There’s a good chance one of your goals right now is to feel more financially secure; there’s also a good chance the pandemic and resulting economic instability has made that goal seem more challenging or out of reach than ever before.
But here’s the good news: having a financial plan can help you feel more confident about your financial future and better prepare you to handle evolving and uncertain circumstances as they arise.
Here’s a four-step guide to financial planning, now and into the future.
An important first step is to take stock of your current financial situation. Even if you’re not where you’d like to be (i.e. job hunting or coping with a layoff), be honest with yourself about the income you’re currently generating, savings you’ve accumulated and your general spending habits.
You may feel proud of your progress or notice room for improvement – and both reactions are perfectly acceptable. Your initial focus should be on creating a non-biased assessment of what your financial life looks like now, so that you can make good decisions about how to take the next steps.
To get a realistic idea of your spending habits, add up your typical monthly costs. These might include rent or mortgage, transportation costs or car payments, groceries, gym memberships, cable or television subscriptions, loan payments and discretionary costs – like ordering takeout or shopping.
Reviewing your paychecks, monthly bills, bank statements and even recent receipts in your wallet can be helpful resources as you reflect on your income and expenses. If you comb through expenses from the past month, you’ll be able to generate a good idea of what next month will look like as well. Taking this approach offers a snapshot of your overall financial habits without the stress of retracing and calculating years of your financial history.
Next, take time to picture what you want out of life as you outline your individual financial goals. These will be different for everyone, but some examples may include home ownership, travel, philanthropy, and retirement. You may find it beneficial to add a “why” to each of your goals. Doing so can make it easier to stay motivated as you work toward achieving them.
Consider setting up “buckets” or categories for each of your goals, whether you have two or ten. If you currently have savings, distribute the amount you feel comfortable with toward each category. You might want to start by putting more money toward immediate or short-term goals, as you’ll have time to contribute money to your long-term goals more gradually.
Your snapshot of monthly income and expenses will help you know precisely where your money is going. This will give you an objective idea of your fixed expenses, like rent or loan repayment, and your lifestyle expenses, like groceries and entertainment. It will also illuminate where you can make changes and ultimately, how much you can put toward your short- and long-term goals.
When making your budget, the key is to be honest with yourself about your lifestyle, values and goals. Whether you’re comfortable now or still trying to make ends meet, it’s important to be realistic about how much you can really save.
Finally, don’t forget to add some fun in to the mix. Trying to deprive yourself of anything but the essentials can be frustrating and potentially unattainable. However you decide to budget, keep in mind that what’s right for you won’t necessarily be right for someone else.
In general, a savings account is a good approach for your short-term goals, like a vacation, while investing is the way to go for your long-term goals, like retirement. Even if you’re just starting out in your career or don’t have large pool of money set aside yet, it’s never too early to invest. There’s an investment strategy for every financial situation, and investing can allow your money to grow over time through compounding. The earlier you start, the longer your investments have to compound and the greater the impact.
The easiest way to start investing is to take advantage of an employer-sponsored retirement account, if you have access to one. Some employers offer a 401k match up to a certain amount. Plus, contributions are directly withdrawn from your paycheck with pre-tax dollars.
If you’re a first-time investor, remember that the process will be a valuable learning experience. Holding onto your investments through market highs and lows can be a good strategy, so remember to practice patience and stay informed.
Creating a financial plan now can help set you up for future success. As you earn more money, you’ll know exactly where it should go. With a little initial planning, budgeting and consistency, you’ll be well on your way to a financial life that aligns with your dreams and goals.
Learn more about 5 key components of a financial plan.