New Year’s Checklists: What Is Your Financial Priority List?

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Updated for 2017. You’ve worked hard and you have some money to put away for your future self. What should you do with your money? There is no definitive list, but each person can create their own with common components. You may also want to revisit it again every year.

You can find some examples in this Vanguard blog and see what I had down in this 2006 blog post. Here’s my current list:

  1. Invest in your 401(k) or similar plan up until any match. Company matches typically offer you 50 cents to a dollar for each dollar that you contribute yourself, up to a certain amount. Add in the tax deferral benefits, and it adds up to a great deal. Estimated annual return: 25% to 100%. Even if you are unable to anything else in this list, try to do this one as it can also serve as an “emergency” emergency fund.
  2. Pay down your high-interest debt (credit cards, personal loans, car loans). If you pay down a loan at 12% interest, that’s the same as earning a 12% return on your money and higher than the average historical stock market return. Estimated annual return: 10-20%.
  3. Create an emergency fund with at least 3 months of expenses. It can be difficult, but I’ve tried to describe the high potential value of an emergency fund. For example, a bank overdraft or late payment penalty can be much higher than 10% of the original bill. Estimated return: Varies.
  4. Fund your Traditional or Roth IRA up to the maximum allowed. You can invest in stocks or bonds at any brokerage firm, and the tax advantages let you keep more of your money. Estimated annual return: 8%. Even if you think you are ineligible due to income limits, you can contribute to a non-deductible Traditional IRA and then roll it over to a Roth (aka Backdoor Roth IRA).
  5. Continue funding your 401(k) or similar to the maximum allowed. There are both Traditional and Roth 401(k) options now, although your investment options may be limited as long as you are with that employer. Estimated annual return: 8%.
  6. Save towards a house down payment. This is another harder one to quantify. Buying a house is partially a lifestyle choice, but if you don’t move too often and pay off that mortgage, you’ll have lower expenses afterward. Estimated return: Qualify of life + imputed rent.
  7. Fully fund a Health Savings Account. If you have an eligible health insurance plan, you can use an HSA effectively as a “Healthcare Roth IRA
    where your contributions can be invested in mutual funds and grow tax-deferred for decades with tax-free withdrawals when used towards eligible health expenses.
  8. Invest money in taxable accounts. Sure you’ll have to pay taxes, but if you invest efficiently then long-term capital gains rates aren’t too bad. Estimated annual return: 6%.
  9. Pay down any other lower-interest debt (2% car loans, educational loans, mortgage debt). There are some forms of lower-interest and/or tax-deductible debt that can be lower priority, but must still be addressed. Estimated annual return: 2-6%.
  10. Save for your children’s education. You should take care of your own retirement before paying off your children’s tuition. There are many ways to fund an education, but it’s harder to get your kids to fund your retirement. 529 plans are one option if you are lucky enough to have reached this step. Estimated return: Depends.

I wasn’t sure where to put this, but you should also make sure you have adequate insurance (health, disability, and term life insurance if you have dependents). The goal of most optional insurance is to cover catastrophic events, so ideally you’ll pay a small amount and hope to never make a claim.

Back to Basics: Simplify and Automate Your Savings

automateLet’s take a step back and focus on some actionable tips to simplify and automate your savings. Think of it as knocking out your New Year’s Resolution in just 10 minutes or less.

New Year’s resolutions fail because willpower is like a muscle. If you keep having to choose the “right thing” that does not provide immediate gratification, your willpower muscle starts to fatigue. Eat the healthy kale thing instead of the nachos? Yes for a few times, but after a month no no no. Take 15% of your paycheck and set it aside? You’ll forget. The key is to take away the decision = no willpower fatigue.

First, consider your paycheck. Is it bi-weekly, semi-monthly, or monthly? Let’s say it is biweekly and you get paid this Friday, January 9th. That means you know you’ll get paid on January 23rd, February 6th, and so on. You just need to schedule a transfer for 15% of your paycheck for each of those days directly into an online savings account. Here are screenshots and tips for some specific providers:

Auto-save with your 401(k) plan.
This allows you to get any company match, grow your money faster with tax advantages, and also takes the money out before it even reaches your paycheck. Our provider is TransAmerica, which like many others now offer an option for annual auto-increases as well. The only frequency option is every pay period.

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Auto-save with Ally Bank Savings Account.
This is my go-to savings account, and it has the most flexible list of frequency options: weekly, bi-weekly, every 15 days, weekly, every 2 weeks, every 4 weeks, monthly, every 2 months, every 3 months, every 6 months, every year, the first business day of each money, or the last business day of each month. With a competitive interest rate, no minimum opening balance, and no monthly fees, and other features – see my Ally Bank Savings Account Review for details.

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Auto-save with Capital One 360 Savings Account.
Formerly ING Direct, this is the original no minimums, no monthly fee online savings account. The frequency options include weekly, bi-weekly, semi-monthly, monthly, or quarterly. You can even set up special sub-accounts and name them things like “Vacation” or “Next Car”. See my Capital One 360 Savings Account Review for more details.

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Auto-save with Vanguard IRA and mutual funds.
The best place for low-cost investing in an IRA. Under “Automatic Investments”, you can schedule investments for mutual funds in either IRA or taxable accounts. You’ll need to have the fund already established with the minimum initial investment. The frequency options include weekly, monthly, bi-weekly, or semi-monthly.

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What if I need the money? Well, if you put in an online savings account, if you really need the money, you can transfer it back. But even transferring back out of your savings account will take a conscious effort, so you’re less likely to do it. You can’t easily withdraw from a 401k or IRA, so you’ll just have to make the commitment.

The key here is to combat laziness. If you like this idea, take action today and you’ll be on autopilot the rest of the year!