Fall is upon us for at least most of the country. Of course, if you live somewhere such as Southern California or Florida then fall is only a concept or a memory. But regardless, the holidays will soon be here so that now would be a good time to give your finances a good going over. What do you need to do? Here are tips for giving your finances a good scrubbing to make sure you’re in tiptop financial shape for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
1. Prioritize your budget
First, review your budget. If you had a hard time prioritizing things, you need to review your expenses and determine which ones are fixed and non-negotiable such as rent or mortgage payments, auto loan payments and utilities. You might also add other things such as groceries and gas into this category. Add up all these expenses and subtract them from your monthly income. What you have left is what will be available for your discretionary spending such as entertainment, shopping, dining out and travel.
Next, make sure you budgeted for an emergency fund. You just never know when your car might break down, your dishwasher stops working or someone in your family suffers a major illness. You need to be prepared for these unexpected items by having an emergency fund. Most experts say that your fund should be the equivalent of six months of living expenses. If this seems too daunting try saving for at least three months worth.
Review your housing costs, as it’s possible that you might be living beyond your means. In this case, consider getting a roommate to reduce your living experiences. You can also cut expenses by carefully furnishing and maintaining your home. Buy used furniture and appliances instead of new ones. Then take the time to refurbish them yourself. You could probably solve many household maintenance issues yourself and eliminate the need to hire an expensive contractor.
Review your spending for the past few months. Did you find some problem areas? Or maybe there are areas where you budgeted more than you really needed. Adjust things accordingly. And while you’re at it, check to see how well you’ve been sticking to your budget. If you find you’ve been spending too much time tweaking it throughout the month, simplify things by creating fewer, broader categories. You’ll still be keeping your spending under control but your budget won’t take up so much of your time.
Be reasonable. Don’t try to keep a budget that is simply not doable. You need to be realistic about your budgeting just as you would with an exercise plan. If you’ve always had a problem sticking to a savings plan or are a compulsive spender, don’t expect that you will change overnight. Begin by setting some small goals so you can build the confidence to tackle bigger issues down the road. Keep in mind that budgeting is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. And above and beyond everything, understand that this doesn’t have to be about deprivation. If you follow these tips you should be able to easily have a budget you can live with and that will help you achieve financial peace of mind and without a great deal of self-sacrifice.
2. Wipe out old accounts
If you’re typical you have old unused bank accounts and dusty old checks or bank statements just sitting around somewhere. If so, now would be an excellent time to rid yourself of those checks and bank statements and close any accounts you’re not really using. If you’ve been unhappy with your bank for some reason, this would be a good time to switch. While you’re checking out those accounts, make sure to review your retirement accounts. You might find a 401(k) from a previous employer you had just forgotten about. If so, consider rolling it into your current 401(k) account so that you have only the one to deal with and can streamline your retirement savings.
3. Review your W-4
It might feel great to get a big tax return but if you got one earlier this year what you’re also doing is giving your Uncle Sam an interest free loan out of your paychecks. Get out your W-4 and take a close look at how much money you’re having withheld. You might be better off changing your withholding so that you would have more money every month instead of giving Uncle Sam that free loan. In fact, as revealed in this short video, your goal should be to end up paying no taxes and getting no refund.
4. Let go of all that paper
Whether it’s your utility bill, checking account or a student loan account, almost all of them have paperless billing options. You can cut back on those stacks of paper spilling all over your desk by choosing to get these bills electronically. This works especially well if you’re paying your bills online anyway. So, choose paperless billing wherever possible. Those piles of clutter on your desk or kitchen counter – and the environment – will all thank you.
5. Do some comparison shopping
How long has it been since you comparison shopped to see if you could get a better deal on your cable, car insurance, cell phone plan or any other monthly items? If it’s been awhile, now would be a good time to do this. It’s best to shop for better rates at least annually but even better to do it semi-annually. This will help ensure that you’re not paying too much for those services.
6. Review your insurance coverage
Has it been like forever since you reviewed your life insurance or homeowners policies? If this is the case, take some time to give them a check up. Review all of your policies to make sure that you have an adequate amount of coverage. For example, if you’ve recently had a baby or got a big raise you might want to upgrade your life insurance. The cost of building houses has risen fairly dramatically over the past five years so you might want to increase your homeowner’s insurance policy to make sure you could rebuild your house in case you suffered a total loss.
7. Make an inventory
If you have either renters or homeowner insurance you need to have an inventory of all your possessions. Then if you suffer a disaster, it will be much easier for you to replace everything. If you don’t already have a home inventory, take time to make one. The simplest thing is to take photos of your stuff, especially those big-ticket items such as your big screen HDTV and furniture. Then write down approximately what you paid for each item and be sure to start saving receipts for any new items you bring into your home.
8. Sort out your paperwork
You’ve probably managed to accumulate a whole bunch of documents that you don’t really need any more. Go through everything, find the documents you don’t really require any more and shred them. As an example of this, the federal government says that you really only need to keep your bank statements for a year. You can also get rid of your tax documents and their supporting records after seven years. So if you’re like us and have bank statements dating back to 2009, just get rid of them.
Doing all of these things might seem like a terrible chore but in fact they will probably only take you only about a day total. And just think how much simpler your life will be when you complete them. You’ll have gotten rid of all those stacks of paper that have been taking up space on your desk, you’ll be spending less on reoccurring items such as cable or your phone bill, you’ll be creating an emergency fund and will have better insurance coverage. Wouldn’t this be worth investing a Saturday?