The start of a new year is a good opportunity to embark on strategies to lower your debt, increase your savings and maximize your retirement portfolio even if you were not among the fortunate ones to receive a raise or bonus.
Ramping up the balance in your 401(k) or IRA while reducing your credit card debt and increasing your rainy day fund for emergencies can be achieved by paying fewer fees and taxes and devising a plan.
“Whatever your goals are for 2016 or beyond, you need a plan to get there,” said Jamie Hopkins, a retirement professor at the American College of Financial Services in Bryn Mawr, Pa. “This could start with a short term plan for the year and develop into a long-term plan for retirement.”
How to Decrease Debt
Lower and eliminate your debt, especially your credit cards by always paying on time and more than the minimum, said Andrew Housser, co-CEO of Freedom Financial Network, a San Mateo, Calif.-based debt resolution company.
“The first and best rule is to never charge more in any given month than you can repay that month,” he said. “Even adding just $10 to your payment or rounding payments up to the next $10 or $100 increment will make a huge difference.”
Spending less money means taking a harsh look at your budget and financial plan so you can “spot areas that you are overspending,” said Hopkins. Set aside a certain amount of money for savings with each paycheck you receive and saving at least 10% of your income is recommended.
“Another great way to spot areas you overspend is to look at your free year-end review that is offered by most credit card companies and banks,” he said. “This can show you where you spend your money during the year and help you reduce some of those expenses this coming year.”
Ways to Increase Savings
Reduce the amount of your health insurance premiums by quitting smoking since in many states, companies charge smokers more, said Nate Purpura, vice president of consumer affairs at eHealth.com, an online health insurance exchange based in Mountain View, Calif.
In 2015, smokers paid an average monthly health insurance premium of $311 while non-smokers paid only $272, according to eHealth’s data. If you can beat smoking this year, you may qualify for lower premiums next year.
Opening a flexible spending account, or FSA, gives you the opportunity to pay for medical, dependent care or transportation costs with pre-tax dollars set aside with every paycheck, said Greg McBride, chief financial analyst for Bankrate, the North Palm Beach, Fla. based financial content company.
Lower your taxable income by contributing to a health savings account known as an HSA, which you can open as long as your deductible is at least $1,300. Since HSAs mirror IRA accounts, you can save money by paying fewer taxes while also saving for medical expenses such as copays, deductibles or dental care, said Nate Purpura, vice president of consumer affairs at eHealth.com, an online health insurance exchange based in Mountain View, Calif. Any money you don’t spend will rollover like an IRA and can be another vehicle to increase your retirement savings.
“You can deposit money into your HSA until April 15, 2016 for the 2015 tax year,” he said.
Some estimates predict that the average taxpayer will overpay their federal income tax by $1,000 this year, which is “money being held without earning any interest,” said Bruce McClary, spokesperson for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a Washington, D.C-based non-profit organization.
“If you have too much money being withheld from your paycheck for taxes, take time to adjust your withholding,” he said. “You will want to match the total amount withheld to the amount you will expect to pay when taxes are filed.”
Establish New Year’s resolutions which are small adjustments because they tend to be more sustainable and could make a real difference to your goals, said J.J. Montanaro, a certified financial planner at USAA, a San Antonio, Texas-based financial institution.
Instead of deciding to trying to start saving for retirement by saving 10% of your income, your best bet is to start with a 2% contribution, because it is a “feasible” goal and one you will likely stick with for the duration, he said.
“Starting at a level that’s manageable and can be built upon in the coming years could work out better than starting something that you just stop because it ended up being too much of a shock to your budget, ” said Montanaro.
Even if you are already contributing to a 401(k) through your employer, consider taking any extra money such as a bonus or raise and contribute to an IRA, said McBride. For 2016, those under age 50 can contribute a maximum of $5,500 and $6,500 for those 50 and older.
The fees, which are often hidden in the mutual funds or ETFs in your 401(k) or IRA, can be quite substantial and wipe out any advantages you have from an employer match. An investor who has $100,000 saved in a retirement portfolio and is currently paying 2% in fees could save $1,000 a year on costs alone if they switched over to “lower cost options and paid 1%,” said Grant Easterbrook, co-founder of Dream Forward Financial, a new low cost 401(k) plan based in NY.
“There are index funds that charge even less such as 0.2%,” he said. “If someone told you that you could get $1,000 a year, you would do it. Make 2016 the year you stop giving your money away to fees.”
By saving your raises and automating your savings by creating direct deposits to a myRA, contributing to a 401(k) or paying off your mortgage, you become “accustomed” to living on less money and not putting your retirement in jeopardy, Hopkins said.
“If your employer does not offer a retirement plan, you will need to be proactive and make your own by taking advantage of an IRA, Roth IRA, SEP IRA or the newly created myRA,” he said. “All of these accounts can be created early in 2016 and still allow you to save money in a tax advantaged manner for 2015. It’s still not too late to catch up on your retirement savings for 2015.”
If you switched jobs in 2015, now is the time to rollover an existing 401(k) into an IRA and consolidate both your fees and expenses and take advantage of the interest compounding.
“Having multiple retirement accounts from various jobs can make the retirement planning process more overwhelming, as well as inefficient,” said Joe O’Boyle, a financial advisor for Voya, the New York-based financial institution.