3 steps to Fiscal Fitness this year

Do you resolve to do better with your money every year? If so, and you already feel overwhelmed, don’t feel bad – you’re not alone. I believe the reason most people aren’t happy with their money management is because of the abundance of conflicting financial advice. Saving money sounds simple enough, but deciding what to do next seems to trip us up. Follow these steps and you’ll need to find a different resolution when New Year’s Day next rolls around!

First, look at the big picture Before you start counting pennies and cutting back on your daily latte, you need to have a purpose. When you have no plan for the future, it’s really difficult to see the real value of saving today. And understanding what to do with your savings is just as important as cutting back on spending. Use this timeline as a general guide:

  1. Short-term – less than five years

This money should always be kept liquid (readily accessible). For example, if you are saving to replace your car in three years, that money should stay in a money market or savings account. If you already have the money but know you won’t spend it for a few years, don’t be tempted to risk it in the stock market. The reason? Because safety is more important than growth in the short term. Perhaps a CD timed for the date of purchase would be your best option.

  1. Mid-term – beyond five years but before retirement

Savings that will be used in this time period can be invested but not in tax-deferred retirement accounts. This is the perfect timeframe to put money in an “after-tax” account using a DIY online brokerage or a fee-only CFP®. Long term capital gains will be taxed at lower rates and you will have complete flexibility. Money in your Roth IRA can serve as an overlap because you can remove your original contributions with no tax or penalty.

  1. Long-term – retirement and beyond the grave

This is the money you put into your 401k, your IRA, mortgage payoff, etc. It also includes any bequests to others (heirs, charities) after death. This money should be invested with a long-term perspective, particularly if it’s to go to a younger generation.

Next, set goals Want to retire when you’re 60? Maybe leave an endowment to your alma mater or buy a house before you’re 30? Setting specific, realistic goals that stretch over your lifetime is the next key step. They should be written down to correspond to the above timeline. Of course, everybody’s goals and resources change over a lifetime. That’s ok – you just adjust your goals, tune up your plan, and move on. As you age, your goals will solidify and, because you’ve planned ahead, you’ll have far more clarity about your finances.

Finally, drill down to the short-term Now you’re ready to work out your budget. Divide your spending between “wants” and “needs” and determine what you really need to thrive (bare necessities, maybe even less than you’re spending currently on needs), what you need beyond that to be content (your “wants”), and, finally, the frivolity that you’d like to cut out. There are many ways to create and follow a budget and, also, many free software programs to help you along. Also read How do I start a budget? and 10 tips to help you spend less and save more.

Of course, if you really want to be a better money manager but don’t have the time or desire to do it yourself, you may simply just need to resolve to hire a fee-only CFP® as your co-planner.

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