Greg McBride’s end-of-year financial checklist: 15 tasks to complete

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Photo by Getty Images/Illustration by Bankrate

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It’s been a challenging year for millions of Americans, especially when it comes to finances. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s that it pays to be prepared.

As 2020 comes to a close, there are some key money moves you can make to finish the year strong and set yourself up for success in 2021.

Bankrate Chief Financial Analyst Greg McBride, CFA, compiled his list of 15 financial tasks to complete before 2020 comes to a close.

Greg McBride checklist
Illustration by Bankrate

1. Make a budget and review your spending

This year has been full of change with many people working remotely and many facing unemployment. With all of this change, there’s a good chance your spending habits have changed as well, which means it’s time to evaluate where your money is going.

“Do you track your spending against a budget? If so, how did you do this year?” McBride asks. “Make a monthly budget for 2021 and resolve to track your spending against it throughout the year. Any month you spend less than budgeted, transfer the difference into savings.”

2. Check your progress on paying down debt

“How much debt do you have relative to the beginning of the year? Congratulations if you’ve made steady progress on paying it down, and if you’ve gone in the other direction, make a game plan to pay down debt over the next year.” McBride says.

To get closer to paying off your debts, McBride suggests cutting expenses, even if it’s just temporary, and putting that money toward your debt. Another option to consider is debt consolidation, which could be an appealing option if you have high-interest debt.

These are just two potential strategies for accelerating your debt repayment, but of course, everyone’s plan may look different depending on your current financial situation.

3. Review your savings progress and set goals for 2021

A key factor in any strong financial plan is having savings to fall back on. You may have had to dip into your emergency fund this year, and that’s OK (that’s what it’s there for). Now, it’s time to start focusing on how you’re going to replenish or grow your savings in 2021.

“Add up the amount you’ve contributed to your retirement accounts, 529 college savings plans, savings accounts and other investment accounts and subtract out any withdrawals taken during the year.” McBride says. “Set goals for 2021 and put the plan into action by increasing your workplace 401(k) plan contributions, setting up a direct deposit from your paycheck into a dedicated savings account, and arranging for automatic transfers into an IRA and/or 529 college savings account.”

4. Contribute to your 401(k) by Dec. 31

If you’re planning to max out your 401(k) for 2020, mark your calendar for Dec. 31, as this is the last chance to do so.

If you’re fortunate enough to receive a holiday or year-end bonus, you may want to consider earmarking as much as you can toward your 401(k) plan, McBride says. Additionally, if your company offers a match that you haven’t maxed out, do so before it’s too late.

5. Consider a Roth conversion

If you’ve experienced a loss of income this year, McBride says to consider taking advantage of your lower tax bracket to convert some of your pretax retirement assets, such as a traditional IRA, into a Roth IRA.

“Be advised that converting will trigger taxes on any contributions not already taxed, so be sure to consult your tax adviser,” McBride says.

If you earn too much to contribute to a Roth IRA, consider a back-door Roth IRA contribution.

“If you’re unable to contribute to a Roth IRA directly because of your income, you may benefit from contributing to a traditional IRA, then converting the funds to a Roth IRA,” McBride says. “If you have an existing traditional IRA, be sure to consult your tax adviser about the tax implications before converting anything.”

6. Review your asset allocation and rebalance your portfolio

This has been a volatile year for financial markets, so your investment mix may be in need of some attention.

“Taking the opportunity to rebalance back to your intended mix of stocks, bonds, cash and alternative investments means lightening up on things that have done well while adding to asset classes that have lagged,” McBride says. “This also enforces the discipline of ‘buying low’ and ‘selling high.’”

7. Review your beneficiaries

Adding a beneficiary to your accounts is critical to ensure your assets will go to the person you intended them to. Additionally, it’s important to note that beneficiaries trump wills, so make sure the two documents are aligned in their directives.

“If you haven’t looked at it in a while or especially if there has been a change in family dynamics such as a marriage or divorce, review the beneficiary designation on your life insurance and retirement accounts to make sure it reflects your current intentions,” McBride says.

8. Harvest tax losses

Did you know that you can write off investment losses? The IRS refers to these as capital losses to your income taxes, which reduces your taxable income and nets you a small tax break in the process.

