Dear Readers: It’s that time again. And while you may have promised yourself to be smarter about your finances in 2021, we all know that New Year’s resolutions are notoriously ineffective. Despite our best intentions, the vast majority of us simply don’t follow through. So this year, instead of making an overwhelming list of things to do, I’m suggesting that you focus on a few concrete things you need to know. If you educate yourself about your finances, you’ll be laying the foundation for success.
Start the New Year by Raising Your Financial IQ
The financial world is filled with numbers and details, many of which you don’t really need to think about. I believe you can give yourself a financial boost for 2021 by just zeroing in on these 10 things—all practical information that only require simple math:
• Your net worth. Simply add up your assets and then subtract your liabilities. This will help you plan and prioritize your savings and spending.
• Your cash flow. What comes in each month? What goes out? Once you’ve double-checked your income, track your spending for 30 days. This will also help you determine which expenses are essential and how much discretionary income you have.
• How big an emergency fund you need. Everyone’s situation is different, but bad things—an illness, the loss of a job—can happen to anyone. Keep enough cash in an easily accessible account to cover three-to-six months’ essential expenses.
• How much you’re saving each month. Whatever your goal—retirement, college, the down payment on a house—be honest about what you’re regularly putting toward each. Need to save more? Add savings as a line item in your monthly budget.
• Your credit rating. Don’t guess. Most credit card companies will give you your credit score for free. If your score isn’t where you want it to be, fix it! Read this recent article for some tips that can help.
• What your debt is costing you. Interest, annual fees, and late fees all add up. Are you carrying credit card balances? Think about the interest you’re paying over time. If it’s low cost, tax-deductible and for something like a mortgage or education, debt can work for you.
• How much money you need on the day you retire. Chances are, you’ll want an income equivalent to what you had before you retired. A quick rule of thumb suggests you should save 25 times what you think you’ll need to withdraw from your portfolio the first year of retirement Are you on track? Use a retirement calculator online to help crunch the numbers and consider talking to a financial advisor.
• Your marginal and effective tax rates. To understand how much of your earnings you actually get to keep, there are two tax rates to be aware of. Your marginal tax rate is the amount of tax you pay on your last dollar of income. For example in 2016, if you’re married, filing jointly, and in the 25 percent tax bracket, you’ll pay $25 in taxes for every $100 of taxable income above $75,300 and up to $151,900. Your effective tax rate is the average rate you pay when you take all of your income into account, and is likely lower than your marginal rate.
• Your deductibles and copays for insurance. Premiums are only part of the cost of insurance. Review what you owe before your insurance kicks in, i.e., co-pays, deductibles, and out-of-pocket limits. If your current policy isn’t working for you, shop for different insurance!
• The basics of your estate plan. When was the last time you reviewed or updated the beneficiaries on things like retirement accounts and insurance policies? Do you have a basic will that names a guardian for your minor children? Have you completed an advance healthcare directive and given it to your doctor? An estate planning attorney can guide you through the process.
Now Set Yourself Up for Success
With this information in front of you, you can more easily decide what you want to accomplish or what you might want to change. Then, rather than making empty promises, focus on ways to change your behavior. Here’s to a happy and financially rewarding 2021!
Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, a certified financial planner, is president of the Charles Schwab Foundation and author of “The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty.”