2020 brought unprecedented uncertainty, hardship, and financial strain for many. You're not alone if the idea of digging deeper into your finances or setting a big money goal makes your breathing quicker and your palms sweat. But there’s no better time than right now to take a deep, honest look at your finances and set achievable goals.
No matter what financial goals you choose, big and small steps like these can help you regain your footing, kick-start healthy financial habits, and make a crucial difference in your future financial well-being.
1. Determine what you want from your money.
From funding a college savings account to planning a big vacation, your first step is to know what you want your money to do for you. As you plot this out, distinguish between short-, medium-, and long-term goals, recommends Christian Hutchins, CFP, AIF, senior wealth advisor at LourdMurray. Consider goals such as building retirement savings (long term), saving for a down payment (medium term), and purchasing a new computer (short term).
“My view is that a goal without a deadline is not really a goal,” says Ken Moraif, CFP, senior adviser at Money Matters in Dallas, Texas.
More than that, overarching goals, like “save more” or “spend less” are too sprawling to execute. Moraif recommends chopping down big goals into action items. “You need to create milestones and a timeline of what it takes to complete,” he says. With those nitty-gritty details in place, goals can become reality.
Getting started: For each of your goals, consider the amount of money you’ll need to accumulate, the time horizon, and the required steps to make it happen, says Moraif.
2. Make a date with your statements.
People are out of the habit of balancing checkbooks, notes Hutchins. Most of us happily ditched paper bills in favor of online banking—and that convenience can’t be beat. Still, says Hutchins, it’s a good idea to review statements to ensure that every item is something you actually bought. He encourages keeping an eye out for small incremental charges (that $0.99 charge from iTunes, for instance) that are often an easily missed sign of a hacked credit card.
Getting started: Try putting it on your calendar as a once-a-month appointment to review your credit card bill and bank statement. Rewarding yourself with a treat—an afternoon latte, for instance, or an extra-long walk through the park—can make this task less onerous.
3. Check your credit.
Most big financial moves require a loan. Think: purchasing a home or going to college. And before you can get that loan, lenders will dig into your credit report (which shows all of your loan and payment history) as well as your credit score.
Get started: Don't wait until you're in the car dealership or at an open house to check your credit. At AnnualCreditReport.com, you can request a credit report from the three reporting companies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) for free once a week. If you spot an error, follow up to get it fixed. Many credit cards and banks will share your credit score, so check to see if yours offers that perk. If not, visit CreditKarma.com to get your score for free.
4. Reduce your debt and finally pay off all credit card debt.
“Debt is absolutely the worst thing from a financial standpoint in the world,” says Moraif. It's also frustrating and overwhelming, and that, says Hutchins, can make us avoid it instead of attacking debt head-on.
Get started: Some ways of paying off debt are more efficient than others: If you have a lot of credit card debt, for instance, you should pay off the one with the highest interest rate first. And when it comes to student loans, you'll want to refinance or consolidate to reduce your interest rate, recommends Hutchins, who notes that reducing your interest rate by just 2 or 3 percent adds up to significant savings over the long term. But if the thought of doing that research feels daunting, Moraif says, pay a little bit each month. “Just the act of doing can be powerful,” he notes.
5. Sock away savings for an emergency.
“Make sure you have an emergency fund set up—typically that’s between three to six months of expenses,” says Hutchins. How much you need to save depends on your personal situation—if you have kids, if you’re the sole breadwinner, if you’re single, etc.
Getting started: This amount of money can sound overwhelming. Take it step by step—start by opening a separate savings account for your emergency fund. That way, you won’t use it for non-emergency spending. Set achievable goals for how much you’ll save each week. Then, make sure not to put this money at risk, says Hutchins. It can be tempting to use it to pay down debt, but you want your emergency fund to be available in case something unpredictable (a burst water pipe, a lost job) comes up. And, Hutchins says, don’t despair if an emergency comes up and you have to dip into your emergency savings; that’s why you have it.
6. Start—or continue—funding your retirement account.
Always make sure to put money in your retirement account—that’s especially vital if your employer offers a match, says Hutchins. “If you have a 401(k) or 403(b) through your employer, maximize that by finding out how much your employer matches,” he says.
Get started: If you don’t already have a retirement account, set one up. If you work for a company, reach out to the human resources department to see if a match is available. Always put at least the amount your employer will match—and more if possible—into the account each year to give your money ample time to grow before you retire.
7. Look for ways to spend less.
Fraud or hacked accounts aren’t the only reason to spend some time with bills and statements. If you review them, you might spot some easily reduced or eliminated recurring expense, says Hutchins. The stark black-and-white of your statement can expose that having three streaming TV services is a bit much. Or, maybe, it’ll reveal that family cell bills are high, and that bundling them together could lower the total payment.
Getting started: Review your spending regularly. As you look for fraud on bills, you can also look for ways to reduce where you spend the most, recommends Hutchins. “Tackle your weaknesses first, and that will allow you to accomplish your goal easier,” he says. In addition to looking out for daily, weekly, and monthly expenses that you could cut down, check in a couple times a year and look to reduce or eliminate repeating bills, like your cable, cell phone, and utilities.