When it comes to money matters, Americans clearly have a fair amount of work to do. An alarming 23% of U.S. adults have no emergency savings, while 42% have less than $10,000 socked away for retirement. It's no wonder, then, that 70% of Americans agree that their financial planning needs improvement.
In a recent Northwestern Mutual study, only 16% of Americans say they'd call themselves "highly disciplined planners." Meanwhile, 33% identify as "disciplined planners."
On the other hand, 37% consider themselves "informal planners," while 14% say they just plain aren't planners and, as such, have not mapped out any goals.
If you feel your financial planning could use a push in the right direction, it's imperative that you carve out some time to make that happen. And the sooner you do, the better. Here's what your plan of attack should look like.
1. Set goals
Maybe you're hoping to retire early and travel extensively during your 50s and 60s. Or maybe your primary objective is putting your kids through college. No matter what you're aiming for, figure out your priorities so you have something to work toward in the course of your financial planning. After all, it stands to reason that your savings tactics will be very different if you're seeking to leave the workforce at age 55 rather than wait until 65.
2. Assess your progress
Once you identify your primary financial goals, you'll need to take a look at your savings and see where you stand in terms of meeting them. If you're decades away from retirement, evaluating your nest egg can be tough, since it's hard to estimate your financial needs down the line. But know this: As a general rule, you should aim to have about the equivalent of your salary saved in an IRA or 401(k) by age 30, three times your salary by age 40, and six times your salary by age 50. If you're nowhere close to these targets, consider it a sign that you need to catch up.
Similarly, you should always have at least three months' worth of living expenses in an emergency fund. If you don't, building that safety net should actually be your first priority above all other things.
Finally, if you have children who are nearing college age, you should hopefully have some funds set aside for their education. If you don't, it might be time to ramp up your 529 plan contributions. The same holds true for any financial goal you've established but aren't close to meeting. For example, if you're 32 years old with the goal of owning a home by age 35 and you only have $5,000 set aside for a down payment, you'll probably want to do a better job of saving in the next few years to make that happen. The point, either way, is to see if you're on track to meet your goals or whether you need to make changes to bring them to fruition.
3. Find a trusted advisor
Even if you're fairly financially savvy, it helps to have the input of an expert who can bring an outsider's perspective. Remember, when you're talking about your personal goals, it's easy to get emotional or trick yourself into believing you're in a more secure place than you're actually in. An advisor, on the other hand, can give you a clearer picture of where you stand and what you'll need to do to achieve your objectives.
Of course, finding a trustworthy advisor is easier said than done, so your best bet is to seek out recommendations from friends, family members, and neighbors. From there, aim to find an advisor who acts as a fiduciary. This means that he or she must put your best interests first at all times when making recommendations.
You'll also want an advisor who's open about his or her fees, and who clearly spells out the risks involved in the investments he or she suggests. Finally, aim to find an advisor who's willing to educate you on investing so that you're more empowered to make decisions, even with his or her guidance.
We're not all planners by nature, but if you don't spend some time in that arena, you're likely to wind up disappointed. So don't let that happen. Establish priorities, assess your progress, and enlist the help of an advisor who's equipped to assist you. You'll be thankful for it when you're in a better place financially.