Know Where to Look to Gauge Financial Health

NEW BERLIN, Ill. ( TheStreet) -- When it comes to gauging financial health and safety, most advice is about financial assets. There are really several different kinds of assets to consider:

Personal assets. Clothing, furnishings, automobiles and jewelry fit into this category. Before we even get it home, most of this "stuff" decreases in value to less than half what we paid for it.
When it comes to gauging how your finances are doing, there are several kinds of assets to consider.

Real assets. This includes your home, real estate and assets that either appreciate in value over time or provide a fair value over a significant period.

Employment assets. Some employers still provide a pension for their employees' retirement. This pension has a value and should be considered an asset. Since most companies have underfunded their pension plans, you might discount the value of this asset by something like 50%, but you should still consider the value if you have one available. Likewise, consider Social Security benefits an employment asset as well.

Financial assets. This is the 401(k), IRA or taxable stock, bond, mutual fund or savings accounts you've established. Because it's the one you have the most control over, this one usually gets the most attention. When you have plenty in this category, you don't tend to worry about the other categories, because you can always use the money from here to buy the goods and services in the other categories.

Now for the good news: Even though most of us don't have anywhere near enough set aside in the financial assets category, it's not impossible to build things up to make your future a little brighter.

First, though, here are a few time-worn tenets we must get past:

One is a fallacy that our personal assets will somehow contribute to our future security. Take a stroll through a second-hand store or attend a few estate auctions and you'll see what those things are truly worth should you ever need to sell them.

Second, you need to realize you're pretty much on your own in preparing for your financial future, despite what I mentioned above about Social Security and pensions. Understand this and you're getting the proper perspective.

Another fallacy (possibly the most damaging) is that our real assets can be quickly turned into financial assets. This fallacy has been hard to break, because past generations have done this successfully: Many residents of Florida and Arizona had very little in financial assets before they sold their household assets in Chicago or California. The downturn in housing values has helped break us of this belief.

How can you tell if you're doing the right thing with your assets? Here are benchmarks to consider:
  • Financial assets should grow faster than personal assets. If not, your focus is in the wrong place and trouble is on the horizon.
  • Employment assets should be given discounted consideration versus financial assets. Laws change and employers go bankrupt all the time, making these assets more uncertain.
  • Real assets may grow faster than financial assets, but you may be heading for a problem in the future if you're forced to sell your home to provide funds to live on. The recent housing downturn is teaching a valuable lesson.

    If your financial decisions revolve around reducing your mortgage or increasing your financial assets rather than buying or paying for personal assets, you're on the right track.

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