5 Basic Principles You Should Follow to Achieve the American Dream

bigstock-Family-Moving-Home-With-Boxes-6143817Coined by author James Truslow Adams in his 1931 book The Epic of America, the “American dream” is described as,

“‘[T]hat dream of a land in which should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement… It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”

Everyone’s path to reach the American dream is different. Yet there’s always some common ground — namely, that through hard work we hope to retire comfortably and on our own terms.

Five basic principles to help you achieve the American dream.

Unfortunately, as we’ve seen from a number of recent polls, Americans’ finances aren’t necessarily on solid footing. U.S. personal savings rates are pretty poor, debt levels among middle-class families are high, and distrust of the stock market still exists following the credit bubble and mortgage crisis that precipitated the Great Recession. Now more than ever the American dream appears to be on the brink of disappearing.

But it doesn’t have to.

If you follow five basic principles, you too can achieve the American dream of a comfortable retirement for you and your family.

1. Get a degree.

It’s perhaps one of the oldest debates: “Should I go to college?” Not going to college means saving potentially five- or six-digits in student loan costs, but not getting a degree could constrain your ability to move up the socioeconomic ladder. However, as Pew Research showed in a study two years ago, not going to college could have dire consequences on your ability to comfortably retire.

Based on Pew’s analysis, which looked at the median salaries of millennials ages 25 to 32 who were working full-time, those with high school degrees were earning $28,000 annually. By comparison, millennials who obtained bachelor’s degrees or higher were netting $45,500 per year. Both of these figures are in 2012 dollars. This $17,500 difference could be huge over the course of four decades: Not only can this income difference be invested and compound many times over, but presumably the college graduate will have greater opportunities to move up the economic rungs to collect an even higher wage.

If you want to get your retirement savings off on the right foot, you need to seriously consider getting a college degree.

2. Save as much as you can.

Secondly, Americans need to kick their loose spending habits and learn to live on a budget. A Gallup poll conducted in 2013 showed that only around a third (32%) of U.S. households kept detailed monthly budgets. Not keeping a budget makes it very difficult for you to understand your cash flow, and if you don’t understand how money is entering and exiting your checking account, you’ll have a tough time optimally saving for retirement and funding your emergency account.

Thankfully, the solution is easier than ever these days: budgeting software. There are countless choices when it comes to budgeting software, and all programs handle the grunt work of doing math. Many can even help you formulate a strategy to save money. But budgeting also takes resolve on your end. This is where some keen budgeting tips can come in handy. Make sure you’re doing what you can to get everyone in your household involved so you all remain accountable for your spending habits, and consider having what you save automatically deposited into a savings or retirement account on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis to reduce the urge to spend.

The earlier you start saving, the quicker your nest egg can grow.

3. Invest for the long-term.

The next step would be to take the money you’ve saved and look to invest it for the long-term.

Although your investments could take on many forms, it is strongly suggested that you consider putting at least some of your money to work in the stock market. I know what you might be thinking, and yes, the stock market does have its pullbacks from time to time. Since 2000, we’ve witnessed two separate 50%+ drops in the broad-based S&P 500. However, we’ve also witnessed all 35 stock market corrections of 10% or greater in the S&P 500 completely erased by bull market rallies since 1950. Over the long term, stock market valuation tends to rise at a rate of 7% annually, including dividend reinvestment. This means you could double your money almost once every decade, assuming this average holds true.

 

Additionally, you’ll want to focus on buying solid businesses, because trying to time your buying and selling activity is almost assuredly not going to turn out well. A study by J.P. Morgan Asset Management, using S&P 500 data from Lipper, between Dec. 31, 1993 and Dec. 31, 2013, shows that investors who held throughout the entirety of both huge 50%+ drops still gained more than 480% over the 20-year period. By comparison, if you missed the 10 best trading days, your return dipped to just 191%. If you missed a little more than 30 of the best trading days over this approximate 5,000 trading-day period, your return would fall into the negative. That’s the power of long-term investing and compounding in action.

