advantage of employer contributions. "At the very least, you should be contributing the maximum amount your employer will match. Otherwise, you're throwing away free money." Each time your salary increases, contribute half of that amount to your 401(k) until you're at the maximum allowed. When you've maxed out your 401(k) contributions, look into making annual contributions to a Roth or traditional IRA.
Set Up an Emergency Fund
One thing you can count on is that, at some point, you'll have an unexpected expense. An emergency fund can help defray the impact of the unforeseen on your monthly budget. Aim to set aside six months' worth of living expenses, but if that seems insurmountable, start with a smaller goal. At minimum, try to keep $1,000 in your emergency fund, building it up as your available income increases. Remember that an emergency fund is for emergencies only; if necessary, make it difficult to access the funds so that you're not tempted to use them for non-emergencies.
Cultivate a Debt-Free Lifestyle
When you're first starting out, some debt is inevitable. Student loans and mortgages are often a necessity, and most households carry some credit card debt. Once you've fully funded your retirement plans and your emergency fund, tackle your debt and pay off loan and credit card balances ahead of schedule. If you have a significant amount of credit card debt or very high rates on your other loans, don't wait for full funding, suggests Holland. "It makes little sense to contribute to a 401(k) making around 6 to 8 percent, or a bank account that earns almost nothing, when you're paying 20 percent or more on credit card debt." Drop your 401(k) deferrals to the matched amount, put $1,000 into your emergency fund and then use the rest of the money that would have gone toward those items to pay down your credit card debt.
Depending on your needs, personal finance software can help you create a debt-elimination plan that works for you. The "snowball" method, which includes applying all of your extra money to pay off one debt, then applying those payments to the next debt and so on, is just one example of a program that can help you get on track. Compare the difference between paying off higher balances first or paying highest interest rates first. Your long-term savings may be not be significant, and it may be more psychologically satisfying to pay off small debts first, helping to keep you on track for the longer haul.
Create a Healthcare Contingency Plan
No one likes to think about it, but at some point you might be unable to make your own healthcare decisions. The best time to address this contingency is long before you're actually in that situation. The typical documents you'll need are a healthcare power of attorney, which allows a certain person to make medical decisions on your behalf, and a living will, which outlines your wishes for care in various medical situations. Check the laws in your state, since some laws require a specific language or format for healthcare proxies.
Also consider long-term care insurance. "It's a gamble," admits Holland, "and it's not right for everyone, but if you need it, you'll be glad you have it." In general, the wealthy and the poor are less likely to benefit from a long-term care policy. For those of moderate means, a policy can allow them to receive care without significantly impacting their net worth.
Keep Track of All Accounts, Debts and Bills
Good credit is an important aspect of your financial fitness, even if you rarely take on debt. Your credit rating can affect your mortgage interest rate and your insurance premiums. On-time payments and a low debt-to-credit ratio are significant contributors to a good credit score. Use personal finance software to keep track of your balances, limits and due dates. Software will even send alerts when it's time to pay a bill. Additionally, if you become unable to manage your financial affairs, a comprehensive, up-to-date record of your income, expenses, bills and their due dates all in one place can help prevent late payments and fees.
Buy a Life Insurance Policy
Choosing life insurance involves a complex decision between term, whole and universal life, with variable or fixed options. Determining how much life insurance you need can also be complicated, although having a good handle on your assets and liabilities can help with the calculation. If you have a spouse, children or others who depend on your income, however, don't let the potential difficulty keep you from purchasing insurance, advises Holland. "The last thing your loved ones need is to worry about how they're going to pay the bills while they're still dealing with your loss."
Make Your Final Arrangements
Planning your own funeral might make you a little uncomfortable, but it can save your loved ones time, stress and money when you're gone. "A preplanned and prepaid funeral can ease the burden on survivors," Holland explains. Your family won't have to worry about choosing between gray silk or white satin when they're in the middle of mourning, and they'll be sure your wishes are being met.
Protect Your Heirs' Inheritance
An estate plan is an essential part of a personal financial plan. The complexity of your estate plan will depend on your situation, but a basic plan typically includes a will and a living trust. A will provides instructions for the distribution of your assets after your death and names a guardian for your minor children. If you only have a will, however, your estate might still go through probate, which can take several months and drain a portion of the assets.
A living trust avoids probate, lets you provide specific instructions for the distribution of your assets and names the person who will pay your final bills, deliver inheritances to your heirs and close out the estate. Avoid a common mistake people make with living trusts, however. "You must fund the trust, by retitling assets such as bank accounts, investments, personal property and real estate into the name of the trust," warns Holland. "Otherwise, those items will still need to go through probate, and you lose the advantage of the trust."