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Fulfilling Your Personal Finance Checklist

Sorting out your personal finances can bring you welcome mental relief and the ability to save for and focus on other life events.

If you’re lying awake at night because of money stress, you’re not alone. Forty-four percent of U.S. adults say money is the most significant source of stress in their lives, according to a 2018 study on money and emotions by Northwestern Mutual. Rising health care costs and the risk of unplanned expenses are the highest anxiety triggers.

Developing a strategy for your finances can help remove some of the uncertainty and provide you some relief. The following personal finance checklist can help you put a plan in place so you can sleep a bit more soundly.

Create your budget

A budget is a plan for how you’ll manage your money. You can create a simple budget by writing down your after-tax income (the money you get in your hands each month) and then listing out both your fixed and variable expenses.

Fixed expenses are the expenses that don’t change each month, like rent. Variable expenses are ones like gas and groceries that can fluctuate month over month.

Money left over after subtracting your expenses from your income should be devoted to your financial goals, be it paying off lingering debt, saving for emergencies, retirement or growing your child’s college fund. If you’re shell-shocked by how much you are spending in areas like eating out or other nonessentials, don’t panic. Read on.

Trim the loose ends

After creating your budget, take a look at your nonessential spending. Can you reduce your service subscriptions or cut back on extras, like buying new clothes?

Food, for instance, is a common expense that can add up over time. Typically, U.S. households spend 10% of their household income on food, with the average monthly spend coming in at $550. Of that, 40% goes toward eating out. While everyone enjoys (and even deserves) a good night out sometimes, consider the costs before making your reservation.  The national average spend per person at a restaurant is a whopping $36.40, according to the 2018 National Dining Trends survey by Zagat.

Luckily, there are ways to save money on food regardless of whether your eat at home or in a restaurant, but cutting down on eating out can easily help you rein in your discretionary spending.

Don’t forget to shop around every year to uncover the best deals for services like wireless, cable and internet. If you’re stuck in a contract but find a better deal, use that as leverage to negotiate a lower price with your current providers. The savings you find from cutting your spending can boost the amount of cash you have left over to put toward your financial goals.

Compare insurance policies

We mentioned it before, but fear of a disaster or an emergency are the most common sources of financial anxiety. However, staying prepared for the unexpected can help you reduce your fear of the unknown. The first step is beefing up your emergency savings fund, but the next step is checking your insurance coverage.

Review your insurance policies — be it auto, home or health — to make sure you understand what your coverage will be in different scenarios. An awareness of how you’re protected (and how your loved ones are protected if you happen to pass) can offer some peace of mind.

Looking for new coverage? Don’t forget to shop around with multiple providers to compare prices for different levels and types of insurance. Insurance quotes can vary significantly from insurer to insurer for the same coverage. In Houston, Texas for example, where the average home insurance policy costs residents $2,871 annually, there is a $2,686 variance between some providers. Insurance coverage costs can vary depending on your age, location and the provider you choose. Look for an affordable option, but also one that offers sufficient protection.

Automate everything

One of the best ways to reduce financial stress is automation. Automating every aspect of your money plan makes it possible for you to sit back while your bills get paid and your savings account grows.

Sign up for direct deposit from your employer so your check goes directly into the account of your choosing. You may even be able to set it up so percentages of your paycheck get deposited into different accounts. Funds that skip your checking account and end up directly in your savings are less likely to get spent on spontaneous purchases.

If you can’t split your paycheck, set up automatic transfers to your savings account from your checking account. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to set up automatic bill payments, debt payments and investment contributions. This way, you’ll never have to pay a fee for a missed bill, and you won’t have to worry about the urge to spend money before you save or invest it.  

Put your savings to work

The common rule of thumb is to have at least three to six months’ worth of expenses in savings in case of an emergency. Self-employed workers with inconsistent income may want to stash away a bit more to cover any gaps. The best place to store this cash is in a low-risk account (like a savings account) that is easy to access. But don’t just let it sit there. Earn interest on that money by storing it in a high-yield savings account.

In addition to saving for a rainy day, long-term investing should be part of your financial future. Investing in employer-sponsored retirement plans and IRAs can grow your nest egg exponentially, so make an appointment with your human resources department to review the options available to you.

A financial advisor can help you develop your long-term investment and retirement strategy, but if you’re not ready to hire a third party, you can always check out robo-advisors, like Betterment or WealthFront, that auto-invest for you.

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