Flag-waving, hamburger-flipping, and fireworks-watching are all time-honored Independence Day activities. But if you're looking to declare your own independence -- financial independence -- here are four actions to take now.
1. Understand the investments you own
Many investors know little about their investments. For instance, among investors who own target date funds, a study sponsored by the Securities and Exchange Commission found that only 48% of respondents were aware that target date funds don't provide guaranteed income after retirement.
Each broad type of investment -- from bank products to stocks and bonds -- has its own set of features, risk factors, and ways it can be used to accomplish financial goals. To really get to know your investments, start with an overview of each type of investment you own and then drill down to information about your specific investments.
If you're looking to brush up on your investments, be sure to check out FINRA's Market Data Center, which has a wealth of free information on stocks, options, bonds, and mutual funds, including performance history and prospectuses. If you had help from a financial professional in selecting your investments, don't hesitate to ask for a walk-through of each investment you don't fully understand.
2. Take advantage of free financial tools
Whether you're just starting to save or well on your way to a secure financial future, financial tools and calculators can help you set and reach your financial goals.
For example, if you're thinking about investing in mutual funds or exchange-traded funds, try FINRA's Fund Analyzer to analyze the impact of fees on your investments. You could also check out any number of other free tools on FINRA's website.
Thinking about retirement? You can start planning now by using the Social Security Administration's Life Expectancy Calculator to help determine how many years of retirement you might need to plan and save for. Then you can try one or more retirement calculators to estimate how much you'll need to save to meet your likely expenses.
3. Review your credit report and credit score
This one is easy and can be done in a few minutes. Everyone should check their credit report -- including those who are confident they have good credit. Regular credit checks can help ensure that the information on your report stays accurate and that you can catch any potential problems early. You can access your free credit report by going to www.annualcreditreport.com or calling (877) 322-8228.
You can -- and should -- also get your credit score. There may be a charge, but many banks and credit unions now offer free credit scores to their customers. At its most basic, your credit score -- a number typically ranging from 300 to 850 and mathematically derived from your credit history -- is used to predict how likely you are to pay back a loan on time, and it can determine how much interest you pay on your debts. Good credit management leads to higher credit scores, which in turn lowers your cost to borrow.
4. Start or add to an emergency fund
One of the best ways to gain financial independence over unplanned expenses is to put money aside in a savings account at a bank or credit union expressly for emergencies. It's important to set aside some money -- about the equivalent of three to six months of living expenses -- to help get you through some of life's inevitable financial surprises.
If something unexpected happens to you, having the money you need to pay medical bills or see you through the weeks or months of being out of work will help keep you out of debt. If you already have investments, an emergency fund will also help you meet your expenses without disrupting your investment plan.
This Independence Day, set a summer savings goal (say $500) -- enough to cushion you against at least some of these unplanned expenses. Need help getting started? Check out these tips.
To learn more about saving and investing, and keeping your finances in order, visit the Investors section of FINRA.org.