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Every year, you get poked and prodded by your doctor to ensure you’re in good health. You should take similar care of your financial well-being with an annual checkup of essentials, such as your credit situation, retirement savings and life insurance.
No needles or latex gloves are involved. You just need to review your finances, perhaps with an advisor.
It’s not about beating yourself up over what you did wrong, but considering how to set things right, says Patricia Jennerjohn, managing partner at Focused Finances in Oakland, California. “If you make small corrections right away, you’re not going to drive off the cliff.”
Here are the nine key elements of your annual checkup.
Consider your likely spending habits and financial goals for the coming year. These questions can help:
You can’t just budget for what you expect, notes Chad Nehring, a partner at Conceptual Financial Advisors in Appleton, Wisconsin. “You’re always going to have unplanned spending, because things just happen.”
That means keeping money in an to cover things like a surprise medical bill, car repair or job loss.
Nehring recommends saving enough to cover six months of fixed expenses. “I know for a lot of people that’s a fairly lofty goal, so I’m thrilled if they can hit 90 days,” he adds.
Look at your credit card balances and other loans.
“What we want to see is, has the level of debt changed since the last financial checkup?” Nehring says. An increase could be a sign that you need to cut spending.
Check interest rates on any loans, including your mortgage and car loan. You may be able to save by refinancing.
As soon as you get your first real job, you should start planning for retirement — and that doesn’t just mean setting up your 401(k) and maxing out the employer match. Then, and every year after, you need to ensure the amount you’re saving meets your needs and goals. Advisors often recommend putting away at least 15% of your pre-tax income.
Consider your savings even if you intend to work into your 60s or 70s or beyond, Jennerjohn says. “You should be saving for the future so you have more choice over what you do as time goes by.”
Make sure your retirement portfolio has the right mix of assets. This might mean rebalancing your 401(k) or other parts of your portfolio. As you near retirement, move away from riskier, more aggressive investments, such as growth stocks, toward safer vehicles, such as bonds.
As you age, your life insurance needs change. You probably after you buy a house, make more income or have children. Later, you might need less coverage, or none at all if you’ve paid off your mortgage and your kids have finished college.
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You should also ensure that your insurance liability limits are still high enough to protect your assets, and that your homeowners policy limit is high enough to replace your home and possessions if they’re destroyed.
And get new . Your provider may no longer be offering you the best deal. If your car is old, consider dropping comprehensive and collision coverage, which may not be worth its cost because it will only pay up to as much as your car is worth.
Make sure you’re taking full advantage of tax deductions and credits for retirement and education savings, dependent care, medical expenses and charitable giving. An extra retirement contribution might mean a big reduction in your tax bill.
If you got a large tax return this year, you might want to reduce your withholding to avoid giving the government an interest-free loan. Conversely, if you owed money, you might need to boost your withholding.
Federal law requires the three nationwide credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to give you a free copy of your credit report every year. Get them at .
Check the information on your credit reports for accuracy, particularly if you’re planning a big financial move, such as applying for a mortgage. Consider requesting one of the reports every four months or so. If you find errors, notify the credit reporting company and the information provider (such as a credit card company or utility) in writing.
If you have kids, you probably want to save for their college educations. Try tax-advantaged 529 education savings plans or prepaid tuition programs. Earnings on 529 savings plans aren’t taxed if used for qualified expenses such as tuition, fees, books, and room and board. Prepaid tuition programs lock in current costs for public colleges and universities, although you can also use the money at private colleges and public schools in other states.
Marriage, divorce, deaths and changes in financial circumstances can necessitate revisiting your estate plan:
If you can stay on top of all of these elements, you’ll be in good shape.