If you’ve ever experienced financial trouble, you know how quickly it can affect your mental health. The stress that accompanies organizing bills, paying unexpected costs, and saving for the future can be debilitating — and it’s often chronic. One study found that 26% of Americans are stressed about financial challenges most or all of the time; another survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that money concerns are the top stressor of employed adults in the U.S.
Much like mental wellness, there has been an increased focus on financial health in recent times. Even with that boost, it can be hard to know where to start or how to get financially fit. The following financial planning strategy checklist can help if you — like many others — have struggledto get your finances in order.
A Financial Health Checklist
1. Establish a safety net. Part of what makes life fun is its unpredictability, but that same unpredictability can wreak havoc on your financial plan. Protect your finances by setting up an emergency fund that will allow you to bend — not break — in the event of an unexpected expense or lapse in income. For reference, your emergency fund (or “peace of mind” fund, as one of my students calls it) should be able to cover three to 12 months of expenses.
2. Get on track for future financial independence. GoBankingRates reports more than 40% of Americans have less than $10,000 in retirement savings. A good rule of thumb is to save 20 to 25 times your annual expenses for retirement. While that might sound daunting, remember that saving for retirement is a long-term goal — even small amounts can add up after many years. Start saving more today by contributing to a 401(k) or IRA.
3. Reduce your taxes. Studying some basic tax rules can help improve your financial acumen and increase your wealth. If the thought of studying makes you want to rip your hair out, consider working with a tax advisor. An advisor can help you save time and avoid undue stress by minimizing your tax liability to help you keep more of your hard-earned money.
4. Make the most of company benefits. Taking advantage of company benefits can be a tremendous boost to your savings. Many employers will match 401(k) contributions up to a set limit. It may not seem like much at first, but an extra $250 a month can add up to $300,000 over 30 years!
Other popular benefits include employer contributions to health savings accounts and special accounts that can save you money by avoiding income tax on healthcare spending and public transportation (including shared car rides).
5. Know your credit score. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on your credit score, and it’s never been easier with technology. Your score comes from three different credit bureaus — Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian — and each of them is required by federal law to offer one free report per year (you access it at annualcreditreport.com).
Websites like Credit Karma not only let you access your credit score, but also provide monitoring services that notify you of any changes.
6. Organize your records and paperwork. Fiscal planning becomes much easier when you keep adequate records. For example, anyone with an FSA must decide how much to contribute to the account at the end of the year. It’s much easier to determine that amount if you have an easily accessible, detailed record of your FSA spending from the past year.
7. Review repeating payments and subscriptions. It may not sound like much, but paying $5 here and $5 there every month adds up quickly. The first step is to review and add up your repeating payments. Once you’ve done that, keep the essential services and unsubscribe from the ones you don’t value.
8. Create aspirational and realistic budgets. Creating a budget from scratch can be difficult. Instead, track your spending for a few months — online tools like Mint can automate that process. You can then use that information to create a budget and set some goals for ways to save more. Don’t forget to track your budget to ensure your initial plan is working.
Budgets will change over time, so don’t be afraid to modify it to be more realistic about what you’re actually spending and saving. The aspirational budget can be something to reach for in the future once you get your finances in order.
9. Get healthier. Your health directly affects your finances, and your finances affect your health. In one study, people who saved for the future by contributing to a 401(k) had better blood test results and exhibited healthier behaviors than people who didn’t contribute. Help yourself avoid costly long-term medical expenses by regularly exercising, eating right, and saving.
10. Save for education. College tuition continues to rise, often outpacing other costs of living. It may seem unimportant when you’re considering how to get your finances in order, but anyone who has children may end up sharing responsibility for student loans. Prepare in advance by setting up a 529 savings plan.
This plan allows contributions to grow tax-free when used on qualified education expenses. Some states also provide a limited tax deduction on 529 contributions.
11. Educate yourself on personal finance. No financial planning strategy checklist would be complete without this step. Whether you’re opening a business, saving for retirement, or building wealth, it never hurts to learn about how to get your finances in order. Here are some educational books I recommend to get you started:
- For an overview of personal finance, check out “Making Money Simple” by Peter Lazaroff.
- For investing, read “The Intelligent Asset Allocator” by William Bernstein.
- For basic tax information, try “Taxes Made Simple” by Mike Piper.
Just as you must get into the habit of exercising or eating healthy, saving is a habit you form over time — not just a destination. Start small and focus on something you can maintain instead of taking on too much all at once. A series of small steps will eventually lead to larger accomplishments down the road.
Keep in mind that your priorities on this checklist may change over time. As long as you continue to track them, you’ll be on the path to financial success and improved mental wellness. If you need further motivation, think of the sense of peace that will come when you check something off the list.
Disclaimer: This material has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be used as investment, tax, legal, or accounting advice. All investing involves risk. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Diversification does not ensure a profit or guarantee against a loss. You should consult your own tax, legal, and accounting advisors.