Financial advice is easy to come by, but often hard to follow.
Save for retirement! Make sure you have an emergency fund! Start a college fund while your kids are still in diapers! It all sounds great, but in reality, it's often very hard to juggle paying the bills today and planning for the future. For many people, Jill Schlesinger notes at Money, the task "is so daunting that they simply blow it off" and wing it.
That's why it's wise to step back, tune out the noise, and put everything on the table. Consider all aspects of your financial health, now and into the future, at one time. Then you can draw up a financial plan that takes into account the main things you want and need, now and down the road.
Beyond the basic household budget, you might know you'll have to shell out for a computer upgrade, a down payment on a house, a kid's education, and eventually retirement. Write a plan that will help you get on track to make it all happen based on what you earn, and what you expect to earn and spend later.
A recent survey found that only 24 percent of the 1,000 respondents had a written financial plan, while another 40 percent had a plan, but not in writing. That left 36 percent with no financial plan at all. So where does that group start?
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, a leading financial literacy advocate, writes reassuringly at HuffPost that "a financial plan only needs to be as complex as your finances." She lays out three simple steps to getting it done.
First, Schwab-Pomerantz says, spell out your short-, medium-, and long-term goals, and how you see reaching them. In my household, for example, the breakdown goes like this: Short-term includes a vacation fund; mid-term is college money for two kids, one in middle school and one in elementary school; long-term is retirement. Other examples of likely high priorities include paying off debt, such as credit cards or student loans.
The plan to reach these goals can be as simple as setting up automatic transfers from checking to savings every week or month, putting whatever you can, based on your earnings and spending needs, into accounts designated for each goal. Design the contributions to get you to the total you'll need, when you'll need it (and brace for the cuts you'll have to make to other spending to get it done). Or, maybe you plan to move to a smaller house when college starts, using money left over from the sale of the bigger family home to help pay tuition, while preparing for retirement with 401(k) contributions and long-term care insurance payments.
Second, Schwab-Pomerantz says, is to figure out your net worth, to give you a benchmark to measure your progress. It's not too hard to do. Just add up the money in your bank and investment accounts, the value of your home, business, vehicles, and other personal property. Then subtract everything you owe, such as your mortgage principal, car and student loans, credit card debt, etc. If the number is positive, you're on your way. If not, Schwab-Pomerantz notes, "one of your top goals should be to reprioritize spending so that you can reduce debt. Decide where you can cut back. Entertainment? Transportation? Extras like gym fees?" Getting that priority on paper can help get you going.
For many people, just getting that far is a good start, especially at a young age when life is usually not overly complicated. The process is straightforward enough that you can try doing it on your own. Schlesinger says at Money that any "three-minute financial plan" should focus on "the three pillars of planning success" — paying down debt (consumer, then student loans); establishing an emergency reserve (at least six months before retirement, 12 months after); and maxing out retirement contributions.
Schwab-Pomerantz's third step kicks in when personal finances get a little more complex, once you have a family, a house, and maybe your own business. Then you might want to hire a Certified Professional Planner to help make sure you've properly diversified your investments, bought all the right types and amounts of insurance coverage, and looked even farther down the road, planning your estate, with a will designating child custody, beneficiaries, etc.
I went through the process of writing out a financial plan with a financial expert, and it was an eye-opening and worthwhile experience. We covered all three of these steps, in a way similar to the steps Schwab-Pomerantz describes. It helped me see where we needed to increase our contributions, and where we were on track. Then we tweaked some automatic contributions, identified some expenses to cut, and moved on, with some much appreciated peace of mind.
As Scott Spann puts it at Forbes: "Financial life planning encourages smart financial decision making. Taking a more integrated approach to managing wealth and money adds meaning to the entire process. Otherwise, the pursuit of 'financial freedom,' whatever that term may mean to you, could end up being a fruitless endeavor."