by Financial Planning Association®, www.FPAnet.org
There is an antidote to the anxiety and uncertainty that often mounts as the calendar advances through summer, fall, winter…and inevitably, into tax season. It’s called the mid-year financial checkup, and it won’t require a doctor’s visit, just a quick troubleshooting self-exam to confirm you’re on the right track financially in key areas like credit rating, debt management, tax liability, and retirement planning.
As 2011 approaches its midpoint, the little bit of time it takes to perform such an exam could save you plenty of money and spare you lots of angst later, says Philip Herzberg, a Miami-based CFP®. “The benefits are plenty, and you can do it more quickly than you might think.”
Start your checkup by requesting a free credit report from a website such as www.annualcreditreport.com. Then review the report for any inconsistencies or new developments that need addressing. The goal, explains Herzberg, is to nip small issues in the bud, before they become big problems.
Next, assess your debt situation and, if you have significant debt burdens, such as high-interest credit card debt, make paying down at least some of that debt a high priority. “A lot of people don’t realize that paying off a liability, like a credit card with an 18 percent interest rate, can be a better move financially than making a stock market investment that’s going to yield, say, 3-10 percent annually.”
Now take stock of major life changes that have occurred thus far in 2011 – marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, etc. – and, in consultation with your employer’s HR department, have your W-4 tax withholding exemptions adjusted accordingly. Be sure you’re neither overpaying nor underpaying with your withholding, Herzberg advised. Overpaying essentially means you’re giving the IRS an interest-free loan with money you could otherwise be putting to constructive use; underpaying could put you on the hook for a major tax tab.
Addressing the emergency fund to be sure you have adequate liquidity to cover an unexpected event such as job loss comes next in the mid-year checkup. At minimum, Herzberg said, that fund – housed in an easy-to-access interest-bearing vehicle such as a money market account – should contain 3-6 months of household income. Even better if you can grow it to 6-12 months’ worth of income, Herzberg said.
Next take stock of retirement savings. Maintain or even increase contributions to your retirement account(s), and if your employer offers a matching contribution, “you definitely want to take advantage of that,” said Herzberg. People 50 and over should also take advantage of the opportunity to make “catch-up” retirement plan contributions. (Because they’re closer to retirement, tax laws encourage them to make greater plan contributions.)
And finally, take steps now to manage your taxes. In consultation with a tax expert or financial planner, determine whether it makes sense to sell certain investments and make monetary gifts to take advantage of favorable capital gains, income tax, and gift tax policies before they change, a likely occurrence given the deficit-reduction push in Washington, D.C.
Perform your mid-year financial checkup now and you’re bound to sleep better, right on through tax season.