Questions about retirement savings, estate planning, or investments? To set up a complimentary consultation with the Investment & Retirement Center located at First Financial Federal Credit Union to discuss your savings goals, contact us at 732.312.1564, email samantha.schertz@cunamutual.com or stop in to see us!*

4. Be tax-savvy.

The fourth thing you’ll want to do is aim to give back as little of your wages and capital gains as possible to the federal and state government. There’s no way of getting around completely paying taxes (so don’t try it!), but there are things we can do to reduce our tax liability.

One of the smartest moves you can make is contributing to a Roth IRA. Although there are numerous investment tools we can choose from, the Roth IRA is arguably the best, because investment gains within a Roth are completely tax-free as long as no unqualified withdrawals are made. In addition, there are no age contribution limits with a Roth IRA (unlike a Traditional IRA), meaning you can keep contributing well beyond age 70. There are also no minimum distribution requirements. This point is important if you want to allow your money to continue growing, or aim to have a hefty inheritance to pass along to your family.

Also, take into consideration where you’re living, as well as how you plan to withdraw your money during retirement. All 50 states seemingly have different tax laws, with some states being far more tax-friendly than others. If you choose to live and retire in a tax-friendly state, you could wind up saving a lot of money over the course of your lifetime and during your golden years.

Having a withdrawal plan in place prior to retirement means that you’ll have laid out exactly how much money you’ll need each year when you retire. Having a plan in place can potentially keep you from withdrawing too much money from say a 401(k) or investment account each year, and having that withdrawal bump you into a higher tax bracket. Making small adjustments can save you big bucks come tax time.

5. Understand how to use debt.

Finally, it’s important that you maintain discipline when it comes to utilizing debt, as high levels of debt can cripple your ability to save, and can crush seniors’ budgets during retirement.

What you’ll want to keep in mind is that there are different kinds of debt, and they’re not all bad. Student loan debt can be a good thing since it allows you to get a better paying job, but what you may want to consider is not aiming for Harvard. In-state colleges can often be cheaper than the most prestigious colleges, and may even offer a better return on your investment.

What you’d want to avoid is racking up debt on credit cards because you wanted the latest outfit or gadgets for you home. Since nearly all vehicles depreciate in value over time, auto loans are another notorious source of bad debt you should try to minimize.

Check out First Financial’s free, online debt management tool, Debt in Focus. In just minutes, you will receive a thorough analysis of your financial situation, including powerful tips by leading financial experts to help you control your debt, build a budget, and start living the life you want to live.

Long story short, the better you manage your debt, the less likely it is to keep you from being able to sock away a good chunk of your income for an emergency or retirement.

The American dream has, and always will, require hard work, so be financially proactive and go claim your piece of the pie.

*Representatives are registered, securities are sold, and investment advisory services offered through CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc. (CBSI), member FINRA/SIPC, a registered broker/dealer and investment advisor, 2000 Heritage Way, Waverly, Iowa 50677, toll-free 800-369-2862. Non-deposit investment and insurance products are not federally insured, involve investment risk, may lose value and are not obligations of or guaranteed by the financial institution. CBSI is under contract with the financial institution, through the financial services program, to make securities available to members. CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc., is a registered broker/dealer in all fifty states of the United States of America.

Original article courtesy of Sean Williams of The Motley Fool.

Top 5 Financial Regrets…and How to Avoid (or Move Past) Them

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When was the last time you heard the phrase “no regrets”? Maybe it was accompanied by the acronym “YOLO,” or you saw it written in script on a sappy motivational poster.

It’s time to get real. Most of us do have regrets — especially when it comes to our finances.

According to a new survey from Bankrate.com, 75 percent of Americans say they have financial regrets. Apparently, we’re the most remorseful when it comes to saving — especially for retirement, and after that, emergency expenses. The site reported 42 million Americans regret not starting their retirement saving earlier, and that those concerns increased with age. Millennials said they regretted excessive student loan debt most, with 24 percent of respondents under 30 listing it as their chief financial regret. Other top concerns included taking on too much credit card debt and not saving enough for a child’s education.

There are no do-overs in finances, unfortunately, but you can do better. Here are the top 5 financial regrets with suggestions for how to turn the situation around.

