It's that time again. And while you may have promised yourself to be smarter about your finances in 2017, we all know that New Year's resolutions are notoriously ineffective. Despite our best intentions, the vast majority of us simply don't follow through. So this year, instead of making an overwhelming list of things to do, I'm suggesting that you focus on a few concrete things you need to know. In other words, if you educate yourself about your finances, you'll be laying the foundation for success.
Start the New Year by raising your financial IQ
- Your net worth. Simply add up your assets (what you own), and then subtract your liabilities (what you owe). This will show you whether you're in the black or the red, so you can plan and prioritize your savings and spending. You can also use it as a measuring stick for progress throughout the year.
- Your cash flow. What comes in each month? What goes out? Once you've double-checked your income, track your spending for 30 days. This will also help you determine which expenses are essential and how much discretionary income you have. If you regularly spend more than you earn, it's time to clean up your act.
- How big an emergency fund you need. Everyone's situation is different, but bad things--an illness, the loss of a job--can happen to anyone. Ideally, keep enough cash in an easily accessible account to cover three-to-six months' essential expenses. If you're retired, it's wise to keep enough cash handy to cover a couple of years.
- How much you're saving each month. Whatever your goal--retirement, college, the down payment on a house--be honest about what you're regularly putting toward each. Need to save more? Add savings as a line item in your monthly budget.
- Your credit rating. Don't guess. Go to annualcreditreport.com for your free report. Most credit card companies will give you your credit score for free. If your score isn't where you want it to be, fix it! Read this recent article for some tips that can help.
- What your debt is costing you. Interest, annual fees, late fees--they all add up. Are you carrying credit card balances? Think about the interest you're paying over time. But realize, too, that not all debt is bad. If it's low cost, tax deductible and for something like a mortgage or education, debt can work for you. Just understand what it's costing (an online cost-of-debt calculator can help).
- How much money you need on the day you retire. Will you need $500,000? A million? Maybe more? It depends on what you plan to spend. Chances are, you'll want an income equivalent to what you had before your retired. A quick rule of thumb suggests you should save 25 times what you think you'll need to withdraw from your portfolio the first year of retirement (in other words, if you want to withdraw $40,000 a year for 30 years, you'll need to have saved $1 million). Are you on track? Again, don't guess. Use a retirement calculator to help crunch the numbers and consider talking to a financial advisor.
- Your marginal and effective tax rates. To understand how much of your earnings you actually get to keep, there are two tax rates to be aware of. Your marginal tax rate is the amount of tax you pay on your last dollar of income. For example in 2016 if you're married filing jointly and in the 25 percent tax bracket, you'll pay $25 in taxes for every $100 of taxable income above $75,300 and up to $151,900. Your effective tax rate is the average rate you pay when you take all of your income into account, and is likely lower than your marginal rate.
- Your deductibles and copays for insurance. Premiums are only part of the cost of insurance. Review what you owe before your insurance kicks in, i.e., co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket limits. If your current policy isn't working for you, shop for different insurance!
- The basics of your estate plan. When was the last time you reviewed or updated the beneficiaries on things like retirement accounts and insurance policies? Do you have a basic will that names a guardian for your minor children? Have you completed an advance healthcare directive and given it to your doctor? All good questions--and smart actions to take. An estate planning attorney can guide you through the process.
Now set yourself up for success
With this information in front of you, you can more easily decide what you want to accomplish or what you might want to change. Then, rather than making empty promises, focus on ways to change your behavior.
For example, set up technical support systems such as auto pays and calendar reminders. Another effective strategy is to find a financial buddy, whether a spouse or trusted friend, that you can talk things over with and check in with periodically on your progress. Make a mutual commitment to help each other achieve individual goals.
Then, with the right information, a solid support system and a realistic attitude, you'll be in the best position to make smart decisions not only for the New Year--but for the rest of your life. Here's to a happy and financially rewarding 2017!
Looking for answers to your retirement questions? Check out Carrie's book, "The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty: Answers to Your Most Important Money Questions."
This article originally appeared on Schwab.com. You can e-mail Carrie at firstname.lastname@example.org, or click here for additional Ask Carrie columns. This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager.
COPYRIGHT 2016 CHARLES SCHWAB & CO., INC. (MEMBER SIPC.) (#0117-S9HT)