When it comes to personal finances, it’s easy to fall into an “ignore it and hope for the best” mindset. Taking control of your finances can be daunting, but it’s not as scary as it seems. Through VetCents, we’re partnering with the Association of Military Banks of America to give you the tools to take control of your financial future. And what better time to start than the beginning of a new year?
A new year is the perfect time to start fresh – create goals, form new habits, and enhance your financial well-being. A ‘new financial you’ doesn’t have to mean a total overhaul, starting from scratch, or eliminating joy. In fact, small steps can make a big difference when it comes to evaluating your financial health and planning for the future.
Here’s how to get started.
To set realistic goals for yourself, you need to know where you’ve been. This requires a deep dive into all your financial endeavors. It is the most time consuming, and arguably most important, step in this process.
If you had a budget last year, this is a great time to evaluate how that worked for you and your family. Note what was successful and what you want to adjust moving forward. Sometimes budgeting gets a bad rap, because people often associate it with restriction, cutting back, or missing out on the things they like to do. Rather, a budget is simply a way to capture your income and expenses in one place so that you can decide if your spending is in line with your goals and values. Check out this spending plan worksheet from the Department of Defense’s Office of Financial Readiness.
Take a close look at your household income and expenses, assess your savings, review investment and retirement accounts, and compile debts. Don’t overlook the seemingly insignificant ways that you spend money; little expenses like streaming subscriptions, coffee outings, and lunches can really add up. It may be helpful to review the last three months of your bank and credit card statements to see if you have any “spending leaks” – trends and spending patterns that may be draining your funds quicker than you realize. Creating a financial plan is only going to serve you if it’s an accurate portrayal of your current financial situation, so be sure to sit down with your spouse or partner and ensure your numbers are realistic.
Pro tip: With tax season right around the corner, use this time to compile all the documents you will need to file.
Once you’ve looked back on the past financial roads you traveled, you’re ready to look ahead! First, note all of your predictable expenses, such as rent or mortgage, car payments, student loans, and insurance premiums. These are your fixed expenses that will remain the same throughout the year and there isn’t much you can do to change them unless you refinance debts or find less expensive providers. However, this will give you a better picture of your unavoidable expenses and will be helpful to review when setting your goals.
Next, note your variable expenses – ones that are subject to change and possible elimination. Remember the spending leaks we talked about earlier? If you’re interested in rerouting your hard-earned dollars to another line item in your budget, reducing or eliminating those leaks can be helpful in freeing up funds for other goals. Having these on your radar can be helpful when you’re working to set realistic goals.
Now, look at the possibilities – scenarios that you could foresee happening in your future. Are you moving in 2023? Do you need a new car? Of course, no one has a crystal ball to know everything that will happen but taking note of those “likely to happen” scenarios will allow you to better prepare.
As you look back at where you’ve been and look ahead to the future, what do you want to accomplish this year? Do you want to build your emergency savings fund, pay off student loans, prepare for a child going off to college, or finally finish that house renovation? Write down where you want to be by the end of the year.
Develop your roadmap
A critical part of goal setting is to develop a plan of how you are going to accomplish each goal. You now have a sense of where you’d like to go, but how will you reach your destination? Break down each goal into steps: develop a timeline, plug in checkpoints, and save space for evaluation and adjustments.
Though it may not seem intuitive, as you’re developing the plan to achieve your goals – think small! Incremental steps can lead to an enormous impact over time. For example, if you are looking to build an emergency savings fund, a small step can be putting away money from each paycheck into a savings account. You can even look to set this up automatically through your bank or employer.
Viewing your goals from a short-term and long-term perspective can also be helpful. Considering the emergency fund example again. Your long-term goal might be to save the expert recommended 3-6 months of living expenses, but that could take a while depending on your financial situation. A short-term goal could be to save a smaller portion of that larger amount each month or quarter. Short-term wins and accomplishments can help keep you motivated and focused on the big picture.
If you look at your overall goals through your plan of action’s smaller lens first, the longer-term goals will seem less intimidating and more easily attainable. It can help to view your goals and plans like a puzzle. The goal is to show the complete picture. However, each step in the plan represents the hundreds of individual pieces. As eager as we are to get to the final picture, each little step is instrumental in getting us there.
Pro Tip: Did you get a raise or promotion in 2023? If so, you may want to consider taking at least some of that money and earmarking it for a goal. You weren’t living with those funds last year, so it won’t feel like you’re “missing them” if you allocate them to a goal right away.
Now that your plan is in place, it’s time to get started. Look at the timeline you created and focus solely on that first step. With each step you complete, your financial confidence will continue to grow.
Don’t forget to give yourself grace throughout this process. As ideal as it would be to travel this journey free of obstacles, life happens. Our financial lives are rarely linear; we will take twists, turns, and detours along the way. However, if you follow your roadmap and are willing to course correct as needed, nothing will stop you from reaching your destination.
Want to see more? Check out VetCents – a one stop financial education resource for military and veteran families. Learn about topics like investing and homebuying or access free 1:1 support.