1. Retirement Savings

If you’re feeling behind, you need to get on the automatic bandwagon. Saving by automatic contribution (a 401(k) or similar plan) works because you make a good decision one time and get to dine out on it for years.

If you’re starting late, you need to aim to stash away 15 percent of your income (including matching contributions). Not there yet? Ratchet your contributions up 2 percent a year until you hit that mark. Also look into catch-up contributions that allow you to contribute an extra $1,000 to an IRA or $6,000 to a 401(k) if you’re 50 or over. Working longer can also help. The money in your retirement accounts can continue to grow, and when it comes to Social Security, you’ll get an increase in benefits of about 8 percent per year (guaranteed) from age 62 until age 70.

How will you begin preparing for your retirement today? To set up a complimentary consultation with the Investment & Retirement Center located at First Financial Federal Credit Union to discuss your savings goals, contact us at 866.750.0100, email samantha.schertz@cunamutual.com or stop in to see us!*

2. Emergency Expenses

“Everybody can start saving for those minor emergencies, because it’s not really a question of if, it’s just a question of when,” says Aron Szapiro, policy and finance expert at HelloWallet.com.

He’s right — it’s only a matter of time before a minor health expense or unexpected car maintenance comes into play, and the only way to prepare is to start saving. Let your first goal for your emergency fund be $2,000. Once you’re there, congratulations — you’re ahead of many Americans (63% of whom don’t have enough savings to cover a $500 emergency). Then, aim for three months’ worth of living expenses. You’re on your way to being ready for anything.

3. Credit Card Debt

Sit down with a notepad and make a list of everything you owe and — this is key — the interest rate for each debt. It’s usually a smart move to make paying off credit card debt your first priority, because it usually has the highest interest rates. Szapiro says there’s “something magical” about paying it down.

“If you have a really high interest rate of 18 percent or 20 percent, every dollar you put towards the credit card is a guaranteed return of 18 percent or 20 percent,” he says.

That’s a pretty significant return rate, and it’s risk-free.

(Note: There is one investment you can make that beats that credit card interest rate return — grabbing employer matching dollars offered in a retirement plan. If you have credit card debt and need to save for retirement, aim to do both simultaneously, even if you don’t do either fully until the credit card debt is gone.)

Don’t forget about First Financial’s free, online debt management tool, Debt in Focus. In just minutes, you will receive a thorough analysis of your financial situation, including powerful tips by leading financial experts to help you control your debt, build a budget, and start living the life you want to live.

4. Student Loan Debt

Although student loan debt is a top regret for many Americans, especially millennials, taking it on can be an investment in future salary and capital. Federal student loans tend to have low interest rates and sometimes have tax benefits, and there are forbearance options in the event of major financial difficulty.

You can also look into options to refinance your student loans at today’s low interest rates (just know that doing so takes forbearance and other payment options off the table). However, don’t prioritize paying off student loans over saving for your future. The latter will serve you better — especially if there are matching dollars in play.

5. Saving for Children’s Education

Regrets for not saving are understandable — but because financial aid exists, you have to put retirement first. That said, a smart way to start is with a 529 plan, which in many states offers an immediate tax benefit. Some plans also offer the option to contribute small amounts of money (e.g., $25) every month or pay period (again, automatically) which adds up over time.

“There’s no one magic number. It’s not like saving for a down payment for a house or something where you have a specific goal, a specific time you want to do it,” says Szapiro. “It’s something where the more you save, the more options you’ll have.”

Our Investment & Retirement Center can also assist you with setting up a 529 College Savings Plan – be sure to contact them today at 866.750.0100, email samantha.schertz@cunamutual.com or stop in to get on the right track!

*Representatives are registered, securities are sold, and investment advisory services offered through CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc. (CBSI), member FINRA/SIPC, a registered broker/dealer and investment advisor, 2000 Heritage Way, Waverly, Iowa 50677, toll-free 800-369-2862. Non-deposit investment and insurance products are not federally insured, involve investment risk, may lose value and are not obligations of or guaranteed by the financial institution. CBSI is under contract with the financial institution, through the financial services program, to make securities available to members. CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc., is a registered broker/dealer in all fifty states of the United States of America.

