Spring – just the mention of the word puts a slight smile on my face. Financial review – now those words can channel a dramatically different expression. Spring has always been a great time to clean out the old and start fresh after a long winter. This renewal should extend to your financial practices as well. It is the optimal time to review your finances to ensure you are on the right track for rest of the year. Here is my Spring Financial Checklist to help keep you smiling all season long.
Review & Refine your Budget
When you start budgeting for the year it is important to look at the big picture, not just individual spending categories. As you review your monthly spending habits, factor in debt payments, savings and retirement contributions as part of your overall plan. Successful budgeting is the key to financial success and having the right tools can make it much easier. If you are not using software to manage your money then it’s time to download Mint. The site allows you to categorize your spending by pulling in all of your registered accounts. Use the app to monitor your purchases and make sure you are on track. Seeing where your money goes can help you analyze your expenditures to cut unnecessary costs.
Establish or Tune Up that Emergency Fund
It’s time to review your monthly savings contribution and determine if you are putting away enough money to cover those unforeseen circumstances. For your emergency fund, ideally you’ll want to set aside funds that are easily accessible and could cover at least six months worth of expenses. A high yield savings account from American Express, my personal choice, will keep your money making money for you. Once you have your emergency plan secure, if you have not done so already, now is an excellent time to open a separate account to put money away for your next vacation or just to cover life’s little hiccups. If you want to start small, automate your savings with Digit, a free service that connects to your checking account, analyzes your spending and transfers small amounts of money into a savings account for you.
Review Your Monthly Bills.
Spring is a great time to delve into your bills and see if there are additional savings that you can take advantage of. You might start by reviewing your cell phone bill to see if you can reduce your monthly charges by changing your plan or even switching providers. Consider cutting your cable bill or even canceling that gym membership you don’t use. There are a lot ways you can save money in your everyday life, check out my 20 Ways to Save, for more helpful tips.
Automate Debt Payments
As part of your budget, you should calculate how much money you want to allocate towards paying down your debt. Once you determine a payoff plan, take it one step further and automate these payments by having them deducted from your checking account each month. This way you can set it up and forget about it. If it will take you 6 months to pay off your debt with the highest interest, on the 7th month have those funds automatically going to the next bill you want to pay off. And, let me reiterate my philosophy from previous posts, stop using your credit cards if you’re not paying them off every month. For help paying down your debt, read my Get Out of Debt post.
Download your statements
I just had a conversation with a friend about her credit card bills. Even though she is making payments every month, she had not reviewed her statements to see how much interest she was being charged. The rate made my jaw drop! Take the time to download your statements and review them thoroughly. If you have a high interest rate on your credit card, call the company to see if you qualify for a lower one. If they won’t apply a lower rate to your current balance, consider utilizing a low rate balance transfer offer from another card.
Get your credit report
If you have not done so within the last 12 months go to annualcreditreport.com and request a free credit report from, Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. You should pull your credit report once a year and review it for accuracy. If you find any discrepancies, you can submit a dispute online. Negative aspects to your report can affect your credit score which impacts your interest rates, especially when you are applying for a mortgage. For more information on what may be affecting your score, pull your credit score at Freecreditscore.com and check out my post here.
Cash in on your rewards
After all that holiday travel and spending, you might have racked up some serious rewards on your credit cards. Take time to review your reward statement so you can take advantage of these benefits. Your points may be converted to cash or used for a payment on your card. You may be able to turn your rewards into gift cards, which can come in handy for yourself or use them as presents for a friend who may be having an upcoming wedding or baby shower.
Make Contributions to your Retirement Plan
If you have not set up your monthly retirement contributions, determine your capacity for it in your budget. Assuming your IRA was opened by Dec. 31, 2014, you have until the tax filing deadline–April 15, 2015–to make a 2014 contribution. If your company offers to match your contribution, be sure you are taking advantage of this free money. The 2015 limits for a 401K or 403B is $18,000 and for IRA’s it is $5,500. If you’re self-employed, consider opening a SEP IRA or a similar small business retirement plan, the contribution limits vary depending on your income, see chart. If you are paying high interest (over 15%)on your credit cards, it may be beneficial to get that under control before directing funds to your retirement.
Rebalance Your Portfolio
New seasons also bring changes the stock market. You may want to make some changes yourself in anticipation, or after 1st quarter earnings are announced. Decide if you are becoming too weighted toward one asset class or region as market movements may have thrown off your allocation. Check to see if your portfolio still reflects your goals and feelings about risk. If not, bring it back to your target by selling down your over-weighed asset classes and buying more in under-weighted classes. You also want to keep your portfolio diversified between domestic and international holdings.
Seek the Help of a Trusted Financial Advisor
Now may time to ask yourself: Do I need a financial planner? You might be wondering how long it’s going to take to pay off your debt, or how to best allocate your 401k, or even if a 401k is the best place for you to be saving. Many people feel a lack of clarity over the connection between what they do now, and how that translates into their imagined (desired) future. A financial planner can answer any and all of these questions for you and more! Seek a referral from a friend or someone whom you value their advice to see if they have a trusted advisor they can recommend. It could be the best decision you make all year.
I hope you find that you are able to implement these steps without having to do a lot of research or make a commitment to huge financial change. Like so many other things in life, small, gradual steps are the key to staying on top of your finances.
Did you find these tips helpful? Do you have any additional recommendations for my readers?