Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®
Extension Specialist in Financial Resource Management
Rutgers Cooperative Extension
The end of one year and start of another is a great time to assess your personal finances and take action to improve your net worth and overall financial well-being. Not sure how to get started? Consider these steps:
- Plan to Play Catch Up- Make a 2019 contribution to an individual retirement account or SEP-IRA, if self-employed. There is still time. You have until the 2019 income tax filing deadline in April 2020 to do so.
- Calculate Net Worth- Add up the total of your debts and subtract it from the total of your assets. A net worth statement provides a “snapshot” of your financial situation and a benchmark to measure progress.
- Check Your Credit Report- Request one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. Check them carefully for errors and evidence of identity theft.
- Calculate Your Debt-to-Income Ratio- Divide monthly consumer debt payments (excluding a mortgage) by monthly take-home pay. If the ratio is greater than 15%, do not take on any new credit obligations.
- Review Your Insurance Coverage- Contact your insurance agent to review current and future insurance policy needs and available cost-saving strategies (e.g., policy discounts and bundling policies).
- Automate Your Investments-Arrange automatic deposits for retirement plans and mutual funds. Automation is convenient and takes the emotion out of investing. Automatic investment deposits (e.g., $50 per month) are made regardless of market conditions.
- Assess Your Investment Risk Tolerance- Make sure that your investments match your risk tolerance. A simple investment risk tolerance assessment is available online.
- Set Written Financial Goals- Write down what you want to purchase or achieve, how much it will cost, and a target date for completion. Then “do the math” to determine the amount of periodic savings needed.
- Consider Getting Help- Hire help when needed (e.g., when facing new life challenges (e.g., a divorce) or decisions (e.g., investing an inheritance)). To find names of local advisors, check the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc..
- Stay Informed- Read a personal finance magazine (e.g., Money, Kiplinger’s), view financial news programs and websites, and attend financial seminars. Never consider your financial education finished.
- Examine Your Spending Habits- Resolve to track all income and expenses for a month to see exactly where your money goes. Then identify spending “leaks” that can provide money to invest or repay debt.
- Eliminate Consumer Debt Quickly - Add money that you had been paying to a paid-off creditor to the amount due to remaining creditors. Start making extra payments first on debt with the highest interest rate.
- Increase Your Retirement Savings- Ask your employer to raise your 2020 retirement savings plan contribution. Even a small increase of 1% of pay can result in thousands of additional dollars at retirement.
- Make a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD)- If you are age 70 ½ +, 2019 RMD withdrawals must be made by December 31. For RMD instructions, see eXtension's article.
- Share the Wealth- Make year-end 2019 charitable contributions, including appreciated assets (e.g., stock) and Traditional IRA withdrawals, if age 70 ½+. Donations do not just have to be made with cash. In addition to helping a worthy cause or charity, you may receive tax benefits if you can itemize deductions.
Do not feel overwhelmed by this list. Rather, create a personal action plan that works for you and take small steps to improve your personal finances. Best wishes for a happy, healthy, and financially secure year 2020.