As many people are in a state of confusion regarding the markets and their 401(k)s, or not even opening their investment statements, it is hard to know where to start or discern from all the choices. After working with hundreds of people in helping them organize their financial life, I have found that having a checklist can guide and motivate you towards living a financially healthy life. You can’t afford NOT to check off at least a few of the selections!
1) Am I saving enough? Estimating what you will need at retirement and how much you must invest every year to get there is crucial.
2) Save automatically. Start saving automatically on a monthly basis. Take it directly out of your checking account and put it into a money market or mutual fund. You can do this with as little as $25 per month.
3) Are my debt and spending levels under control? If you lost your job or had an emergency, would you be able to handle it financially? On a more positive note, if you wanted to take a sunny beach vacation in the doldrums of this upcoming winter, can you pay for it—without going into debt?
4) Increase by just 1%. If you aren’t maximizing your contributions to your 401(k), increase your contributions by just 1% until the next checkup. Maybe you think you can’t afford it, but you won’t even notice that money missing from your paycheck.
5) Roth or not to roth? Open an IRA or ROTH IRA or contribute to an existing one. Why wait until December 31? You can open one up for just $333 per month and put in a maximum of $4,000 for this year. You have to make less than $99,000 as a single or $160,000 as a couple to contribute to a ROTH IRA. If you make more than that, then open a traditional IRA.
6) Sock away more at work. The new tax laws also raised the maximum you can contribute to your 401(k), 403-b, SEP, SIMPLE IRA and KEOGH
7) Fund a 529 plan. If you have children, this plan lets you contribute as much as $60,000 over five years. The assets grow on a tax-deferred basis and you pay no federal taxes when the money is withdrawn to pay for qualified higher education expenses (tuition, room and board, etc.). Each state has its own plan, with individual money managers. You can pick any state’s plan but only your own state will offer a state tax exemption when the money is withdrawn, depending on the state. Some states even have a state tax deduction on current contributions (up to a certain amount). Check out www.savingforcollege.com, an excellent web site for 529 plans.
8) Paying too much in taxes this year? You might want to consider index funds as part of your portfolio. They offer much lower expense ratios and are known for their tax efficiency. Moreover, these passively managed funds are as competitive in returns as actively managed funds.
9) Examine my insurance policies.
- If you have children or dependents, do you have life insurance? Also, if you are gettingmarried and do not have any children (but are thinking about having them), now is the time to buy life insurance while it is still relatively inexpensive.
- If you are self-employed, do you have health insurance? If so, are you paying the most competitive rates? Check out www.ehealthinsurance.com.
- Have you considered long-term care insurance? You probably don’t need as much as your insurance agent suggests but most people will not have enough saved to pay for nursing home or home health care. Some ways to cut the costs of a long-term care insurance policy is to buy it when you are young and healthy and to buy a policy that wouldn’t start paying until a year after you were deemed eligible.
10) Have I looked at all my retirement accounts recently? If you are like many of my clients, you probably have an old 401(k) from a previous job, an IRA at a separate institution and a current 401(k) or SEP IRA. You probably have many mutual funds doing the same thing or mutual funds overlapping in holdings. This financial house needs some cleaning and organizing!
11) Do I know when to sell my investments? Are many ways to evaluate an investment that you should no longer keep. Here are a few guidelines for mutual funds and stocks.
- Check out the relative performance of your mutual fund. If it is consistently (past three years) under-performing other funds in it’s category or it’s index, it might be time to reconsider.
- Look at your stocks and decide whether you would buy them today. If not, unload and switch into others you feel have better futures. Earnings are the driver of stock prices so this is the best place to start. Check out www.smartmoney.com.
12) Do I have a will? When I mention this to clients, I get two reactions: “I don’t have enough saved to need a will” or “I have been meaning to do this but … ” Well, if you have any assets (there is no minimum), you should have a will. And, it should be an item on your immediate to-do list. Period.
(Copyright Down-to-Earth Finance LLC 2007)