Losing weight and improving one’s finances are almost always at the top of most people’s lists of New Year’s resolutions. It makes sense to look out for your physical and financial health so you can enjoy life to the fullest. Following through on your resolutions is usually the tough part — it takes changes in certain behaviors, discipline and time to experience and maintain the results. This is as true for financial planning as it is for losing weight.
If improving your finances is one of your New Year’s resolutions, here are five steps you can take starting Jan. 1:
Immediately Pay Down Holiday Bills and Credit Cards.
Many people splurge on holiday gifts, parties and travel in December, but the bills will come due in January. Resolve to pay down those debts quickly to avoid large interest charges on your credit cards.
Set a goal to pay off the total amount on one card within a few months, if not sooner. If you or your spouse expects a bonus check from your employer in early 2018, use at least some amount from this check to pay down debt. Finally, start by paying off the credit card with the smallest balance. Even though this card may not have the highest interest rate, paying off the total amount on one card will provide the motivation to keep paying off the others.
Build an Emergency Fund.
Everyone should have at least three to six months of their living expenses set aside in a cash savings account. This number should be higher when you are retired, such as one to three years of spending needs, and should be coordinated with your overall investment mix. In order to accomplish this goal when you are working, set up an automatic draft from your paycheck into a separate savings account. This account can be used for emergency car and household expenses and will help avoid piling up new credit card debt on top of the existing debt from the holidays.
I personally use an online bank for my savings account. Online financial institutions often pay higher interest rates on cash and CDs than traditional brick-and-mortar institutions. Here’s another tip: Consider using different banks for your savings account and your checking account. It’s a little less tempting to access your savings account when the spending impulse strikes if it’s not at the same place as your checking account.
Increase 401(k) Retirement Plan Contributions.
The amount each person can contribute to a 401(k) retirement plan is increasing by $500 in 2018, to $18,500 for individuals under age 50 and $24,500 for people 50 and older. Everyone who is working should resolve to save an extra $500 for retirement this coming year.
If you are getting a raise going into 2018, increase your 401(k) savings rate by the amount of your raise if you are not funding your 401(k) to the maximum already. This is a discipline I have followed since receiving my first paycheck at age 22 — I kept increasing my 401(k) savings rate each year until I was able to reach the savings limit, and I’ve never looked back.
Let’s say you are getting a $5,000 raise in 2018. If you save this amount annually over the next 10 years, and at an average annual investment return of 5%, your retirement savings can be over $60,000 higher. That could buy you a shiny new car in retirement.
Rebalance Existing 401(k) and Retirement Account Investments.
In addition to adding to your retirement account, review your existing investments in January to ensure a reasonable mix of stocks and bonds. With equity markets at all-time highs, the percentage of your funds in stocks may now be higher than you planned. Over time, an investment account that is overweight in stocks can grow substantially, but during a recession or stock market downturn your balance can suffer, too.
If retirement is right around the corner for you, it’s especially important to consider the amount of stocks or stock mutual funds you are comfortable owning. Finally, while you are logged into your retirement accounts, check to see that your beneficiary designations are correct and up to date.
Review Home and Car Insurance Policies.
Over the last five years, the consumer price index for auto insurance has gone up over 20%, compared with the overall CPI of 4.5% during this period. Many insurance companies raise auto and home insurance premiums each year, and even small increases can add up over time.
I recommend sitting down with your insurance agent every three years to make certain you are taking advantage of any discounts available, and that you have proper coverage, given changing asset values. Managing risks and protecting your assets is an important part of financial planning. Also, review the deductible amount on each of your auto and home policies. This move can significantly lower premiums now. If you have an adequate emergency fund built up, you should be able to cover a higher deductible in the event of a loss.
It’s time to make New Year’s resolutions stick. Look out for your personal and financial well being this coming year. You’ll find that making small progress will empower you, and motivate you to reach your goals. And the following year you may just resolve to keep your 2018 resolutions going!