13 Things You Should Accomplish with Your Money Before Turning 30

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When it comes to managing money, time is on your side in your 20s. A head start on saving and investing could mean huge financial gains in the future. To help you optimize this decade, we’ve come up with 13 milestones to aim to achieve before hitting 30:

  1. Build an emergency fund. Life is full of unexpected — and, often, costly — surprises. That’s why it’s crucial to build an emergency fund.The amount of savings you need is highly personal, but a general rule is that it’s smart to have three to nine months’ worth of living expenses tucked away. Of course, you may need more or less depending on your situation. By 30, you should be at, or well on your way to, that three- to nine-month mark.
  2. Negotiate your salary. You can’t sit around and expect a raise or bonus to fall into your lap. Even if your boss notices your hard work and efficiency, he or she won’t necessarily pay you more. You have to ask for what you want.As personal-finance expert Farnoosh Torabi, who doubled her salary at 26, preaches, “You don’t get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.”There’s a right and a wrong way to go about this delicate conversation. Read up on things you should never say in a salary negotiation, know what you’re worth before heading into the meeting, and consider tips from a 28-year-old woman who made a $30,000 leap.
  3. Contribute at least 10% of your income to a retirement account. Retirement is never too far off to neglect, especially since time is on your side when you’re young. In fact, when you start to save outweighs how much you save, meaning your 20s are a critical decade.Many experts recommend putting aside at least 10% of your income. That may not be possible when you’re first starting out your career, but it’s a good goal to have by 30.Get in the habit of upping your contribution on a consistent basis — either every six months, at the end of each year, or whenever you get a pay raise — and work your way up to a 10% contribution or more.

    Set up a no-cost, no-obligation appointment with our Investment & Retirement Center at 732.312.1564, samantha.schertz@cunamutual.com or stop in to see us to discuss your future savings goals.*

