The first step toward financial fitness is to understand your current situation and live within your means. Review your actual expenses on an annual basis and categorize your expenses as necessary or discretionary. Compare your expenses to your income and develop a budget to ensure you are living within your means and saving for the future. The next step is to pay off high interest credit cards and personal debts. Once you have paid off your credit cards, create and maintain an emergency fund equal to about four months of expenses, including expenses for the current month. Your emergency funds should be readily accessible in a checking, savings or money market account.
Now it’s time to look toward the future. Get in the habit of always saving at least 10% to 15% of your gross income. Think about your goals and what you want to accomplish. If you don’t own a home, you may want to save for a down payment. When you purchase a home make sure you can easily make the payments while contributing toward retirement. Generally, your mortgage expense should be at or below 25% of your take home pay.
Contribute money into retirement plans, for which you qualify. Make contributions to your 401k plan, at least up to the employer match and maximize your Roth IRA. If you are self-employed, consider a SEP or a Simple plan. If you have children and want to contribute to their college expenses, consider a 529 college savings plan. Do not contribute so much toward your children’s college fund that you sacrifice your own retirement.
As you save for retirement, be an investor not a trader. Investing in the stock market is a long term endeavor, forecasting the short-term movement of the stock market is fruitless. Avoid emotional reactions to headlines and short term events. Don’t overreact to sensationalistic stories or chase the latest investment trends. Establish a defensive position by maintaining a well-diversified portfolio, custom designed for your unique situation. Slow and steady wins the race!
Don’t invest in anything that you don’t understand or that sounds too good to be true. If you really want to invest in complicated products, read the fine print. Be especially aware of high commissions, fees, and surrender charges. There is no free lunch; if you are being offered above market returns, there is probably a catch. Keep in mind that contracts are written to protect the insurance or investment company, not the investor.
It is impossible to predict fluctuations in the market or to select the next great stock. However, you can hedge your bets with a well-diversified portfolio. Establish an asset allocation that is aligned with your goals, investment timeframe, and risk tolerance. Your portfolio should contain a mix of fixed income and stock based investments across a wide variety of companies and industries. Rebalance your portfolio on an annual basis to stay diversified.