Presented by Cody Kimble

New Year’s resolutions tend to include overcrowded gyms, eating better, or projects around the house. But what about your financial health? Here are three resolutions that can help increase your financial fitness today and in the New Year.

Resolution 1: Create a budget for life

When it comes to finances, life can be viewed as cash flowing in—and out. Saving and investing during your working years, if you stick with it, could lead to a rising net worth over time, enabling you to potentially achieve many of life’s most important goals. Creating your own budget and net worth statement can help you build your road map and stay on track. 

• Create a budget and pay yourself first. If you’re not sure where your money is going, track your spending using a spreadsheet or an online budgeting tool for 30 days. Determine how much money you need to cover your fixed monthly expenses, such as your mortgage and other living expenses, and how much you’d like to put away for other goals. For retirement, our rule of thumb is to save 10–15% of pre-tax income, including any match from an employer, starting in your 20s, then add 10% for every decade you delay saving for retirement. Once you commit to an amount, consider ways you can save automatically. Research shows that if you “pay yourself first,” it makes savings easier.

• Calculate your personal net worth annually. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Make a list of your assets (what you own) and subtract your liabilities (what you owe). Subtract the liabilities from the assets to determine your net worth. Don’t panic if your net worth declines during tough market periods. What’s important is to see a general upward trend over your earning years. If you’re retired, you’ll want to plan a drawdown strategy to make your net worth last as long as necessary, and to support other objectives

• Project the cost of essential big-ticket items. If you have a big expense in the near term, like college tuition or roof repair, increase your savings and treat that money as spent. If you know that you’ll need the money within a few years, keep it in relatively liquid, relatively safe investments like cash equivalents. 

• Retired? Invest your living-expense money conservatively. Consider keeping 12 months of living expenses after accounting for non-portfolio income sources (Social Security or a pension) in short-term CDs, an interest-bearing savings account, or a money market fund. Then consider keeping another one to four years’ worth of spending laddered in short-term bonds as part of your portfolio’s fixed income allocation. This can help provide the money you need in the short term, allowing you to potentially invest other money for a level of growth potential that makes sense for you, which could reduce the chances you’ll need to sell more-volatile investments (like stocks) in a down market.

• Prepare for emergencies. If you aren’t retired, we suggest creating an emergency fund with three to six months’ worth of essential living expenses, set aside in a savings account or money market fund. The emergency fund can help you cover unexpected-but-necessary expenses without having to sell more volatile investments.
 

Resolution 2: Manage your debt

Debt is neither inherently good nor bad—it’s simply a tool, if used smartly. For most people, some level of debt is a practical necessity, especially to purchase an expensive long-term asset to pay back over time, such as a home. However, problems arise when debt becomes the master, not the other way around. Here’s how to stay in charge.

• Keep your total debt load manageable. Don’t confuse what you can borrow with what you should borrow. Keep the monthly costs of owning a home (principal, interest, taxes and insurance) below 28% of your pre-tax income and your total monthly debt payments (including credit cards, auto loans and mortgage payments) below 36% of your pre-tax income.

• Eliminate high-cost, non-deductible consumer debt. Try to pay off credit card debt and avoid borrowing to buy depreciating assets, such as cars. The cost of consumer debt, if you carry a balance, adds up quickly. 

Resolution 3: Optimize your portfolio

We all share the goal of getting better investment results. So create a plan that will help you stay disciplined in all kinds of markets. Follow your plan and adjust it as needed. Here are ideas to help you stay focused on your goals.

Focus first and foremost on your overall investment mix. After committing to a savings plan, how you invest is your next most important decision. Have a targeted asset allocation—that is, the overall mix of stocks, bonds and cash in your portfolio—that you’re comfortable with, even in a down market. Make sure it’s still in sync with your long-term goals, risk tolerance and time frame. The longer your time horizon, the more time you’ll have to potentially benefit from up or down markets.

• Diversify across and within asset classes. Diversification can help reduce risks and can be a critical factor in helping you reach your goals. Mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are great ways to own a diversified basket of securities in just about any asset class.

• Consider taxes. Think about placing relatively tax-efficient investments, like ETFs and municipal bonds, in taxable accounts and relatively tax-inefficient investments, like actively managed mutual funds in tax-advantaged accounts. 

• Monitor and rebalance your portfolio as needed. Evaluate your portfolio’s performance at least twice a year using appropriate benchmarks. Remember, the long-term progress that you make toward your goals can be more important than short-term portfolio performance. As you approach a savings goal, such as the beginning of a child’s education or retirement, begin to reduce investment risk, if appropriate, so you don’t have to sell more volatile investments, such as stocks, when you need cash.

Lastly, the most important step is to start. Prioritize what is most important to you and move down the list.

Cody Kimble is a Financial Consultant at Charles Schwab focused on helping clients achieve their financial goals. Some content provided here has been compiled from previously published articles authored by various parties at Schwab. 

Diversification, asset allocation, and rebalancing strategies do not ensure a profit and do not protect against losses in declining markets.

The investment strategies mentioned here may not be suitable for everyone. Each investor needs to review an investment strategy for their own particular situation before making any investment decision 

This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax, legal, or investment planning advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, Schwab recommends consultation with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager. Schwab does not provide legal or tax advice.

Fixed income securities are subject to increased loss of principal during periods of rising interest rates and various other risks including changes in credit quality, market valuations, liquidity, prepayments, early redemption, corporate events, tax ramifications and other factors. 

Tax‐exempt bonds, like municipal bonds, are not necessarily a suitable investment for all people. Tax‐exempt income may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT). Capital appreciation from bond funds and discounted bonds may be subject to state or local taxes. Capital gains are not exempt from federal income tax.

A bond ladder, depending on the types and amount of securities within the ladder, may not ensure adequate diversification of your investment portfolio. This potential lack of diversification may result in heightened volatility of the value of your portfolio. You must perform your own evaluation of whether a bond ladder and the securities held within it are consistent with your investment objective, risk tolerance and financial circumstances

Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. (Member SIPC)

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