“If you have losing stock positions and they no longer fit your investment needs, consider selling them to offset other gains you’ve taken. If you haven’t realized any gains, the tax loss can be used to offset up to $3,000 of ordinary income and any unused losses can be carried forward to next year,” McBride says.

These losses must be realized, meaning you have sold the stock, in order to qualify for the deduction. Additionally, this has to be done before the final trading day of the year, which is typically Dec. 31.

9. Check your flexible spending account balance

If you take advantage of a flexible spending account (FSA) offered by your employer, check your balance and see how much you have left to spend because these balances are “use it or lose it.”

“Many employers offer a grace period until mid-March, giving you an additional 2 1/2 months to use up the money set aside this year, but if not, you will need to exhaust the funds by Dec. 31 to avoid any forfeiture,” McBride says.

10. Complete open enrollment and select your employer benefits

The fourth quarter typically marks the beginning of open enrollment, which is when employees can select their benefits for the upcoming year. If you haven’t already, make it a priority to complete your employer’s open enrollment so that you can secure benefits for 2021 that fit your needs.

If you miss out on open enrollment, you will be stuck with the selections from the previous year or no benefits at all.

“Don’t overlook this opportunity to make any changes to your benefits, such as adding or removing a spouse or significant other,” McBride says. “Consider utilizing a flexible spending account to pay for next year’s health care, dependent care or transit costs. This saves you money by allowing you to pay with pretax dollars. Think of it as getting a discount equal to your tax bracket.”

11. Get a free copy of your credit report

Have you checked in on your credit report lately? If you answered no, check to make sure that everything’s how it should be.

“Regularly checking your credit report is a great way to spot errors or evidence of identity theft,” McBride says. “Knowing what is on your credit report and that everything is correct is important when going to apply for a loan, rent an apartment, or even changing insurance carriers.”

You can get a free credit report annually at AnnualCreditReport.com. Additionally, most credit card companies offer some sort of credit score monitor. These scores may be slightly different than what’s on your official credit report; nonetheless, they’re a good free tool for regularly monitoring your credit.

12. Pay down your credit card debt

Credit card APRs have declined this year, but the average rate is still around 16 percent.

“Credit card debt is the most expensive debt most households have, so put some urgency behind the efforts to get these balances paid off,” McBride says. “Paying down a 16 percent credit card balance is a risk-free return of 16 percent — at a time when savings accounts and government bonds pay less than 1 percent.”

You can take a few approaches to paying off your credit card debt, but a good rule of thumb is always to try and pay off the debt with the highest interest rate first.

13. Review your credit card benefits and reward offers

As a result of the pandemic and the change in consumer spending and travel habits, many credit card issuers have added new and attractive benefits and rewards bonus opportunities to their credit card products.

You might be missing out on untapped opportunities to save money offered by the cards in your wallet — perks like extra cash back on groceries and food delivery, and free access to premium apps like Calm, Spotify or GrubHub.

“Travelers have been largely sidelined in 2020, but credit card rewards have very much been on the move,” McBride says. “Check your cards and make sure you’re aware of category spending payouts that have changed and are using the right card for those expenditures.”

14. Apply for a new credit card and save money

If you have a good credit score, taking advantage of a new good credit card offer can help you save money in a couple ways:

  • Scoring a generous sign-up bonus (roughly worth $200-$800).
  • Taking advantage of zero-interest intro periods for 12-15 months, which will allow you to pay for big-items or holiday purchases for over a year without incurring interest.

“Use credit cards to your advantage, not the card issuer’s advantage,” McBride says. “Pay the balance in full every month. No annual fee rewards cards paying 2 percent back, or more in some categories, can put some of that spending back in your pocket.”

When shopping for a new credit card, look for one whose earning categories fit your spending habits. Also look into your likelihood of being approved for the card. Tools like Bankrate’s CardMatch give you access to prequalified offers without affecting your score and can help with the selection process.

15. Review your insurance policies

Take a look at your home, auto and life insurance policies to ensure they still meet your needs. Check to see if you have enough coverage or if you need to adjust your deductibles.

“Shop around to make sure you’re still getting the best deal,” McBride says. “Don’t think that because your home and auto premiums have been going up each year that this is the case everywhere.”

Written by
Liz Hund
Creative producer
Liz Hund is a social producer at Bankrate and occasionally writes special features on-site with a social-first angle. Her writing has been featured on MSN, Business Insider and in various local publications.
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Senior wealth editor