With Thanksgiving in the rear view and Christmas/New Years on the horizon, it’s a busy time filled with family, friends, travel, stress, fun, and everything else that comes with holiday season.
It’s also a great chance to take stock of your financial situation, reflect on what’s gone well this year, what could be improved, and what you need to do to put yourself in the best situation possible going into next year.
But let’s face it: you don’t want to spend the holidays handling your finances. That’s no fun for anyone.
So instead of waiting until the absolute last minute, and potentially missing some important deadlines, I’d like to help you get a bit of a head start.
Here are 10 moves you can start making right now to improve your financial situation before the end of the year.
Quick note: This is an updated version of a post I published last year around this same time.
1. Review your goals and set new ones
If you set some financial goals at the beginning of the year, now is a good time to check back in on them. Ask yourself some questions, like:
- What’s gone well?
- What hasn’t gone well? Why is that?
- What are some specific steps you can take to improve going forward?
Also, make sure to dedicate some time for setting next year’s goals. Block that time off in your calendar and make it a priority.
In the end, your financial plan can only be as good as the things you want from life. Here are a couple of articles that will help you clearly define what those things are:
2. Maximize your retirement/financial independence savings
So it makes sense to take stock of how much you’ve already saved this year and whether you should be making any special moves to maximize your contributions to accounts like your 401(k), IRA, and HSA.
There are some limits and deadlines to consider here, so let’s walk through them quickly.
- 401(k) – The most you can contribute to your 401(k) in 2016 is $18,000 and you have until December 31 to do so. Reach out to your HR department if you would like to increase your contributions between now and then.
- IRA – The maximum IRA contribution for 2016 is $5,500, though there are some limits depending on your income. And while you have until April 15 of next year to make those contributions, it’s a good idea to at least have a plan in place now.
- HSA – Don’t forget about a health savings account, which is quite possibly the best investment account around! A family can contribute up to $6,750 for 2016 while an individual can contribute up to $3,350. Here’s a guide that will help you set one up: How to Find the Best Health Savings Account.
- If you’re self-employed, or even freelancing on the side, think about opening a retirement account through your business. That extra savings can be really powerful.
3. Plan next year’s savings
With both your goals and your savings still top-of-mind, you’re in prime position to make a least a rough savings plan for next year.
When it comes to financial independence, here’s a little cheat sheet you can use to set up automatic contributions that max out each of these accounts:
- 2017 annual max: $18,000
- Per paycheck (26 paychecks): $692.31
- Per paycheck (24 paychecks): $750
Traditional or Roth IRA
- 2017 annual max: $5,500
- Monthly: $458.33
- Per paycheck (26 paychecks): $211.54
- Per paycheck (24 paychecks): $229.17
Health Savings Account
- 2017 annual max: $3,400 individual / $6,750 family
- Monthly: $283.33 / $562.50
- Per paycheck (26 paychecks): $130.77 / $259.62
- Per paycheck (24 paychecks): $141.67 / $281.25
But of course financial independence shouldn’t be your only goal. Back in Step 1 you might have set goals like buying a house, traveling, building an emergency fund, switching to a single income, or starting a business.
Those shorter-term goals are just as important as the long term ones, so make sure to set aside some regular savings for those as well.
4. Optimize your employee benefits
The end of the year is open enrollment season, which means your employer will probably be sending you a big packet of information about your 2017 employee benefit options. (Open enrollment may have already ended for some of you, which would make this step irrelevant until next year).
That might sound pretty boring, and it kind of is, but it’s also a big opportunity to make sure you grab every last financial incentive available to you.
Here are a few of the things you might be able to take advantage of:
- Retirement plans – Have there been any new plans introduced? Are there any changes to the old plan? Are you taking full advantage of your employer match?
- Health insurance – Check both your options and (if applicable) your spouse’s options to make sure you’re getting the right coverage for your family’s needs. You may even be able to choose a plan that qualifies you for a health savings account!
- Dental and vision – This can be valuable coverage, especially if you know you’ll need care in the coming year.
- Health care FSA – You can contribute money to this account that you can then use tax-free for medical care. Just be cautious because this money is, in many cases at least, use it or lose it.
- Dependent care FSA – Contribute money to this account and use it tax-free for childcare. Hey, at least there’s SOME relief from this enormous cost! Though again, this money is use it or lose it so plan carefully.
- Life and disability insurance – There are pros and cons to getting this coverage through work, but at the very least it’s good to know what’s available to you so you can make an informed decision.
- Legal services – You may be able to take advantage of heavily discounted legal services, which can range from estate planning, to immigration assistance, to family law.
