Personal finance is not just something to think about now and then, such as when you review your bank statement. It affects your life on a daily basis. Below are five critical categories of personal finance. Ask yourself how well prepared you are in each and how you might do better.
1. Credit and debt
If you have significant credit card debt, you need to pay it down pronto. Fortunately, it can be done. One good strategy is tackling your highest-interest-rate debt first. Switching to paying for most things with cash instead of credit cards can also help by reining in spending.
Beyond that, you need to strive for a spotless credit report and strong credit score. Check your credit report regularly and for free, have errors fixed, and build a high score. While access to your credit report has been free for quite a while, peeking at your credit score is harder to do. That's changing lately, though; Discover credit cards, for one, now include FICO credit scores on monthly statements. Healthy credit is a key aspect of personal finance.
Yes, you might have home insurance, car insurance, and health insurance, but how about life insurance if anyone relies on your income? How about renter's insurance if you rent your home? This personal finance category also includes umbrella insurance that offers excess liability protection, which insures you against lawsuits. Disability insurance can protect your income stream in case you become unable to work. Long-term care insurance can support you if you need to be cared for at home or in an assisted-living facility for a while. It's well worth exploring, as you're more likely to need it than you might expect, and buying it while you're relatively young can save you a lot of money.
3. Real estate
This personal finance category includes buying a home, owning and maintaining one, and selling it at some point. To do well in this category, you need to maintain a strong credit rating and qualify for a low-interest-rate mortgage. You might opt for a 15-year mortgage to build equity faster and ultimately pay far less in interest. You need to take good care of your home but should think twice before embarking on expensive remodelings that might not let you recoup most of their cost
It's also smart to consider refinancing your mortgage at some point. Conventional wisdom suggests that it's smart to do so when you can snag an interest rate about 1 percentage point lower than your current one. That's not enough of a reason, though; be sure that you plan to stay in the home long enough for the savings to outweigh the closing costs.
Smart taxpayers make smart tax decisions all year long, such as offsetting capital gains with capital losses and aiming to hold appreciated stocks for at least a year in order to pay the lower long-term capital gains tax rate. While this doesn't always work out, and sometimes you need to sell sooner than planned, you can save yourself money over the long term by reducing your tax bill when possible.
Here's another tip that not enough people take advantage of: Set up and use a flexible spending account throughout the year. It lets you put aside pre-tax dollars to pay for qualified health care expenses, giving you the chance to have part of your income bypass taxation.
5. Estate planning
This is another critical area of personal finance. Your estate plan might include a will, a durable power of attorney, a living will, advance medical directives, beneficiary designations on financial accounts, and possibly a trust. Don't assume you have everything covered with just a will, as you might be able to save your loved ones a lot of headaches, heartaches, and money with some more planning and preparation. A living, or revocable, trust, for example, can let you avoid the sometimes long and costly (and public) probate process by directing how your property is to be handled before and after your death.
There's a lot more to learn about each of these personal finance topics. Spend a little time on them, and you may find that they're not so boring, and the prospect of saving a lot of money (and being able to spend it now or in retirement) is exciting. And if you need help, don't be afraid to consult a financial professional. They come with a cost, but they can more than make up for that in the savings they help you achieve.
Longtime Fool specialist Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitter, has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.