  4. Establish savings goals and start setting aside money for big purchases. There are bound to be big expenses in your future — a home, car, vacation, and kids, to name a few — that require diligent saving.The best way to prepare for these expenses is to create savings goals, and then set aside money as early as possible. You’ll want to adjust your budget so you can contribute a specific amount of money — depending on your upcoming purchases and time horizon — into a savings account each month. Treat this money like a fixed cost, meaning you must set it aside like you would do for rent or utilities.Pro tip: Set up automatic transfers from your checking account to your savings accounts so you never even see this money and learn to live without it.
  5. Establish wealth goals. In addition to savings goals, you’ll want to establish goals for your annual income and net worth. Money won’t just appear — you have to work at it. If you want to eventually build wealth, you have to have a clear and specific goal in place before forming a financial plan to achieve that goal.Be realistic when setting a time frame to attain these bigger wealth goals, but at the same time, think big and don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. A distinguishing characteristic of rich people is their commitment to setting high expectations.
  6. Buy the insurance you need. Nobody wants to deal with insurance — it’s complex and confusing — but by 30, you should have the coverage that’s right for you. That means health, renter’s (or homeowner’s if you have your own place), auto, and disability insurance. And depending on your situation, it may mean life or pet insurance.It’s also smart to make a habit out of reevaluating your insurance plans each year to ensure that your coverage is still working for your needs and budget.
  7. Set up a method to start tracking your expenses. By 30, you should have a very good idea of how much money is coming in and how much is going out.Apart from making sure you’re earning more than you’re spending, you’ll want to get a good idea of whether or not you’re on track with your savings and retirement goals. You’ll also want to see if there’s any room to reduce spending and up your saving.Strategies to track cash flow include recording each purchase you make in a spreadsheet or notebook, or downloading an app that will categorize and monitor your monthly and annual spending, such as Mint, You Need a Budget, or Personal Capital.
  8. Pay off some of your student debt. Student-loan debt in particular is often blamed for preventing young people from buying homes and growing their wealth, so the sooner you can start living debt-free, the better.Plus, the longer you wait to pay it down, the more you’ll owe, thanks to interest. Interest works in your favor with your savings and to your detriment with your debt, when it can build up over time and sometimes end up costing more than what you originally borrowed.
  9. Experiment with a side hustle. It’s easy to focus on cutting costs and forget about earning, but the wealthiest, most successful people develop multiple streams of income.Earning more money is often easier said than done, but most people have options. Read about 50 ways to bring in additional income, high-paying jobs you can do on the side, how you can earn passive income, and how to start a side hustle from a woman who earned up to $4,000 a month on the side.Plus, it’s good to experiment with being your own boss, rather than working for your money. After all, there is a significant difference between how rich people and average people choose to get paid.
  10. Invest in something other than your retirement savings plan. Many experts recommend using investment vehicles in addition to your employer’s retirement plan to ensure that you’ll have enough to fund your golden years.If you’re maxing out your 401(k) plan, consider contributing money toward a Roth IRA or traditional IRA, research low-cost index funds — which Warren Buffett recommends — and look into the online-investment platforms known as “robo-advisers.”Of course, you’ll want to make sure that your general finances are in order before you invest. But if you have a sound emergency fund, have prepared for future expenses, and are debt-free, then the quicker you put your money to work and jump start its growth, the better.
  11. Establish a strong credit score. Your credit score, which you can check as often as you want through free sites like Credit KarmaCredit.com, or Credit Sesame, is a three-digit number between 301 and 850 based on how you’ve used credit in the past.Generally, you don’t want your credit score to dip below 650, as potential creditors in the future will consider you less trustworthy and less deserving of the best rates.While often overlooked or forgotten about, building good credit early on is essential. It will allow you to make big purchases in the future, such as insurance, a car, or a home. Start by selecting a good credit card and then focus on establishing smart credit card habits.
  12. Make your payments automatic. In today’s technologically savvy world, there’s no excuse to ever miss a payment. Most bills can be paid online, and you often have the option of setting up automatic payments. If you automate consistent payments for fixed costs — cable, internet, Netflix, and insurance — you won’t have to think about them every month and will never miss a bill.You can do the same for variable costs such as credit-card bills, although you’ll want to check in on your account regularly to make sure that things are going smoothly and there aren’t any signs of fraud.For payments that can’t be made online, such as rent, set up calendar reminders and get in the habit of paying them around the same time each month so it becomes routine.
  13. Invest in yourself. The wealthiest, most successful people are constantly exercising their brains and looking for ways to continue learning long after college or any formal education is over.Self-educate by enrolling in a course, attending a work-related conference, or investing in books. On a similar note, invest in your health — consider pursuing an appealing form of exercise, or anything else that will better your health and strengthen your mind.As self-made millionaire Daniel Ally, who reached millionaire status by 24, emphasizes: “You must take your education into your own hands if you want to prosper. Invest in yourself.”

*Representatives are registered, securities are sold, and investment advisory services offered through CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc. (CBSI), member FINRA/SIPC, a registered broker/dealer and investment advisor, 2000 Heritage Way, Waverly, Iowa 50677, toll-free 800-369-2862. Non-deposit investment and insurance products are not federally insured, involve investment risk, may lose value and are not obligations of or guaranteed by the financial institution. CBSI is under contract with the financial institution, through the financial services program, to make securities available to members. CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc., is a registered broker/dealer in all fifty states of the United States of America.

Original article source courtesy of Kathleen Elkins of Business Insider.

10 Money Questions to Ask Yourself

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The first quarter of the year is a great time for reflection. And your money is no exception: Think about where it’s been, where it’s going, and, most important, where you want it to go. Whether your finances had a stellar year or took a hit, take a minute to check in and see where you want to go next. Here are 10 questions to get you started for a better financial year.

1. How much debt am I taking into 2016?
Tally up what you have left to pay on your student loans, any outstanding credit card balances, and your mortgage (if applicable). Take a long, hard look at this number. It’s better to know it than not know it. Make this number a key part of your action plan for next year.

