Dear Readers: If you’re like most people, you’ve made a few hare-brained money decisions in your time. That’s just being human. However, if you’re striving to get yourself on track, I suggest that you review these ten smart money management tips. This Halloween, treat yourself to a more secure financial future!
–Stick to your budget, no matter how large or small: Living beyond your means is dangerous no matter how much money you make. So even if you’re lucky enough to earn a big paycheck, it’s important to create — and stick to — a realistic budget. Use an online budget tool and make a list of your essential expenses and another list of your nice-to-haves. If your income won’t cover both, start crossing off the extras you can live without. And don’t be tempted to pull out the credit cards to cover any excess. Keeping on top of debt is an important part of smart budgeting. While you’re thinking about debt control, remember to stay on top of any student loans!
–Don’t put off saving for retirement: To me, the scariest thought of all is facing retirement without adequate resources. So put retirement savings first — before saving for a house or a child’s education. Start by contributing at least enough to your company retirement plan to capture the maximum match. Then contribute more if you can, to either your 401(k) or an IRA, putting contributions on automatic. Remember, the earlier you start, the smaller the percentage of your salary you need to sock away.
–Expect the unexpected: Unexpected expenses can land on your doorstep at any time. To protect yourself, set aside enough money to cover three to six months worth of essential expenses in an easily accessible savings or money market account or short-term CD. Retirees should try to increase this amount to cover a year’s worth of expenses.
–Know where you stand: Set up a personal net worth statement to get a clear view of your finances. List both your assets (what you own) and your liabilities (what you owe), and then subtract liabilities from assets to find out if you’re in the plus or the minus. This will give you a benchmark so you can measure your progress.
–Sharpen your investing skills: With market volatility a fact of life, it’s easy to get spooked. But don’t hide from your portfolio. Instead, take a good look at your long-term goals and feelings about risk. Are your current investments still working for you? Are you diversified enough? Remember, if one stock represents more than 20 to 25 percent of your portfolio, that’s probably too much — and you run the risk of big losses. A diversified portfolio designed for the long-term is the best way to ride out howling market storms.
–Make sure you have the right amount of health insurance: A single illness or accident could wipe out your savings unless you have adequate health insurance. If you don’t have coverage through your employer, take the time to research your best options under the Affordable Care Act to avoid the potential horrors of having to handle healthcare costs on your own.
–Create an estate plan: Not having a will that names a guardian for your minor children is a pretty frightening proposition, so make that your first estate-planning step. Beyond a will, the complexity of your estate plan will depend on your financial situation. But if you don’t put at least the basics in place — including an Advance Health Care Directive — you may be leaving your heirs with a web of difficulties.
–Maximize your Social Security benefits: Jumping the gun on Social Security benefits could cost you big time. That’s a chilling thought. On the bright side, every year you delay collecting between age 62 (the earliest you’re eligible) and age 70, your monthly benefit goes up. If you’re married, there are strategies for couples that could increase your combined benefits even more. Of course, the right time to take benefits is different for everyone — but it’s definitely worth it to look carefully at your options.
–Ask for help: The complexity of financial planning can be pretty unnerving, but no need to go at it alone. Even if you usually bravely follow your own financial path, when it comes to planning — especially retirement planning — it’s good to have a guide. Talking to a financial advisor, at least occasionally, can give you a more realistic picture of where you’re headed. Even financial professionals turn to each other for a little guidance!
–Don’t keep your family in the dark: Things are always scariest in the dark, so don’t be afraid to shed some light on your finances with your family. Talk to your spouse openly about expenses, credit and debt, savings goals and retirement. And when it comes to estate planning, make sure your adult children know what to expect.
Halloween comes once a year, but smart money management means staying on top of things year-round. Start using these tips now — and enjoy this holiday and all the holidays to come.
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER ™ is president
of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “It Pays to Talk.” You can e-mail Carrie at firstname.lastname@example.org.