8 smart personal finance moves in ’08

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A new year gives you the chance to start fresh with goals and plans for the coming 12 months. It’s a time to take stock of the past year. This is my eighth year writing a column that suggests steps readers can take to improve their finances in the coming year. Here’s hoping you have a safe and prosperous 2008.

1. Define or refine your life goals. What do you want out of life? How are you going to achieve it? Money is one of the means to achieving a goal but seldom is the goal itself. Don’t get drawn into the vague generalities of a comfortable retirement, an education for your children or traveling the globe. When you know what you’re working toward, you’ll be more committed to investing for those goals.

Spend some time thinking through what you want to accomplish in your lifetime. The Bankrate Financial Literacy series on financial tuneups article, ” Use investments to reach your goals,” can help you get started.

The financial planning field is moving, ever so slowly, toward the ideas put forth by George Kinder and Susan Galvan, the founders of the Kinder Institute of Life Planning. Kinder and Galvan focus on helping clients identify and prioritize their goals and dreams before working on a plan to help the clients achieve those goals. I think that’s a good thing.

2. Put together a spending plan. I don’t like to call it a budget. No one likes to diet and no one likes to budget. A spending plan lets you decide how you are going to allocate your income between current consumption and investing for the future. Often, we have to allocate income toward paying off past consumption, too. But once you get those credit card balances under control, you can focus on moving forward toward the future instead of being mired in past spending.

Even though I don’t like to call it a budget, someone at Bankrate does. You can uses Bankrate’s ” Budgeting 101: Start your own budget” work sheet to build your spending plan.

3. Establish an emergency plan. An emergency fund is a pool of money typically invested in liquid investments, meaning the investments can be converted to cash without penalty or reducing principal.

Financial planners often suggest that you have three to six months worth of living expenses available in the fund. The more risk you face in the workplace concerning the size or continuation of your paycheck, the more savings you should have available. The Bankrate Financial Literacy series on emergency funds is a helpful place to start. Within the series, the article ” Creating an emergency fund” can help you size and invest your fund.

Some people dislike keeping so much money in short-term investments for an emergency that may never materialize. Instead of investing in an emergency “fund,” these folks may want to consider putting together an emergency “plan” so that they know exactly where they can get money quickly.

For some, that means opening a home equity line of credit, or HELOC, to have a ready source of funds to borrow. For others, it may mean a willingness to take a risk liquidating longer-term investments if the need arises. Whatever option you choose, make sure there is a financial backstop available to get you through a crisis.

Cash advances from your credit card or loans from your 401(k) plan are typically not viable financial backstops. Credit card companies can raise the interest rates on those loans to obscene percentages at a moment’s notice, while borrowing from a 401(k) can be dangerous if you are laid off from your job — a 401(k) loan comes due when you leave an employer.

4. Manage your credit. Managing your credit means different things to different people. I’m going to take a pretty broad view here rather than focusing on the nuts and bolts of the monthly payments on your credit cards.

Your credit score is based on the information in your credit report. You can get a free copy of your credit report once each year from each of the consumer reporting agencies. Personally, I space out my requests so I get a different credit report every four months: in September it’s Experian, in January it’s Equifax and in May it’s TransUnion. I review the report and dispute any errors.

Opt out of credit card offers by visiting OptOutPrescreen.com or calling 888-5-OPTOUT ( 888-567-8688). This year, I also used the Direct Marketing Association’s Web site to remove myself from direct-mail lists.

Consider freezing your credit report. It’s not right for everyone, but it’s a great way to protect you from identity theft. See the Bankrate feature ” Credit freezes available nationwide” and decide if a credit freeze is right for you.

5. Review and rebalance your portfolio. From time to time, it’s important to rebalance your portfolio to make sure you have the right investment mix. Investment allocations in financial securities are typically split between stocks, bonds and cash. Cash is financial shorthand for money market debt investments with a final maturity of a year or less.

The investment allocation that’s right for you will depend on your risk tolerance, investment goals, and market outlook. For example, you may decide that an allocation of 50 percent stocks, 30 percent bonds and 20 percent cash is right for you.

If this year’s stock performance brought your stock allocation up to 60 percent, rebalancing the portfolio will get you back to your target allocation.

Calendar rebalancing is one approach to adjusting how you’re invested. With this technique, you adjust your portfolio on a regular basis. In target rebalancing, you wait until an asset allocation is above (or below) the maximum (or minimum) target asset allocation. Meanwhile, tactical asset allocation has you underweight or overweight asset classes based on your outlook for that asset class — it’s also called active management or timing the market.

For the do-it-yourselfer, there are a host of asset allocation worksheets available on the Web. SmartMoney.com offers two work sheets — one for people approaching retirement and one for retirees.

Tax and other considerations, like estate planning, can influence your desire and ability to rebalance your portfolio. It’s a good idea to consult with your financial planning professional and tax adviser before reallocating your investments.

6. Know your net worth. To determine your net worth, take an accounting of what you own and subtract out what you owe. You are then left with what’s yours, a measure known as your net worth. It’s common to build wealth during your career and start tapping that wealth in retirement, or to meet other life goals.

You don’t need a daily balance sheet, but tracking your net worth on a regular basis gives you a sense of whether or not you’re building wealth. Bankrate’s ” Net Worth Calculator” is an interactive work sheet that will help you calculate your net worth.

7. List your accounts. Keep a current listing of your bank accounts, investment accounts, life insurance policies and pension information. Of course, it’s important to keep a copy of your will and a note stating where an original copy of the will is available. Make sure somebody knows where you keep the list — and don’t keep the list in your safe-deposit box, where it is not easily accessible.

This list will be invaluable to your family if you become incapacitated or die. They’ll have enough to deal with without trying to piece together the puzzle of your finances. If you already have a list, take the time to review and update it to keep it current.

8. Estimate your retirement nest-egg needs. Hoping for the best doesn’t cut it here — you need a sense of how big your investment portfolio should be at retirement. The three-legged stool of a pension, Social Security and retirement savings has gotten a bit wobbly.

If you construct a spending plan, use the total annual expenses as a guide to what you might need in retirement. Financial advisers recommend different things here. Some say you need only 75 percent of these annual expenses in retirement because you’re not commuting to work, buying work clothes, etc. However, other advisers recommend budgeting for a full 100 percent because your retirement hobbies and travel will take up any slack.

Bankrate’s Retirement Calculators can help you determine the size of an appropriate nest egg by weighing how much you have already put aside, looking at your pre-retirement savings goals and estimating your income needs in retirement.

If you’re late to the party, don’t throw up your hands and say there’s no point in starting to save for retirement. Every dollar you put aside today will work toward funding your retirement. The dollar spent today won’t help at all.

9. Bonus item: Be a part of your community. Everyone wants to live in a great community. But it’s people — not houses — that make a community great. Be a better person and you get a better community. Volunteer your time and get involved in your community. You’ll make a difference and feel great doing it.