You change the oil in your car when the red light reminder comes on and get diligent about flossing when the dentist mails the reminder to make an appointment for your six-month checkup. So consider this article a cue to get ready for your mid-year money review.
With six months of earning, saving, and spending under your belt, you've got plenty of data to project how 2010 is going to play out. So let's lift the hood on your finances and give everything a good onceover.
Your 7-step tune-up agenda
The goal of this six-month checkup is to identify potential trouble spots before they become big money gushers. Use this checklist to methodically review each area of your financial empire. Beneath each step note any lingering "to-dos" (e.g., "Contribute to Roth IRA"). If you cannot complete those items during your financial physical, set a deadline for completion. For added incentive, come up with a reward to enjoy at completion.
Step 1 - Update your personal balance sheet (what you own and what you owe): This will take about 15 to 20 minutes. Simply record the balances of the following items: checking/savings accounts; brokerage accounts; retirement accounts; home equity; short-term debt (credit cards, student/auto loans); and long-term debt (mortgage). Note what direction your money's going (up, down, haywire). If this is your first review, you now have a baseline for your next checkup.
Step 2 - Give your W-4 the once-over: If you earn a steady paycheck (meaning one not dependent on bonuses or fluctuating earnings month-to-month), this is your chance to stop overpaying Uncle Sam -- any more than you already are, that is. If you got a tax refund last year of more than $1,000 and have made no adjustments to your W-4, and if you don't anticipate any major life changes, adjust the number of withholding allowances.
Head to IRS.gov's withholding calculator. (You'll need your most recent pay stub and last year's income tax return.) To avoid underpayment penalties, shoot for the number of allowances that satisfies 100% to 110% of the taxes you owed for the prior year.
Step 3 - Check the vitals on your savings goals: If you have formal saving/spending goals in place, map out the progress you've made in the past six months and make adjustments if you need to. If you don't have goals already, take 15 minutes to compose your short-, mid-, and long-term goals. (Use our "Set Spending Priorities" worksheet (.pdf file) from the "How to Set Up a Spending Plan" guide.)
Step 4 - Review your at-work benefits: Check your contribution balances on your at-work savings plan, such as your 401(k) or 403(b), or any profit sharing. At the rate you're going, will you max it out before the first strain of "Auld Lang Syne"? The 2010 contribution limits for most folks are $16,500, not including any matching contributions your boss kicks in. If you're 50 or older, your contribution limit is $22,000.
If you signed up for a flexible spending account at work for medical and/or dependent care, gather those bills and fill out the reimbursement forms. Then project the next six months of spending with what remains so that you're sure to drain the account, since some plans don't allow carry-forwards on unspent money.
Step 5 - Max-out your self-directed investments: It's also time to think about that IRA. If you haven't devoted any money to it yet, start automating this pay-yourself-big-time-in-the-future account and put it out of your mind. You have until the tax due date next April to fund your account. The maximum contribution limit for 2010 is $5,000 ($6,000 if you're 50 or older). Even if you can't squirrel away that much cash for the next six months, sock away something. Trust me; you'll thank me in retirement.
Also, evaluate your portfolio's holdings (a great excuse to set up online tracking if you haven't already) and reassess each position using what investing luminary Peter Lynch calls the "two-minute drill" -- that is, the reasons you bought shares in the business and any red flags on the fundamentals.
Step 6 - Double-check the locks on your identity: Make sure nothing fishy's going on in your credit report. You're entitled to a free credit report each year from all three major credit reporting bureaus. Go to annualcreditreport.com to get your freebie. (Follow these tips for keeping the bad guys out of your business.) And if you've got financing plans on the horizon, don't wait until the last minute to clean up your credit profile. Give yourself at least three to six months. (Here's a 60-second guide to help you boost your credit score.)
Step 7 - Make the next six months matter: There's a lot you can do right now to improve your future. Put each action step on a calendar (in pen!) and vow to complete each item in the next month. Six months from now you'll be pleasantly surprised at the progress you've made.
There's extra money hiding in plain sight if you only know where to look. Here are a few hints: