Now is the time to outline your financial goals for 2010. In case you haven’t already done this, I’ve put together some ideas to get you started. While I’ve loosely prioritized the main themes, you’ll want to tailor things according to your individual situation.
Reduce your debt
Debt reduction should, in my opinion, always be numero uno. This is especially true if you’re dealing with high interest consumer debt. But even if your debt has a low interest rate, you might still want to make debt reduction a high priority. Whether or not you should pay off your mortgage early is a hotly debated topic, but even that is worth considering.
Build your savings
Your first line of defense when it comes to your finances is your emergency fund. Open a high yield savings account and work to build it up as a hedge against job loss or other unexpected curveballs that you might come your way.
A lot of people say to maintain a minimal emergency fund until you are out of debt, but I disagree. I think you should always pay yourself at least a small amount. That’s why I stick to a 75/25 savings plan.
There are, of course, other savings priorities that you might need to consider. For example, if you have a high-deductible health plan, you should be funding a Health Savings Account (HSA) so you can pay for health expenses with pre-tax dollars. Unlike a Flexible Spending Account (FSA), you can modify your HSA contribution levels throughout the year.
Fund your retirement
When it comes to funding your retirement, you have several options.
Individual Retirements Accounts – These come in two main flavors: Roth and Traditional. I personally prefer Roth IRAs over Traditional IRAs, but your needs may be different. Regardless of the type you choose, funding your retirement is an important priority. If you are under 50 years old, the 2010 IRA contribution limits are $5, 000 or 100% of your taxable compensation, whichever is less.
If you are 50 or older and have sufficient taxable compensation, you can contribute $6, 000 in 2010. The extra $1000 is referred to as a “catchup” contribution. Either way, getting started in January is your best bet for fully funding your IRAs. In fact, you still have time to make your 2009 contributions if you haven’t done so yet — the deadline is April 15, 2010.
Employer plans – Depending on where you work, you might have access to a 401(k), 403(b), and/or 457(b) retirement plan. We’ve previously outlined the contribution limits for these plans. In short, you can make elective deferrals of $16, 500 to these plans in 2010 with an additional $5500 in “catchup” contributions if you’re 50 or older. If your employer matches your contributions, you should at least take advantage of the match so you’re not leaving money on the table.
Taxable investments – If you’re doing all of the above and still have money to spare, you should consider investing in a taxable account. You can do this either through a major mutual fund family, or through a discount broker. Either way, you’ll want to pay attention to tax efficiency when deciding what to hold where.
Save for college
Once you have everything else under control, you might be interested in funding your child’s education. Here are some of the best ways to do so…
529 Plans – When it comes to 529 plans, you have your choice between prepaid tuition plans and college savings plans. The former is a hedge against tuition inflation, while the latter depends on the performance of the underlying funds.
Regardless of which route you choose, make sure you do your homework. The good news is that qualified distributions are state an federal tax free (at least for now), and you might also get a state income tax deduction on your contributions.
Education Savings Accounts – The “Education Savings Account” (ESA) is a less-utilized college savings vehicle that has undergone some attractive changes since its inception as the “Education IRA.” Like a 529 plan, qualified distributions from an ESA are tax free.
ESAs can be used not only for qualified college expenses, but for certain K-12 expenses, as well. The contribution limits were raised from $500 to $2, 000 in 2002 and remain there today. If you’re in a position to fund your child’s education accounts, make sure you look into this as an option.
What are your financial goals for 2010?
As I noted above, everyone’s financial priorities are likely to differ at least a little bit. While the above outline is a good place to start, you’ll want to tailor things for your own needs. You might even have things on your radar that I haven’t touched on.
What are your financial goals for the coming year?