When it comes to personal finance, many people just ignore it entirely, putting their futures at great risk. Others tend to some personal finance issues and feel pleased with themselves, but it's probably not enough. Don't be someone who ends up having a rude awakening come retirement. Or someone who's simply leaving a lot of money on the table needlessly.
Here's a quick checklist of eight critical personal finance categories, offering links to resources or more information for each.
You probably have auto insurance and home insurance. But are you doing without life insurance? Not everyone needs it, but if anyone is depending on your income, such as children, a spouse, or even your parents, you probably do want to carry some. You won't necessarily need it for all of your life -- just for the period when your financial support is needed by others. There are lots of useful forms of insurance to consider, such as disability insurance, long-term-care insurance, and renter's insurance if you don't own your home but have valuables to protect.
You might also take some time to read up on car and home insurance, to be sure you're sufficiently covered by a good policy. (For example, some people don't realize that their home insurance policy won't pay them enough to fully rebuild their home in the event of a catastrophe.) Those without health insurance or with unsatisfactory policies can keep an eye out for upcoming insurance options via Obamacare.
Another critical personal finance topic is debt. If you're deep in it, know that all is not lost, and even massive obligations can be paid off. You can also sometimes improve your situation by refinancing a loan, and seeking out the best terms before choosing a mortgage, credit card, or any loan.
These days it's smart to keep a handle on your credit record and credit rating, as they can strongly influence whether you get an important loan (and what kind of terms you get). Some employers, insurance companies, phone companies, and others may also check out your credit health. One good thing to do is to take advantage of the free copy of your credit report that you're entitled to each year, from each of the three main reporting agencies. Know that if you spot errors, they can be fixed. And poor credit scores can be improved over time, too.
All banks are not the same, so be sure you're shopping around for competitive interest rates on savings accounts, CDs, and the like. Check out credit unions, too, as they often offer good deals. Bankrate.com is a great resource for finding low rates.
Saving for college
If you've got young ones who will be heading off to an institution of higher learning, then being comprehensive in your personal finance management means making the most of 529 plans and other college-savings tools, such as Coverdell accounts. Know that 529 plans differ in their terms and available investments, and that you aren't stuck with your state's plan. Your local plan may offer a valuable tax advantage, but you might still find a better deal in another state's plan. Don't be haphazard in your approach to saving for college.
Investing for retirement
It's great to be investing, but you also want to be investing well, by not taking on too much risk (such as via penny stocks, overvalued stocks, or companies you know little about) and focusing your money on your best ideas. You should also make good use of any tax-advantaged opportunities available to you, such as 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, and IRAs, both traditional and Roth. Annuities are also worth considering in your retirement planning, as they offer guaranteed income for a set period (which can be the rest of your life), as long as the offering company remains in business. In this period of dying pensions, annuities give you a chance to essentially build your own pension. That can improve your personal finance picture in a major way.
There are lots of ways to reduce the sum you fork over to Uncle Sam every year. Spend a little time reading up on tax issues and strategies and you can save quite a bundle, improving your personal finances quite a bit. For example, there are tax breaks related to children (and adopting children), tax scams to avoid, and things to consider if you're getting divorced. Consider consulting a tax pro on occasion, too, as she may save you much more than she charges you.
Finally, include estate planning in your personal finance management, even if you're still young. It doesn't take too long to make sure you have a will, a living will, and a durable power of attorney, among other vital documents. Even young people occasionally encounter unexpected crises, and you don't want to leave yourself or your loved ones unprepared and at a disadvantage.
I've covered the main personal finance categories above, but I've only touched on some of the many issues within each. Give some thought to each of them and see where you can improve your financial condition. A few hours spent might save you thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. After all, why not have the best and most comfortable financial life you can?
Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian is someone you can follow on Twitter. 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.