- Misc perks – There’s a whole range of other perks your employer might offer, such as gym membership, transportation reimbursement, education assistance, and many others. Make sure to look through all your options so you can take full advantage of everything that’s available to you.
5. Use any remaining FSA money
One of the tricky parts of a health care FSA is that the money is often use it or lose it. That is, any money that’s still in your account at the end of the year is gone forever.
So while there’s still time left, check your FSA account balance and think about how you might be able to use it before the end of the year.
Do you need new glasses? Do you have any medical care you’ve been putting off? Maybe your child could use a trip to the dentist?
See if you can find a use for this money before the end of the year so that it doesn’t go to waste.
Quick note: Not all FSA plans are 100% use it or lose it. Some offer a grace period where you’re allowed to use the money for a certain period of time after year end. Others will let you keep up to $500 for next year. Check your specific plan details to see what leeway you’re allowed here.
6. Plan for the holidays
The holidays can be a lot of fun. Time off from work. Time with family. Maybe even some traveling.
They can also be a HUGE money drain. Between gifts, food, plane tickets, hotels, and all the rest, the money you spend during the holidays can throw you way off your other goals, and potentially even leave you with a new pile of debt to handle.
And the best way to avoid all of that is to plan ahead.
Make a plan for how much you want to spend. Set a gift budget, a food budget, and a travel budget. Save ahead for the things you know are coming.
With a little bit of planning, you can do it in a way that keeps your other goals on track.
7. Rebalance your investments
I like to be pretty hands off with my investments.
But there IS a small amount of regular maintenance that helps keep things on track, and rebalancing your investments is one of those pieces.
Rebalancing is essentially this:
You chose to invest in a particular way with a particular mix of investments. This much money in stocks, that much in bonds, etc.
But over time the markets will move and that mix will naturally change. When the stock market is up, that part of your investment account will increase in value and you’ll have a bigger percentage of your money in stocks than you originally planned. The opposite is true when the stock market is down.
Rebalancing is how you bring everything back in line with your personal goals. It’s simply the process of resetting your investments back to your original plan.
Here’s more detail on what rebalancing is and how to do it: What is Rebalancing and Why is it Important?
Of course, there are also a number of investment options that automate the process of rebalancing so that you don’t have to worry about it. Here’s more on that topic: How to Beat 80% of Investors With 1% of the Effort.
8. Double-check your insurance and estate plan
Life moves fast, and as your circumstances change you may find yourself with new things to protect, or maybe even things that no longer need protection.
Which means it’s a good idea to review your insurance and estate plan from time to time to make sure it’s still covering what you need it to cover, and nothing more.
Here are three things in particular you’ll want to review:
- Life insurance – A change in circumstances, such as a new child, a new house, a windfall, a marriage, or a divorce can significantly change your need for life insurance. If you’ve been through any big changes, you can use this tool to re-evaluate your need for coverage.
- Disability insurance – If you’ve changed jobs or had a significant change in income, you may need to update your coverage to make sure you’re fully protected.
- Estate plan – The same changes that would trigger a review of life insurance should trigger a review of your will and other estate planning documents. This is simply to make sure that your family will always be cared for in the way you want.
9. Review the past year’s income and expenses
If you’ve been tracking your spending for the past year, now is a good time to look at the full year’s worth of information and ask yourself some questions:
- Do any of the numbers surprise you?
- Were there any irregular expenses you hadn’t planned for?
- Did you save for the things you wanted to save for?
- Are there any expenses that would be easy to cut?
- Do you see any opportunities to increase your income?
- Do you have room to put more money towards more enjoyable activities?
There’s nothing like looking at the cold, hard numbers to get a real sense of where your money is going, what you’re prioritizing, and what you’d like to change.
And if you haven’t been tracking your spending, now is as good a time as any to get started.
10. Record your net worth
Your net worth is your single most important financial number for the simple reason that just about every good financial move you make serves to either increase it or protect it.
And that means that tracking your net worth over time will help you gauge whether the financial moves you’re making are actually working. If your net worth is increasing, you’re making progress. If not, it might be time to re-evaluate the decisions you’re making.
So no matter what, recording your net worth now is a good idea. And if you can, compare it to your net worth at the same time last year to see how it’s changed, what worked, what didn’t, and use that information to influence your plans for the coming year.
Here’s an article that explains how to do that: The Most Important Financial Number.
What will you do to improve your financial situation?
You certainly don’t have to hit all 10 of these by the end of the year (though it would be great if you did!). That’s a lot to take on.
But as you look at this list, try to find at least 2-3 things that you can commit to handling before December 31, and maybe another 2-3 that you can commit to at the start of next year.
Remember, this isn’t about getting EVERYTHING right. It’s about making consistent forward progress one step at a time.