NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Spring cleaning shouldn't stop with clearing out the clutter around your house. It also needs to be a time when you take a look at your personal finances and consider how you can improve them. Whether you want to spend less, save more or have other financial goals in mind, it all begins with a thorough examination of the financial lay of the land. Our team of experts has some tips on how you can get the most out of a financial spring cleaning.
Pull Your Credit Report
"Step one is always looking at your credit reports," says John Heath of LexingtonLaw. What are you looking for? Heath advises people to be on the look-out for any accounts they don't remember signing up for. Another problem area? "Late payments on your report might not be accurate," Heath says. If there are any errors, you need to start following up and correcting them. It can make a big difference in terms of your overall credit scores.
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Check Your Withholdings
Spring cleaning comes around the same time as tax season. If you're someone who just got a huge refund, it might be worth looking at whether or not you're withholding at the correct rate, says Trevor Shakiba, an Ameriprise financial advisor based in Texas. "If you are getting a substantial refund, think about putting that into a Roth 401(k)," he says.
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Think About Your Goals
"We can run the numbers for anyone," says Sandy Vaughan, a financial solutions advisor at Merrill Edge. "What we can't do is tell you what your goals are." Your goals will have a big impact on your actions over the next year. "Clients who want to retire to Hawaii or travel the world have different needs than clients who want to sit on their porch or volunteer in the home town a lot."
Clean Out the Junk
It might sound like something reserved for more traditional "spring cleaning," but Elle Kaplan, CEO and Founding Partner of LexION Capital Management, LLC, says that a financial spring cleaning is a great time to start clearing out the physical clutter in your financial life. "Make sure that all your key documents are organized and accessible," she says. This includes documents like the deed to your house, powers of attorney, tax documents, account statements and investment policy statements.
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Make a Budget
"If you've never had a budget in the past, now is the time to start thinking about making one," says Heath. "You need to look at the money that's coming in, the money that's going out and evaluate if you have enough to cover your expenses."
Shakiba says that the secret to financial health is "living below your means consistently."
Setting up a monthy budget is the cornerstone of a financial spring cleaning for anyone who doesn't have one already. And even if you do, it might be time to take another look at it, as expenses and spending patterns change.
Review Your Investments
"Ask yourself if it's time to rebalance your investments," says Shakiba. "We had a banner year in 2013, but a lot of investors make a mistake by not making any adjustments after a year like that." He suggests that you take the proceeds generated from the stronger parts of your portfolio and put them into areas where your returns were not as strong. "Essentially this is just buying high and selling low," he says.
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On the same token, Shakiba recommends that people consolidate their accounts during a financial spring cleaning. "Consolidating all your old accounts into a single IRA is a lot easier to manage," he says.
Vaughan notes that people who have had a lot of employers might have money lying around they weren't even aware of. She recommends that during your financial spring cleaning you call former employers and see if you have any "lazy assets" that you can wake up and start working for you again.
Take this time of year to get your finances back on the right foot. Use small changes to make 2014 the most fiscally sound year of your life.
--Written by Nicholas Pell for MainStreet