6 Smart Financial Moves to Make in 2012
While typical New Year's resolutions of losing weight, exercising more or getting organized are all worthwhile, consider this one important resolution for your family: Get your finances in order.
It's not as daunting as you may think. In fact, accomplishing this goal can be as simple as making six smart moves recommended by financial counselors and educators, all geared toward giving your family a firm financial foundation in 2012.
1. Establish a savings plan and emergency fund.
Experts agree that given the current economy, saving is a must. "Parents have got to realize the importance of saving ... just to put something away," says Cathy Canzanella, a financial counselor at The Women's Center in Chapel Hill.
For many families, that is the first step to firmer financial footing. Starting from scratch? Begin by making a budget or savings plan. A basic budget compares your monthly and yearly expenditures with your income. It lets you see how much money is coming in and where it goes when it leaves your bank account.
Once you identify your spending patterns, determine how you can save by cutting expenses. For every spending cut you make, Triangle Family Services Financial Counselor Joe Paradise says, "put one-quarter or one-half of that amount into a dedicated savings account. If you were running a business, this would be like paying yourself a dividend."
The payoff? Watch those dividends grow over time and use the account as a cash reserve for emergencies or to finance future purchases, Paradise suggests.
National Endowment for Financial Education spokesperson Paul Golden advises families who are just beginning to save to start small and grow from there. "It's a psychological thing," he says. "Start by setting a minimum goal of $500. Once you achieve that and prove to yourself that you can do it, you can keep increasing the amount."
Aim for six months of expenses in an emergency fund, Canzanella recommends. This should be "an old-fashioned savings account," she says, "not an account that is invested in stocks or locked up for a year in a certificate of deposit." If that sounds too overwhelming, try for three months instead.
2. Save for your child's education.
If you're barely covering day-to-day basics, it's difficult to think about saving for the potentially enormous expense of your child's college education. But saving or investing even a small amount of money now will make a significant impact on the financial burden your child, and possibly you, will carry later.
While there are many ways to save for college, Paradise advises putting money into a 529 plan. "You designate a beneficiary to receive the funds at a future date and then contribute a minimum of $50 and invest it in one or more mutual funds with a variety of investment styles," he says. "If you invest in a North Carolina plan, your child can still go to any college or university, no matter where it is located."
There are other benefits to investing in a 529 plan. If the money is eventually used by the beneficiary (or other designated recipient if the beneficiary won't be using it), all contributions grow tax-free. "In addition, you, as the owner of the account, get to claim a tax deduction for contributions made on your North Carolina income tax," Paradise explains.
How much could you potentially earn if you contribute $100 a month into a 529 plan over a 10-year period? Approximately $14,170 based on a 3 percent average annual rate of return. (Values fluctuate with market conditions and how you choose to invest the money.) While that amount clearly won't pay for college by itself, it's a start.
3. Save for retirement.
As parents, saving for our own retirement is truly one of the most important things we can do for our children to avoid becoming a burden on them later. Similar to saving for college, there are numerous ways to save for retirement. Favorites for financial counselors who advise low-to-middle income families include the 401(k) plan and Roth IRA. If you're not putting anything into your company's 401(k) plan, start by contributing 5 percent or more of your paycheck, Canzanella advises.
In Making the Most of Your Money Now, Jane Bryant Quinn recommends that the sooner you get to 10 percent, the better. It's too easy of a retirement savings tool to ignore, especially if your company matches at least part of the money you contribute, she says, because your savings will earn interest and dividends, and compound over future years.
"If you invest $250 a month for 20 years at 6 percent, you will have $115,510, and for 30 years you will have $251,128," Canzanella says. "If this $250 a month can be invested in a Roth IRA, then the amount of money after 20 or 30 years is all yours. It is all tax-free!"
Paradise likes Roth IRAs for parents because of their flexibility. While your contribution is not tax-deductible, earnings grow tax-free. Plus, you can withdraw your contribution, but not earnings, at any time, tax- and penalty-free. So it can be used as an emergency savings account and a retirement account.
4. Create a family net worth statement.
A net worth statement is your family's inventory of what you own and what you owe. Linda Patchett, who teaches a personal finances course at the William and Ida Friday Center for Continuing Education at UNC-Chapel Hill, encourages parents — single and married — to take their family's "financial temperature" once a year by determining the family's net worth.
A family net worth statement is important to have in an emergency because it allows you and others to quickly grasp your finances. Seeing a breakdown of the numbers also provides an often much-needed dose of reality.
When it comes to money, "it's hard to talk to each other," Patchett acknowledges. Having this document can help jump-start the conversation.
January is a good time to evaluate your net worth because all of your financial documents arrive in the mail and you can commit to a "new, pro-active plan for your family," Patchett advises. Set a goal each year, she says, to make sure your family's net worth increases while your debt decreases.
5. Pay off credit card debt.
You can't take control of your family's finances if you're buried under a mountain of credit card debt. If you have significant credit card debt, "commit to paying it down aggressively," Patchett urges. Once you begin living within your means, you can start accomplishing other financial goals, such as beginning a saving plan for your family.
Canzanella suggests transferring credit card balances to a card with a 0 percent interest rate immediately. "Even though the 0 percent interest rate may only last for one year, you will pay down your balance faster," she says. "If you have a $10,000 balance at a 13 percent or higher interest rate and you transfer to a 0 percent credit card, you can save more than $1,000 in interest in one year."
If possible, put aside some savings while paying down your credit cards. Having a little cash on hand will keep you from spiraling back through the credit black hole. "Then build up your savings again," Golden advises. "You did it once, you can do it again."
6. Educate your family about personal finance.
Make 2012 the year you educate yourself and your children about personal finance responsibilities. Attend a workshop, undergo financial counseling or read a book on the subject. Canzanella recommends Suze Ormond's The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom and Patchett recommends Jane Bryant Quinn's Making the Most of Your Money Now.
Include your children in developing your family budget so everyone can help decide the family's priorities for the year, and what it will take to accomplish those goals. Kids can even help brainstorm ways to save.
Golden encourages using daily experiences to teach children about money. If they play video games that require saving up a certain number of points to "buy" extra powers or privileges, use that as a teaching tool. Start at a very basic level at an early age, and you can build on these lessons as your children get older.
Taking control of your family's finances doesn't have to be overwhelming. By achieving one or all of these steps during the year, you'll gain peace of mind and put your family well on its way to financial security.
Robyn Kinsey Mooring is a Durham-based writer and the mother of two boys.
Example of a net worth statement
Net worth is assets (what you own) minus debts (what you owe).
House at market value: $150,000
Total assets: $191,600
Car loan: $12,000
Credit card balance: $5,000
Total debt: $127,000
Net worth: $64,600
Local organizations and agencies offer no-cost or low-cost financial counseling sessions or workshops. Here are a few in the Triangle:
Triangle Family Services
www.tfsnc.org, 919–821-0790, ext. 114
The Women's Center
YWCA of the Greater Triangle
College Foundation of North Carolina
College Savings Plan Network
National Endowment for Financial Education