Have you ever woken up and thought, “What’s my financial plan?” If you have, you may have googled financial plan, asked a friend or relative, or even looked into hiring a financial advisor. But before you start reading the millions of articles online, asking your super knowledgeable relative that hit on a stock 20 years ago, or starting the interview process with an advisor, I’d like to share a few of the basics of financial planning.
The Basics of Financial Planning
What’s Important to You?
The buzz word in financial planning is “goals”—basically, what’s important to you. Whether you are planning for yourself or you are a couple making a financial plan, write down what is important to you. Is it buying a house, a car, traveling to Europe, or going to the bar every weekend with your friends? Before you think about where you’re at, you need to identify what is important to you so you can plan around those goals. Also, try to be realistic about your goals. If you have a goal to buy a house in one year and haven’t saved any money, it probably won’t happen. So, set realistic goals that you can obtain.
See Where You’re at
Unless you’re a numbers person, then this next part is going to be super dull. Now that you know what is important to you, establish if you’re saving or spending on your goals. The best way to figure this out is to review your latest bank and credit card statements. Look them over and see where your money is going. When I sit down with clients and review statements, it’s amazing how many don’t realize where their money is going. Just reading through a few months of statements will give you an idea of where you’re spending your money.
The next thing you need to do is break out the high school Excel skills and start plugging numbers into a budgeting spreadsheet. The first thing you should start with is your income—and more specifically—your monthly take-home pay (after taxes and other deductions). Next, list out your fixed monthly expenses like housing, utilities, car payments, and other fixed costs. List your monthly secured and unsecured debts as well. Everything will be calculated for you. Under summary, check out your disposable income. This is the money you have left over after paying expenses and debts.
If you don’t have any disposable income left over, then you have a problem. If you do spend more than you make, see what you can cut out. Can you cut the cord on cable, give up your gym membership, get a roommate, or find other ways to reduce your monthly fixed costs? Or, could you get a second job to make a few extra bucks?
Take this spreadsheet and start to look at what you can cut out. Based on the review of your recent statements, start doing some math to reduce spending. Also review your goals. Let’s say one of your goals is to take one vacation a year. Do you have a line item in your spreadsheet to save a monthly amount towards a vacation? Make sure you are saving towards your goals and removing expenses that are not important to you. Once you have a balanced budget, you can move onto the next step.
Start to Implement the Plan
I see this frequently with people I work with during financial planning. They know their goals and what they want to do, but they do not implement their goals. Start by setting SMART goals. If your goal is to save for retirement, then open an IRA and start saving for retirement. If your goal is to take that one vacation, open a separate savings account that is only for travel. If you want to save for a house, open a separate savings or investment account just for the house. It’s essential to make sure you’re taking action to reach your goals.
Review Your Plan and Make Updates
People change, and so do their goals. As you head down life’s paths, your priorities may shift and so will your financial strategy. You should review your plan at least once per year, if not at least once per quarter. It’s also important to stay engaged with your finances. There are plenty of apps and online tools to make sure you know where your money is going and to help you stay on track with your financial planning.
When you do a review, it’s okay to make changes when needed. If you’ve been saving money for a house, and then you buy one, you shouldn’t keep saving for a house; start saving for another goal. If you decide that taking big trips is too much of a hassle, but you want to get in shape, divert the money to a gym membership. Once you make those decisions, make sure you implement the changes and update your plan.
Don’t Be Afraid
As you are going through the basics of financial planning, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Financial planning can be a daunting task and can be complicated, so hiring a financial planner might be a good option. Also, many employers have financial planners as part of their benefits packages, so ask your HR representative if your company offers a financial consultation with an advisor.
Following the basics of financial planning is the first step in the right direction to having a successful financial life.
Author Bio: Adam M Hogue, MBA, CFP(R) is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER TM and Managing Partner of Ulen & Hogue financial.
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