Every year, you get poked and prodded by your doctor to ensure you're in good health. You should take similar care of your financial well-being with an annual checkup of essentials, such as your credit situation, retirement savings and life insurance.
No needles or latex gloves are involved. You just need to review your finances, perhaps with an advisor.
It's not about beating yourself up over what you did wrong, but considering how to set things right, says Patricia Jennerjohn, managing partner at Focused Finances in Oakland, California. "If you make small corrections right away, you're not going to drive off the cliff."
Here are the nine key elements of your annual checkup.
1. Make a budget
Consider your likely spending habits and financial goals for the coming year. These questions can help:
- Does your income cover expenses, with enough left over for savings, or do you need to scale back spending?
- Do you need to save up for an anticipated expense, such as home maintenance or a new car?
- Do you want to save for a vacation or other indulgence?
2. Give your emergency fund a once-over
You can't just budget for what you expect, notes Chad Nehring, a partner at Conceptual Financial Advisors in Appleton, Wisconsin. "You're always going to have unplanned spending, because things just happen."
That means keeping money in reserve for emergencies, such as a job loss or surprise medical bill.
Nehring recommends saving enough to cover six months of fixed expenses. "I know for a lot of people that's a fairly lofty goal, so I'm thrilled if they can hit 90 days," he adds.
3. Review your debt
Look at your credit card balances and other loans.
"What we want to see is, has the level of debt changed since the last financial checkup?" Nehring says. An increase could be a sign that you need to cut spending.
Check interest rates on any loans, including your mortgage and car loan. You may be able to save by refinancing. You can find the latest mortgage rates at NerdWallet.
4. Analyze your retirement funds
As soon as you get your first real job, you should start planning for retirement -- and that doesn't just mean setting up your 401(k) and maxing out the employer match. Then, and every year after, you need to ensure the amount you're saving meets your needs and goals. Advisors often recommend putting away at least 15% of your pre-tax income.
Consider your savings even if you intend to work into your 60s or 70s or beyond, Jennerjohn says. "You should be saving for the future so you have more choice over what you do as time goes by."
Make sure your retirement portfolio has the right mix of assets. This might mean rebalancing your 401(k) or other parts of your portfolio. As you near retirement, move away from riskier, more aggressive investments, such as growth stocks, toward safer vehicles, such as bonds.
5. Evaluate insurance coverage
As you age, your life insurance needs change. You might need to boost coverage after you buy a house, get a raise or have children. Later, you might need less coverage, or none at all if you've paid off your mortgage and your kids have finished college. Check out our tips to determine how much life insurance you need.
[Life insurance quotes are available through NerdWallet's Life Insurance Comparison Tool.]
You should also ensure that your insurance liability limits are still high enough to protect your assets, and that your homeowners policy limit is high enough to replace your home and possessions if they're destroyed.
And get new car insurance quotes. Your provider may no longer be offering you the best deal. If your car is old, consider dropping comprehensive and collision coverage, which may not be worth its cost because it will only pay up to as much as your car is worth.
6. Optimize your taxes
Make sure you're taking full advantage of tax deductions and credits for retirement and education savings, dependent care, medical expenses and charitable giving. An extra retirement contribution might mean a big reduction in your tax bill.
If you got a large tax return this year, you might want to reduce your withholding to avoid giving the government an interest-free loan. Conversely, if you owed money, you might need to boost your withholding.
7. Request free credit reports
Federal law requires the three nationwide credit reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- to give you a free copy of your credit report every year. Get them at AnnualCreditReport.com.
Check the information on your credit reports for accuracy, particularly if you're planning a big financial move, such as applying for a mortgage. Consider requesting one of the reports every four months or so. If you find errors, notify the credit reporting company and the information provider (such as a credit card company or utility) in writing.
8. Start a college fund
If you have kids, you probably want to save for their college educations. Try tax-advantaged 529 education savings plans or prepaid tuition programs. Earnings on 529 savings plans aren't taxed if used for qualified expenses such as tuition, fees, books, and room and board. Prepaid tuition programs lock in current costs for public colleges and universities, although you can also use the money at private colleges and public schools in other states.
9. Plan for the end
Marriage, divorce, deaths and changes in financial circumstances can necessitate revisiting your estate plan:
- Does your will account for everything it should and conform to your wishes?
- Have you designated the right people to be executor of your will and to hold power of attorney, in case you become incapacitated?
- Do you need to update the beneficiaries of your retirement plans and life insurance policies?
- Do you need to make changes to trusts you may have created for family members?
- Do your health directives -- such as a living will that spells out medical measures you want taken, or not, in specific situations -- still reflect your desires?
If you can stay on top of all of these elements, you'll be in good shape. Looking for expert help? You'll find it in NerdWallet's advisor network.
Aubrey Cohen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @aubreycohen.
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