2. How much did I save last year?
If you automate deposits into your savings account, this should be easy to calculate. (If not, here’s your incentive to do it.) Take a look at your savings account and consider what’s there: Could you have saved more? Did you plan to have more? What stopped you from meeting your goal? And if you don’t have a savings account — or a savings plan — make one.

3. What’s my credit score?
First of all, know what goes into your credit score — and then check your number free online. Check your credit report, too, and make sure any debts you’ve accrued this year are accounted for and that no one has taken out lines of credit in your name. Remember: You get one free credit report from each of the three credit bureaus a year: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.

4. Am I getting the most out of my credit cards?
Take stock of what your credit cards have given you this year, like great rewards, lower interest rates, or cash back. If your cards haven’t provided you with any of those perks, consider upgrading to a different card. If you have a card that’s dragging you down with high annual fees, think about closing it — provided you know the consequences of doing so. Make sure you know the best way to use your cards and that you aren’t inadvertently hurting your credit.

Transfer your high balance to First Financial’s Visa Platinum Credit Card today!* Enjoy great low rates, no balance transfer fees, no annual fees, and 10 day grace period.** Getting started is easy – click here to apply online, 24/7. 

5. How much money will I make this year? Can I make more?
Whether you’re a full-time employee or a one-lady business, consider whether there are ways you can grow your income. Is there some sort of side gig you can take on? Could you be a consultant? If you work a 9 to 5, would a switch to freelance be more lucrative? On the other hand, is it finally time to shut down professional projects that are draining your resources?

6. What do I want to save for in the next year? How will I accomplish that?
Set financial goals, like saving for a down payment on a home, paying off a certain amount of debt, or putting a specific amount in savings. Figure out what strategies you will put in place to save, such as making lifestyle changes or automating with apps.

7. Did I stick to my budget? If not, why not?
If you blew off your budget this year, take time to troubleshoot. Maybe your goals were unrealistic or you didn’t have a budget at all. Now’s the ideal time to make one, or get started with an app or two.

8. How will I budget this year?
Once you know what has (or hasn’t) been working for you, look ahead toward optimizing. Maybe you’re ready to switch from a simple pen and notebook to an app, or vice versa. Maybe you’ve learned that you perform better on a less stringent budget and or that you actually need more structure. If you’re newly partnered (or married), this may involve merging finances — or simply merging financial goals.

9. How much money is in my emergency fund?
You have no idea what the new year could bring: sudden health crises, unexpected layoffs, or a downturn in business. Make sure your emergency fund (about three to six months of living expenses) is robust enough to take care of you if need be. And if not, make it a priority to establish a healthy fund. If you need some incentive to save, make it fun with these hacks.

10. What are some poor money habits I can squash?
Think about some areas in your daily (or monthly) life where you can save — or stretch your dollar. If you’re living beyond your means, know where to rein it in. Eating out at work? Make lunch. Tempted to go buy new clothes? How about revamping your old ones instead? Know the red flags if you think you’re in financial trouble and decide to make a change.

*APR varies from 11.15% to 18% when you open your account based on your credit worthiness. This APR is for purchases, balance transfers, and cash advances and will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate. Subject to credit approval. Rates quoted assume excellent borrower credit history. Your actual APR may vary based on your state of residence, approved loan amount, applicable discounts and your credit history. No Annual Fee. Other fees that apply: Cash advance fee of 1% of advance ($5 minimum and $25 maximum), Late Payment Fee of up to $25, Foreign Transaction Fee of 1% plus foreign exchange rate of transaction amount, $5 Card Replacement Fee, and Returned Payment Fee of up to $25. A First Financial membership is required to obtain a VISA Platinum Card. **No late fee will be charged if payment is received within 10 days from the payment due date.

Original article source courtesy of Koa Beck of Market Watch.

3 Steps to Prepare Your Finances for a Good Year

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January is over and for many of us, that means New Year’s resolutions are almost out the window. But we still have most of 2016 ahead of us. Here are a few ways you can set yourself up for financial success this year and beyond.

1. Adjust your tax withholdings.

When it comes to income tax, the goal should be to come out even. On April 15, you don’t want to get a huge refund or a huge tax bill.

