Building financial security does not happen overnight. It can take time and energy to establish your bottom line, especially if you ‘re new to budgeting. Increasing wealth has two parts: increasing income and building solid financial habits. Even if you’re not ready to save or build up your retirement accounts, making a financial planning checklist is great way to set yourself on the right track.
Your Financial Planning Checklist
Everyone’s in a different place on their financial journey. You might look over this and realize you don’t have any of these boxes checked off—or maybe you have more than you thought. The important thing to remember is this: if you know where you are, you can plan better for where you want to go. Don’t be afraid to take a hard look at your finances and your goals!
As we dig into the financial checklist, consider taking notes that detail your own financial picture. We’ve given a broad overview of each step, but only you have the specifics of your situation. We also offer tips for taking action on each of these categories that you might find useful!
Our “Take Control of Your Finances” series covers financial planning and budgeting.
1. Get a picture of where you are financially.
It’s hard to make any change when you don’t know where you’re starting from. It’s important to understand:
- Your monthly income: How much money do you make on a weekly or monthly basis? Keep in mind that income is more than wages— it can include any money you get beyond a paycheck. (Think: cash from a side hustle, child support, alimony, etc.)
- Your monthly expenses: How much do you spend every month? It can be helpful to list out everything you need to spend first, thinking about things like rent, groceries, and healthcare. Make a separate list for everything beyond the absolute necessities, like clothing, entertainment, eating out, etc.
- When you’ll retire: Another important number to keep in mind as you work through this financial checklist is your age and how far away retirement is. We’ll talk more about retirement savings further down the checklist.
How to get started: Pull up your digital bank statements—you might print them out, if that’s easier. Look at each month to find income and any charges that repeat frequently. If you want to get a jump-start on the next step, start a spreadsheet with your most common expenses.
2. Tackle your day-to-day finances with a budget.
After you review your financial habits, you can tackle your day-to-day finances with a personal budget.
If the word “budget” makes your skin crawl, take a breath. It doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. A budget is just a way to see the money coming in and the money going out—that’s it!
When you can see where your money is going, you can do a few things more easily.
- You can see where you could cut down on spending
- You can see where you have extra money that could be saved instead, or spent on something else
- You can plan for major financial goals, like paying off debt or getting a house
There are a lot of different ways to budget, but every method is based on the same basic principle: know where you’re spending money.
How to get started: Choose a budgeting method or app that works for you.
3. Set and review your goals.
Once you have a budgeting system in place, your savings will likely start to grow. Now’s the time to set and review your savings goals.
The first saving goal that everyone should have is an emergency fund. Paying off debt and saving for retirement should also be two financial goals on your radar— and we’ll talk more about those in a bit.
If you already have an emergency fund in place or are working towards it, you can start thinking about other goals. This may include saving up for a home down payment, a child’s education, or a car. It’s essential to look at the long term, not just your immediate wants and needs.
And if you have the extra cash in your checking account, here’s a helpful savings hint: automate your savings. Choosing to have money automatically set aside each month or week and put into a separate account reduces the temptation of overspending. Your savings will grow without you even noticing!
How to get started: List your financial goals. Open a savings account if you don’t already have one. If you have enough money consistently coming into your checking account, set up automatic transfers to your savings.
4. Pay down your debt.
As you get your spending and saving habits down, it’s also important to tackle your existing debt. Depending on your debt situation, you may even want to put a pause on saving for goals that can wait— like purchasing a nicer car— to pay down what you owe.
The higher the interest rate is, the more aggressively you’ll want to pay it back. Some debt—such as a mortgage or credit cards—can be refinanced at a lower interest rate. This can lower your minimum payments and save you money over the life of the loan.
How to get started: Identify which debts have the highest interest rates on them. Make a plan to pay these off without neglecting your other obligations.
5. Plan for retirement.
Retirement is a savings goal that definitely deserves its own box on a financial planning checklist. That’s because the earlier you start saving, the more of a nest egg you’ll have, thanks to something called compound interest.
Whether you’re taking advantage of your employer’s 401(k) or saving with an IRA on the side, the most important thing is that you consistently contribute to your retirement funds.
How to get started: Research retirement plans and/or consult with a financial advisor to choose an option that’s best for you.
6. Start investing in other places.
Once you have everything above covered, you can start to explore other investment opportunities, like stocks or money market accounts.
When you do start building investments, make sure you’re either researching trusted sources or getting financial advice from professionals. Here are some basics to get your investment research started:
- Portfolio diversification: Most professionals recommend a mix of high-risk/return investments and lower-risk/lower-yielding investments. The ratio can change quite a bit, depending on your investment strategy.
- Time in the market beats timing the market: It can be tempting to try and “time the market”—meaning, buy a cheap stock that might go up really quickly, and then selling it at just the right time. Even Wall Street veterans have a hard time doing this successfully—statistically, you’re much better off concentrating on putting money into the market regularly and for the long-term.
- Don’t panic when the market falls: The stock market is a volatile entity. It’s tempting to pull money out of the market when it starts to fall—most investment advisors do not recommend this. The market is very likely to recover and realize more gains than you have lost.
- Annual reviews: Many of us find it stressful to make investment decisions; once we’ve allocated our funds, we tend to just leave them alone. That’s why it’s a good idea to do an annual review of your investment— either on your own or with a financial advisor— to make sure you’re adjusting for changing markets and life events.
How to get started: Investigate which investment opportunities are right for you with the help of the internet and a financial advisor.
7. Begin your estate planning.
Estate planning is one of the most dreaded aspects of personal finance, and it isn’t just for those who are past retirement. No one likes to think about what happens after we’re gone, but if you put it off, you may leave a mess for your loved ones to untangle.
For most people, establishing a will is a key component of estate planning. From there, what steps you need to take will depend on your unique financial and life situation.
How to get started: Create a will and evaluate your current finances, pre- and post-retirement. This can be done with the help of an estate planning attorney and a financial advisor.
8. Revisit your checklist frequently.
Because personal finances are always changing, this checklist is meant to be reused and revisited. Check back in frequently, especially at the beginning of your financial planning journey.
There’s no secret formula or one-size-fits-all solution to achieving financial success. Taking charge of your finances may be overwhelming at first, and it may take you a while to see change. Be sure to check in often, and remember, if you fall off track, don’t give up— pick back up where you left off!