5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Creating a Financial Plan
Certified financial planners will tell you that there are six official areas of financial planning. But reading through them just might be the best cure for insomnia. The good news?
There's an easier way to a successful financial plan that you'll be excited to follow. Instead of wading through lots of financial jargon, just make sure to ask yourself these five questions and you'll be on your way toward your goals in a hurry.
1. How much am I growing?
Much like a parent will make marks on the wall showing Junior's growth, you should do the same with your accounts. In the early days of saving and paying down debt, it's hard to stay motivated. By tracking percentages instead of dollars, you'll find yourself quickly climbing out of debt and making better savings plans.
Lesson: Overall, there are three items you should track. They are your investments and savings, your debt and your budget.
2. Where do I need to be in 12 months?
Everyone knows you need goals, but a great financial plan includes milestones toward those goals. The numbers can initially look scary, says Katie Brewer, a Dallas-based certified financial planner.
If you're looking to retire at age 65 and live on the equivalent of $50,000 per year (in today's dollars) and you're 25 years old now, Brewer calculates that you may need to save somewhere north of $1,250,000 over the next 40 years. Doesn't that sound like a lot of money? Don't pay any attention to that number. Instead, just focus on the much, much smaller amount you have to save in the next year.
Lesson: If you only focus on the short-term number you need to meet long range goals, you're more likely to save more money. You're also more likely to make the small changes that are necessary to meet some really big goals down the line.
3. Which tax shelters should I use?
Everyone pays taxes, but smart savers take advantage of shelters when they're available. By focusing on how your investments are protected, you could potentially save yourself lots of money over time.
For example, if you're in the 25 percent tax bracket, money invested in a deductible IRA or 401(k) will be saved pre-tax, allowing you to place 25 percent more money into your investments. Sure, you'll pay taxes when the money comes out, but hopefully it will have grown significantly by then.
Lesson: Use online calculators to determine if a Roth IRA (after tax money that will grow tax-free) or a deductible plan, such as an IRA or 401(k), work best for your retirement savings. Hoping to save for education or put aside money for health concerns? Investigate 529 plans for college planning and health savings accounts, or HSAs, to supplement your insurance plan.
4. How much insurance do I need?
Football fans know that a field goal scores three points when a team kicks the ball through the center of two upright posts. When you're shopping for life insurance you also "score" if you figure out two numbers: the minimum and maximum amount of life insurance you should consider.
To find the minimum amount of insurance you'll need, add up everything your heirs might need if you die. Would you want to pay for your child's college education? Pay off the house? Create a pool of funds for your family to live on?
Online calculators can help you figure out how much money your family will need without you. The sum of all of these needs tells you how many resources you need. Take a quick look at how much money you've already accumulated. If you don't have enough, you'll want to fill in any gap with insurance.
To find the maximum amount of insurance you may need, think about how much money it would take to replace your future income if you pass away. Here's how that works: If you predict that you'll earn cost-of-living raises and retire at a normal age like 62 or 65, do some quick math to determine how much in wages would your family loses without you. This number is called "human life value" by planners.
Lesson: By knowing the minimum and maximum amount of life insurance you'll need, you'll pick the right type for your situation and be more confident that your family is adequately covered if tragedy strikes.
5. What happens to my money if I can't use it all?
Writing out an estate plan is important even if you don't have many assets. By providing a clear direction when you die, you'll ensure that you don't saddle relatives with debt. You can choose who takes care of your children when you pass away. And you can iron out details like who should receive family heirlooms.
You may think you don't need an estate plan because you don't have many possessions or haven't built a portfolio yet. Think again. Everyone should have two documents related to your estate plan: a durable power of attorney and health care advocate.
A durable power of attorney names someone to take care of your financial affairs if you're not able. So, if you're in a car accident and laid up in the hospital, someone can pay your mortgage, deal with your bank account and manage your household budget. A health care advocate is the person who you name to talk to health care professionals on your behalf.
Lesson: Even if you don't have many assets, writing out your final wishes is an important part of your overall plan. Because you don't know when disaster will strike, take care of it sooner rather than later.
If you've successfully answered all of these questions, congratulations. You're on your way to meeting your financial goals. If not, take them one at a time, and you'll find that building your plan is much easier than you thought.
Joe Saul-Sehy is the co-host of the award-winning Stacking Benjamins podcast, which focuses on earning, saving and spending with a plan.