Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Get on Track with a Financial Checklist

Perform a self-audit to set yourself up for the year ahead.
By Michael Kaminer

Once you've successfully filed your taxes, keep the momentum going—now's the time to audit your spending, squeeze every bit out of your benefits and create a strategy for the future. These simple tasks will help improve your finances in the year ahead.

Take Stock of Your Expenses

Analyze your spending habits and recurring costs to find out where you can save.

 Review spending. Many credit cards (including American Express and Discover), banks and Websites (like Mint.com) offer free year-end summaries, sorted by spending category (travel, say). Seeing at a glance where you overspent—and where you successfully cut back—in the past year will help you plan for the future.

·         Lower your fees. Carefully examine your bank and credit-card statements. Because of new laws limiting what banks can earn on debit-card transactions, many financial institutions have created new fees such as "activity requirements," meaning you can be charged for not using your account. Check Bankrate.com to compare account fees. And be sure to include credit unions in your search—their fees tend to be lower than those of most banks.

·         Evaluate your insurance. When your policy changes, you find yourself in an empty nest or you face a sudden health issue, you might be over- or underinsured, or simply paying too much. End the year by reviewing your life, health and homeowners coverage to ensure that the benefits and premiums make sense. Get quotes from multiple companies at Insurance.com, and ask your current carrier if it can beat the best offer. Also inquire about discounts for bundling different kinds of coverage (such as property and auto insurance). At HealthCare.gov, find and compare health plans.

Maximize Your Benefits

You work hard, so be sure to take advantage of your workplace and insurance use-it-or-lose-it benefits throughout the calendar year. 

·         Plan time off. According to a Harris Interactive survey conducted in late 2011, 57% of Americans don't take all of their vacation time. If you have unused days, take them—you've earned them. If your job is too busy now, negotiate rolling them over.

·         Empty your FSA. Participants in flexible spending accounts lose, on average, $75 each year by not draining their account, says S. Fred Green, project manager for WageWorks, which administers employee benefits. If you have money left in an FSA, use it by year's end (some companies have a grace period through March 15) by stocking up on items such as contact lens solution and diabetes supplies, and seeing specialists with high co-pays (a chiropractor, say, and a therapist). Visit SaveSmartSpendHealthy.com for a list of eligible expenses.

Plan for the Year Ahead

Avoid financial surprises in 2012 by following this advice.

·         Autosave for an emergency. If your car breaks down, even a $500 cushion will make a difference. An excellent way to be prepared is to sock away cash regularly. Open an account that you can feed with automatic payments but can't easily withdraw from.

·         Create a plan and stick to it. Use the intelligence you've gleaned from your spending habits to craft a realistic budget. Whatever your financial challenge, you can find customized solutions and smart steps to managing your money at AllYou.com. Type in "build a foolproof budget" to get started.

·         Set goals. Has it been years since you last vacationed? Committing financial goals to paper is a great way to make them real. Give each goal a page, making it as detailed as possible, including how you plan to attain it. Review your goals regularly to make sure you're taking steps in the right direction.

Adapted from the Dec. 16, 2011 issue of All You. © 2012 Time Inc. All rights reserved.

The information contained herein represents the opinions of a third party and does not necessarily represent the opinions of Susan S. Lewis Ltd or Platinum Financial and are unaffiliated with any of the entities referenced above.

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