For many, the early weeks of a new year bring clarity and focus for what they hope to achieve. Whether it’s generally being more financially sound or saving money for a specific goal, the new year is an excellent time to get your finances aligned with your aspirations. As you plan for a new financial you, consider these five financial resolutions.
Step #1: Take Inventory of Your Entire Financial Picture
Before you do any goal setting or make changes to your finances, you have to evaluate your current financial landscape. Take an hour to list all your bank accounts, investment accounts (e.g., 401ks, IRAs, etc.), major assets like your house or real estate, and your debts (e.g., mortgages, car loans, credit cards, etc.). This can be done with pen and paper or an Excel sheet – so long as you get a full, clear picture of where you are today financially.
Step #2: Assess Your Investments…and Your Debts
When we talk about assessing your investments, that’s really getting a high-level snapshot of what’s under the hood. What mutual funds, stocks, exchange-traded funds (ETFs) do you own? What’s the breakdown of stocks vs. bonds? Before you get intimidated, most financial companies readily provide this information on your online portal or mobile app.
As for your debt, identify what loans have the highest interest rates, which almost always are credit cards (16.1% on average). The higher the rate, the more you’ll pay in interest over time – money that could otherwise go toward your future goals. Outline all your current debts, their respective interest rates, and begin prioritizing those with the highest interest rates.
Step #3: Set a Realistic Budget
Budgeting. A word many people hate, and something most Americans (55%) don’t do, according to one survey. But to understand your cash flow situation you need to gain control of your finances.
Budgeting doesn’t have to mean tracking every cent you spend. You just need to generally know what money is coming in and what is going out. For your expenses, separate “fixed” expenditures like your mortgage or rent, utilities, car payment versus flexible or discretionary expenses like restaurants, shopping, fun activities, etc. Give yourself some wiggle room, so you aren’t constantly stressing over your budget or getting discouraged if it doesn’t go exactly as planned early in the year.
Step #4: Determine Your Short-Term and Long-Term Goals
What exactly do you want to do with your money? The best financial plans have a purpose – whether that’s to save for a house, a trip or early retirement. These can be both short- and long-term goals. Think of short-term goals as being within the next three years. For instance, if you’d like to buy a home in two years, set a short-term goal to save a certain amount for a down payment.
Long-term goals, however, are at least five to seven years down the road - if not decades out. Are you hoping to retire early? Own a second property somewhere? How can you consistently and steadily build wealth to support those goals over time?
As you’re setting these goals, it’s important to prioritize those that matter most to you. This is your life, and your financial goals should reflect that.
Step #5: Check on Your Progress Along the Way
Routinely check your bank account and debts to ensure you’re sticking with your budget and working toward your savings and/or payoff goals.
Investments are different. Resist the urge to look at those every day (or even every week). Ideally, you should check on your investments no more than three to four times per year. Assuming you have a solid investment plan in place, and you’ve automated contributions to those accounts (401k contributions each paycheck, monthly contributions to IRAs, etc.), they’ll grow with little oversight.
The market is constantly going up and down throughout the year. Keeping a constant eye on it is going to give you more gray hairs than money.
Financial Planning Pitfalls to Avoid in the New Year
Just like expecting to be in fantastic shape after one workout, unrealistic expectations around your financial goals can doom your plan for the year. If you put $100 into an IRA in January, don’t expect it to double by February. Slow and steady really does win the race when it comes to building wealth. Trust that regularly contributing to a diverse range of assets will get you where you want to go.
Making too many changes
Avoid making frequent changes to your investment strategy – things like trading stocks every day or buying and selling ETFs like there’s no tomorrow. Time in the market is more fruitful than timing the market. If you have a solid investment strategy in place, you should only be making tweaks once or twice per year.
Not automating your efforts
If you’re counting on yourself to remember (or be motivated) to manually move money to savings or investments each month, you may lose steam once the excitement of the new year wears off – financial exhaustion is a real thing. Instead, focus your energy towards setting your finances on autopilot. Set up auto-payments on your loans, contributions to your IRAs, or investment accounts, then sit back and enjoy the results over the course of the year.
Remember you likely won’t change overnight. There are actions you can take now to start yourself off on the right foot, but your financial picture is a journey, and setting goals will help you see progress along the way.