If you don't know what happened to your money during the past year, it's time to find out. December and January are the perfect months to look back at what you earned, saved, and spent, as W-2s, account statements, and other year-end financial summaries roll in.
How much have you saved?
If you resolved last year to save more or you set a specific financial goal (for example, saving 15% of your income for retirement), did you accomplish your objective? Start by taking a look at your account balances. How much did you save for college or retirement? Were you able to increase your emergency fund? If you were saving for a large purchase, did you save as much as you expected?
How did your investments perform?
Review any investment statements you've received. How have your investments performed in comparison to general market conditions, against industry benchmarks, and in relationship to your expectations and needs? Do you need to make any adjustments based on your own circumstances, your tolerance for risk, or because of market conditions?
Did you reduce debt?
Tracking your spending is just as important as tracking your savings, but it's hard to do when you're caught up in an endless cycle of paying down your debt and then borrowing more money. Fortunately, end-of-year mortgage statements, credit card statements, and vehicle financing statements will all spell out the amount of debt you still owe and how much you've really been able to pay off. You may even find that you're making more progress than you think. Keep these paper or online statements so you have an easy way to track your progress next year.
Where did your employment taxes go?
If you're covered by Social Security, the W-2 you receive from your employer by the end of January will show how much you paid into the Social Security system via payroll (FICA) taxes collected. If you're self-employed, you report and pay these taxes (called self-employment taxes) yourself. FICA taxes help fund future Social Security benefits, including retirement, disability, and survivor benefits, but many people have no idea what they can expect to receive from Social Security in the future.
This year, get in the habit of checking your Social Security Statement annually to find out how much you've been contributing to the Social Security system and what future benefits you might expect, based on current law. To access your Statement, sign up for a my Social Security account at the Social Security Administration website, socialsecurity.gov.
Did your finances improve?
Once you've reviewed your account balances and financial statements, your next step is to look at your whole financial picture. Taking into account your income, your savings and investments, and your debt load, did your finances improve over the course of the year? If not, why not?
Next, it's time to think about the changes you would like to make for next year. Start by considering the following questions:
- What are your greatest financial concerns?
- Do you need help or advice in certain areas?
- Are your financial goals the same as they were last year?
- Do you need to revise your budget now that you've reviewed what you've earned, saved, and spent?
Use what you've learned about your finances to set your course for the new year ahead. Challenge yourself to save more and spend less so that you can make steady financial progress.