Financial planning. Woof. It sounds like a lot work. You know, the kind of thing you’d probably rather punt down the road as something for your future self to deal with.
But just like any other goals, if you want to actually reach your financial goals, you do need a game plan and discipline. It’s no easier to add zeroes than drop pounds. And your bank account isn’t going to fill up on hopes and wishes.
Getting your finances in shape may seem intimidating, but it really doesn’t have to be. A few helpful budgeting basics can go a long way. This five-part, one-afternoon checklist can get you headed in the right direction. So you can start to develop smarter money management and spending habits.
Check your official credit report. And schedule reminders for later.
Once a year, you can download your official credit reports produced by the three credit reporting agencies for free. To avoid paying a fee, download one bureau’s report first, then schedule reminders to access the other two at a later date. Staggering out your official reports can give you a look at your credit report every four months a year. If you find any funny business or false information, such as accounts you didn’t open or incorrect payment statuses, report the problem immediately.
Set up an online bookkeeping system to get organized.
This will help you get an overview of your net worth — what you own, minus what you owe. You can see your account balances, savings, investments, and outstanding debt, all in one easy place. And it only takes a few minutes to get started. One of the most popular free tools is Mint.com, which offers access to free credit scores and pushes out budget alerts and bill reminders. You may have to spend some time digging around for account numbers and passwords to various loans and accounts in order to have all this information in one place, but in return, you'll have a better handle on your finances. To top it off, Mint will analyze thousands of checking, savings, credit card, CD, and IRA rollover offers, then make recommendations that could help you save money based on your lifestyle and goals (aka, how they make money). If Mint isn’t for you, alternatives include Personal Capital, You Need A Budget and Pocketsmith.
Clean up your budget and take a look at your spending habits.
With your online system ready and roaring to go, you can easily build a monthly plan based on past spending habits. Try to make a few cuts in places where you can stand to spend less. There's no need to give up the fun stuff — just set some limits. Also, take a look at your subscriptions and recurring payments. Do you see any overlap? Are you still using everything you’re subscribed for? Plus, look for unnecessary fees (like ATM fees) that you can easily avoid with a little planning ahead.
Clean up your financial clutter. Literally.
There is never going to be a perfect time to go through the piles of documents you’ve been shoving in drawers and on shelves. You have to make the time. If the thought of mistakenly throwing away something you need later on terrifies you, (deep breath) don’t stress. It’s true, there are some documents that are very important to keep on hand (think: birth certificates, marriage records, and social security cards), but most of our most important financial documents are digitized these days. So when you are having a hard time closing your junk drawer because your outdated credit card statements and electric bills are busting out, it’s time to start shredding (after verifying with IRS guidelines, of course).
Find your sources of financial planning inspiration.
If you start to get bogged down in your full-afternoon journey to financial preparedness, that’s where #inspo comes in. Break up your afternoon by browsing the web for money advice and information. And no, we aren’t suggesting blogs that offer “make coffee at home” as a means to complete financial freedom. We’re talking about first-hand accounts from non-experts who have found themselves realistic solutions to daily money conundrums. After all, money management should be practical. Not theoretical. You might be pleasantly surprised how hearing real life stories can inspire you to stick to a plan in your own life.
There are a number of subreddits and private Facebook groups dedicated to personal finance. Think of them as online communities that offer support and guidance on a hyper-personal level.
Clear finances are the start to a healthy financial life.
It’s important to know where your finances stand. That’s the first step to financial wellness. And it can be a major relief for your stress and anxiety. The wondering, worrying, and avoiding only create more problems and cloud the picture.
Set aside one afternoon, make the time, and get organized. You won’t regret it (unlike a few of the purchases you might remember in the process).