Using a financial planning checklist can make it easier to monitor your money and do some financial housekeeping. Although there are multiple ways to ‘tidy up’ your money, a list that you return to monthly or quarterly allows you to keep track of specific areas each time, giving you better data. The more often you use it, the more data you have to compare your past and present situations.
Although it might sound tedious, dedicating a little time to checking in on your bank statements, confirming you’re saving enough for retirement and reviewing the financial goals from the beginning of the year can help ensure you are on the right track. It also gives you time to make corrections if needed.
Use the topics below to help you start your financial planning checklist and make the most of your money.
Review your bank and credit card statements
Even if you check on your bank accounts daily, pulling your bank and credit card statements can help you understand how the first quarter of the year has gone. Knowing what you spend lets you get a clear picture of your past patterns and can help you develop a plan for moving forward.
If you like having hard copies of information in front of you, print out statements from the last quarter, and use highlighters or other color-coding to sort your expenses into different groups. Keep a running tally or spreadsheet to help you quickly calculate costs in each category so you can compare them across the last three months.
A budget should be high on your financial planning checklist
For the tech-savvy, try importing your bank and credit card statements into a spreadsheet and set up rules or functions to help you categorize each expense. There are templates or directions online to help you do this, but be cautious about what you download since viruses or malware can often lurk in internet downloads.
Using a personal finance app like Mint or You Need a Budget (YNAB), you can often review your spending by date and see charts and graphs of what you spent in multiple categories. Apps can be a great way to see a fixed period at a glance, as long as you’ve kept up with categorizing and labeling transactions along the way, rather than trying to catch up on three months all at once.
See how your spending breaks down and determine where (or if) you need to adjust your budget. Getting ahead of budget-busting problems can save you time and frustration later in the year when they’re harder to fix.
This is also a great time to consider your subscription services and if you want to continue paying for them. Although each subscription may only cost a few dollars a month, according to a 2022 survey conducted by C+R Research, the average consumer spends $219 monthly on subscriptions, which can prevent you from meeting some of your yearly goals.
Check your cash flow
Calculating what comes in and goes out every month is a great way to help you determine your current financial status. Periodically reviewing changes in your cash flow should be on your financial planning checklist. It can help you determine if your money is generally heading in the right direction or if it’s time to make some changes.
Begin by looking at your monthly net income (i.e., the money you take home after taxes). Be sure to include all forms of income, including any alimony or child support, payments from a second job or freelance work, and dividends or interest you might receive on investments.
Then, add up all of your monthly expenses, being as thorough as possible, including your:
- Fixed costs like rent or mortgage, insurance and utilities
- Discretionary spending like entertainment, subscriptions and dining out
- Debt repayments like student or auto loans and any credit card balance you may have
- Savings to an emergency fund, investment account or retirement account that comes from your net paycheck, like a Roth IRA or brokerage firm. Note that any contributions to a 401(k) or traditional IRA generally come from pre-tax money, so they shouldn’t be included here.
Subtract your net income from your net expenses. If you have a negative number, you have a negative cash flow, meaning you spent more than you brought in. If the number is positive, you have a positive cash flow and should have money left over at the end of the month.
While cash flow can fluctuate for various reasons, the overall trend can help you understand your big-picture financial situation. Don’t get discouraged if you see negative cash flow over the last three months. If the negative number decreases over time, you are likely headed in the right direction.
Increase retirement savings
Saving for the future can get tricky when trying to make ends meet today. While inflation is taking a bigger bite out of everyone’s paycheck, if you have a positive cash flow situation, consider bumping up your pre-tax retirement savings.
To make saving for retirement easier, turn on auto-escalation, also called automatic contribution increases, on your retirement accounts to help you save more. When you sign up for your retirement plan through your employer, pick an initial savings rate based on what you can afford and contribute enough to get any employer-matched funds.
Then, select the auto-escalation feature, which will raise your savings every year by a few dollars from every check, which you likely won’t miss.
By enabling auto-escalation, your contribution will increase by a certain percentage (usually 1%) a year until you hit a maximum threshold, allowing you to save more without even thinking about it.
Break down your financial goals in your planning checklist
Review the financial goals you set at the beginning of the year and any progress you’ve made on completing them. To help you stay on track, consider adding smaller steps to your financial planning checklist to help ensure you hit a more significant long-term goal.
For example, if your big goal is to save $5,000 by December 31, 2023, you have eight months to make it happen. Let’s say you saved $500 in the first quarter of 2023 and have $4,500 left to go. You’ll need to save $562 monthly through the end of the year ($4,500 divided by eight) to achieve your goal.
If you’re paid twice a month, that’s $250 from every paycheck. Add a micro goal of saving $250 from every paycheck to your list, and then set up an automatic savings plan with your bank to make it happen. Even better? Consider opening a high-yield savings account for this money. You can also set up even smaller goals, breaking the dollar amount into weekly or daily amounts.
If you struggle to save enough to hit your goals, evaluate your spending to see if you can make cuts without too much deprivation. While cutting out unnecessary subscriptions or unused memberships can help you save, if you can’t remove any further costs from your budget, consider ways to earn more. This might mean taking on a side hustle, working overtime or potentially asking for a raise.
Remember that progress is not linear
While it might feel like you’re not making progress daily, looking back at your work over the past three months can help you see the advancements you made.
Like any long-term goal, your financial progress is not a straight line, and you may have had some unexpected expenses crop up. If you could cover an emergency repair from your savings, high-five yourself for being able to meet that challenge and work on replenishing and growing your savings account.
Don’t beat yourself up if you had to put a repair or unexpected expense on a credit card. Develop a plan to pay off that debt, and once that’s done, contribute that same amount to your emergency fund to help you avoid using a credit card the next time something happens.
Financial planning checklist bottom line
While a financial planning checklist will look different for everyone, developing one based on your needs and goals can help you measure progress. You can include any topic you want, but repeatedly checking the same data at different points in the year can help you see patterns.
Using a checklist can help you compare the same data monthly or quarterly so you know you’re making progress and still have time to make effective changes. Building check-in systems for yourself helps you hit your goals and create a brighter financial future.
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