Getting a refund is exciting, and it’s not a bad way to accumulate savings. But remember, that means the government has held your money for the entire year without paying you interest. In essence, you gave the government a free loan. To avoid this situation, decrease the amount of income tax you have withheld by your employer.

If you’re in the other camp and receive a big bill, that’s another reason to revisit your withholding amount. In this case, you should increase the amount of taxes being taken out of your paycheck each month.

And if your life situation changes in the middle of the year — for example, you get married or divorced or have a baby — you should also take another look at your withholding amount.

2. Increase your 401(k) contributions.

Are you saving enough for retirement? Now is a good time to review your year-end 401(k) statement or pay stub and find out how much you contributed to your retirement plan in 2015.

At the minimum, you should contribute enough to qualify for your employer match, if you have one. If you have more money available, shoot for the maximum allowable contribution in 2016 ($18,500); if you’re over 50, set up additional “catch-up” contributions of $5,500.

Making these changes early in the year will ensure that you plan your monthly cash flow around your higher contributions. And if you wait until the middle of the year to adjust your contribution amount, you’ll have to save much more each month to reach your savings goal.

Have you had your financial portfolio reviewed lately? We invite you to set up a no-cost consultation with the Investment & Retirement Center located at First Financial to discuss your current finances and future savings goals. Contact us at 732.312.1564, email us, or stop in to see us at any branch location!*

3. Review your employee benefits.

Check your company’s resources page to make sure you’re taking full advantage of the useful — and often free — benefits it provides.

Review your current benefit elections to determine what coverage — such as health, life or disability insurance — you have in place and whether it’s still adequate. Life changes — again, including getting married or divorced or having children — can be good reasons to adjust your coverage.

If you do need to make changes, ask about your company’s open enrollment period; this is often the only time you can make changes to your coverage, unless you experience a qualifying life event, like the ones mentioned above. On the other hand, you may change your 401(k) options on a fairly regular basis.

Pay close attention to your benefits. Incorrectly selected or overlooked benefits can cost you money.

The Bottom Line

Doing these tasks early in the year can help you commit to improving your finances in other ways during the rest of the year. So don’t wait — tackle these steps today to set yourself up for a financially successful 2016.

*Representatives are registered, securities are sold, and investment advisory services offered through CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc. (CBSI), member FINRA/SIPC, a registered broker/dealer and investment advisor, 2000 Heritage Way, Waverly, Iowa 50677, toll-free 800-369-2862. Non-deposit investment and insurance products are not federally insured, involve investment risk, may lose value and are not obligations of or guaranteed by the financial institution. CBSI is under contract with the financial institution, through the financial services program, to make securities available to members. CUNA Brokerage Services, Inc., is a registered broker/dealer in all fifty states of the United States of America.

Original article courtesy of Anna Sergunina of NerdWallet.

7 Money Questions to Ask Yourself in the New Year

 

personal-finance

Will you make financial resolutions for 2016? If so, you’re not alone. According to a study done by Fidelity Investments, financial resolutions are the most popular kind of new year self-improvement. Not only that, but they’re also the most successful, with 29% of people surveyed reaching their financial goals and 74% getting halfway there. Compared to the 12% success rate for resolutions concerning health and fitness, planning to get your finances in order seems like the way to go this year!

You don’t want to just make resolutions, though — you want to be part of the 29% that stick with them all the way through the year. To set yourself up for financial success in 2016, you first need to understand your relationship with your finances.

1. What are your financial goals for the year?
A new year often means new goals and milestones in your life, and your financial plan needs to change to keep up with those. Maybe last year you were saving for a trip abroad, but this year you are saving for a down payment on a house. Or maybe you’re edging closer to retirement and need to start saving more aggressively.

Don’t be vague when identifying these goals. A concrete milestone, such as “I want to add $6,000 to my emergency fund” is going to keep you motivated a lot longer than a vague one like, “I want to save money.” Once you know what your financial goals are, you’ll be able to come up with a spending and budgeting plan for how to reach them.

