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Financial Planning Basics

Financial Planning Basics

October is not just about Fall colors and Halloween—it’s also about family finances. Why? Because October is National Financial Planning Month. It’s a great opportunity to take a closer look at your spending over the past year and refresh your personal and family goals. And as the holidays approach, it’s the perfect time to make sure your family finances are in good shape. 

It’s important to note that financial planning is not just for the wealthy. No matter how little or how much money you have, you need to manage it well. In fact, the less you have, the more careful you need to be. 

Here are seven basic steps you can take to begin your family’s financial planning journey: 

1. Determine your current spending. 

To get where you want to go, you first need to know where you are. Collect your bills, receipts, and bank statements from the past year. Add up your expenses by category (mortgage payment, other loans, and debt payments, food, gasoline, school expenses, electricity, etc.) and divide the totals by 12 to get your average monthly expenses in each category. Then consider where you may need to cut back—to avoid overspending, and to free up funds to save and invest. Try out this helpful expense helpful tracking form. 

2. Write down your financial goals. 

After you determine your monthly expenses, think about your short-term financial goals (new tires for the car, replacing an aging water heater, etc.). Then consider your long-term goals (such as college education for the kids or retirement). Next, write down your goals using “SMART” guidelines: that is, be sure they’re specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely. Finally, compare your total expenses against your total income to ensure your income is enough to cover both your current and long-term expenses.  

3. Develop a family budget. 

According to a recent survey, more Americans than ever use some kind of budgeting system to manage their finances—but about 20% don’t. The good news is that budgeting is no longer the paper-intensive, time-consuming project it once was. And a well-crafted budget provides great benefits, such as helping you track spending, avoid debt, and achieve your financial goals. 

Also, when you complete steps 1 and 2 of this article, you’ve already done most of the research you need to build your family budget! So if you’re not already using a budgeting system, consider downloading one of these popular budgeting apps to get organized. 

4. Save for a rainy day. 

One of the keys to effective financial planning is saving. After all, if you have no savings to fall back on, any significant financial “blip”—such as unemployment or expensive car repairs—could wreck your finances and increase your debt. So look for new ways to save for the future or potential emergencies. 

For example, you may want to consider setting up an automatic transfer of surplus funds from your checking account into savings. You can also make small but significant changes to your daily spending. For example, doing away with a $4-per-day take-out coffee habit saves you $85 per month! Then redirect those funds into savings. Or you might consider refinancing your home, which could free up additional money each month by reducing your monthly payment. 

5. Invest for the future. 

Wise investors take a long-term, diversified view of investing. You should think long-term because focusing on short-term investments can increase your stress and your costs, and reduce your overall gains. You should diversify (spread your funds across multiple investments) because diversification can reduce your overall losses, increase your overall gains, and protect you against market ups and downs. 

No matter what you invest in (stocks, bonds, mutual funds, real estate, small businesses, retirement accounts, or a blend of resources), long-term thinking and diversifying will help you create more wealth and gain more financial security. Check out these investing tips for beginners and a 401k calculator to help ensure sure you’re moving in the right direction. 

6. Pass on your knowledge. 

A basic understanding of financial planning is valuable knowledge for people of any age. So if you have children, start teaching them how to manage their money wisely while they’re young. Thanks to the Internet, today’s parents and grandparents can access a wealth of free information to make learning about finances easy and fun. So be sure to check out these helpful resources for kids, including educational activities, books, games, and websites. 

7. Get some advice. 

Sometimes you need advice from an expert. Fortunately, a wide range of free or low-cost help is available. Especially if you’re facing financial difficulties, a professional financial counselor can come alongside to help you create and maximize your financial plan. Expert counselors are available for free, their services provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

A HUD-approved counselor can review your income, expenses, debts, savings, and investments in light of your financial goals. In addition, your counselor can help you think through important decisions, such as how much life insurance you need, how to reduce your debt load, and ways to cut expenses. Your counselor can also help you develop realistic strategies for achieving your financial goals. To learn more about free financial counseling, review this article on our website.