2. What are your personal priorities for 2016?
Factors other than financial goals should influence your budget, too. Is it important to you to spend time with friends on a weekly basis? Add a “fun” line in your budget for activities like eating out, movies, and weekend activities. Do you want to support the arts in your community? Set aside money for a seasonal subscription to a local theatre or orchestra. Do you have specific causes that you care about? Budget a monthly allowance for donations or charity.

When it comes to finances, it’s easy to fall into the trap of letting your financial goals determine your spending. But life is more than just retirement and mortgages. Give yourself permission to let your personal priorities influence your spending decisions, too. You’ll be happier, more satisfied with your financial life, and better able to stick to the budget you set.

3. Where did you slip last year?
The new year is an excellent time to take stock of what did and didn’t work in the past year — that includes where you didn’t quite follow your budget. Did you eat out more than you should have in 2015? Not save as much for retirement as you wanted? Impulse shop too frequently?

You can’t improve in 2016 until you know where you went wrong the year before. Take some time to look at your spending from the last twelve months and identify the area where you slipped up. The make a plan for how to avoid those mistakes this year. You may need to automate the money that goes into your savings and retirement accounts. You may need to exercise a little more restraint in your spending. Whatever the solution, it will be easier to put into practice once you know what the problems are.

4. What are your mandatory expenses?
Once you know your goals, priorities, and weak spots, it’s time to begin setting up your budget. Start by identifying the living expenses that you must pay every month. These will include your rent or mortgage, insurance bills, utilities, and any debt payments. Budget for these expenses first, subtracting their total from your monthly income after taxes. Whatever is leftover is what you have available for variable expenses.

5. How much can you save each month?
Once you’ve determined how much to set aside for mandatory expenses, it’s time to look at savings. Savings can include long-term goals, like retirement, or short term goals, like a vacation. Identify everything that you want to save for this year, then order them in terms of urgency.

Some goals, like retirement, you should save for every month. Other things, like travel or large expenses, can be saved for one at a time. Once you’ve met one savings goal, you can move on to the next one. When you decide what you’d like to contribute to each goal, the best way to stay on track is to make saving non-optional. Set up an automatic transfer, either from your paycheck or your checking account, to put the money directly into savings as soon as it lands in your bank account. You won’t risk spending it accidentally, and you will ensure that you make monthly contributions towards your savings.

6. What are your spending triggers?
A lot of financial management is about cutting spending — reducing your insurance bill, avoiding credit card interest, eating out less. But all the small cuts in the world won’t help if you don’t know your spending triggers.

Spending triggers are those moments or circumstances that make you pull out your credit card and break the rules of your budget, even when you have the best of intentions. If you want to cut your spending, take some time to identify these triggers and come up with a plan to eliminate them.

If you can’t resist a coupon code when it shows up in your inbox, then you should unsubscribe from promotional emails. If you always want to eat out when you’re stressed, create a new, free routine for unwinding after a hard day at the office. Do you always spend more when you go shopping with a certain friend? Come up with other activities the two of you can do together and leave your credit card at home when you go out. Once you’ve identified your spending triggers and come up with ways to avoid them, you’ll have a much easier time sticking to your budget.

7. Where does your budget have wiggle room?
Managing your finances is awesome, and cutting down your spending to save more is a great goal. But if you are on a strict budget all the time, with no room for any lapses or fun purchases, you risk getting “budget burnout” and slipping back into old, bad habits.

To avoid that, identify the places where you can cut yourself some slack. Maybe you’re giving up eating out but can still treat yourself to a latte once or twice a week. Maybe you’re giving up cable, but you and your roommate can split a Netflix subscription. Allow yourself a few inexpensive extras and sticking to your larger financial goals will feel much less stifling.

Finally, wiggle room also means planning for the unexpected. It may seem smart to put every extra penny into savings and retirement, but what happens when your car breaks down and you don’t have any money for the repair? Leave a little wiggle room for surprise expenses, and you won’t just start a budget, you’ll stick with it.

The beginning of a new year is the perfect time to get your finances in order. Be honest and realistic with yourself as you put together your plan for 2016, and you’ll find yourself on your way to sustainable financial success!

*Original article source courtesy of the Huffington Post.