If you saw a mysterious $4 entry on your income tax return, would you sweat it? What if you were a billionaire many times over — would it even catch your eye?
It would if you were Warren Buffett, who in an interview a few years ago copped to tracking down just such a puzzling item (a royalty payment, it turns out). If the billionaire at the helm of Berkshire Hathaway has time to research a $4 discrepancy, those of us in the cheap seats can carve out an hour each quarter for a financial review.
By doing a quarterly review, you’ll have a clear picture of your overall net worth and a baseline from which to determine if you’re on the right track. More to the point: This will answer once and for all the burning question, “Can I afford a 34-inch LCD TV?” (Or maybe that’s just my burning question.)
It’s easy to get mired in the day-to-day details of keeping your empire running smoothly. So step back and answer these four big-picture questions.
Are operating costs under control? Have you overlooked new fees and unused services while feeding statement filler to the shredder? Review bills (utilities, insurance, etc.) for funny stuff and red-flag any pending budget busters (leaky roof? arthritic pet?). If you don’t have a handle on where your everyday money really goes, it may be time to set up a spending plan.
Are deficits on the downward spiral? For any lingering “bad debts” (credit cards, car loans), having a payoff plan will keep daily stress in check. Note progress and obstacles, such as changes in your credit card terms.
Are you adequately funding your cash cushion? Short-term savings (a.k.a. your emergency fund) are best kept separate from your day-to-day cash. Is your cash stash suitably funded? Are you earning decent interest on your dough?
Is your investment plan up to snuff? Review your retirement account (IRA, 401(k)) contributions to see if you’re on track to max out the accounts. Evaluate your portfolio’s holdings (a great excuse to set up online tracking if you haven’t already) and reassess each position using what investing luminary Peter Lynch calls the “two-minute drill” — i.e., the reasons you bought shares in the business and any red flags on the fundamentals.
Steps to follow
Once you’ve asked those questions, here’s an easy game plan to follow for getting your finances in order. Under each step, note progress and list action steps (e.g., “Set up Roth IRA”) with deadlines. And for motivation, come up with a reward to enjoy at the end of your meeting.
Step 1: Update your personal balance sheet (what you own and what you owe). This will take about 15 to 20 minutes. Simply record the balances of the following items: checking/savings accounts; brokerage accounts; retirement accounts; home equity; short-term debt (credit cards, student/auto loans); and long-term debt (mortgage). Note what direction your money’s going (up, down, haywire). If this is your first review, you now have a baseline for your next quarterly comparison.
Step 2: Review status of achieving mission statement. If you have formal saving/spending goals in place, map out the progress you’ve made in the past three months. If you don’t have goals already, take 15 minutes to compose your short-, mid-, and long-term goals.
Step 3: Dig into operating costs. The best CEOs make sure every dollar they spend and save is aligned with their goals. If you haven’t already done so, have everyone track their spending for a month — or at least the next week. Then reconvene to see how your spending stacks up and if tweaks need to be made.
Step 4: Make the next three months matter. There’s a lot you can do right now to improve your future. Put each action step on a calendar (in pen!) to review at your next shareholder meeting. Make assignments: “Buffy: Shop for summer getaway airfare. Mikey: Find best credit card for balance transfers. Madge: Set up automated transfer into IRA.”
Step 5: Schedule your next quarterly summit — then dive into your shareholder reward. You are now among the small minority of Americans who has a true handle on their finances.
The $500 difference
If you need a little push before diving into the quarterly review, let’s look at the cost of spotty money management. Over one year, saving just $10 a week (assuming a 6% annual rate of return) adds up to $543. On the minus side of the ledger, putting that same $10 on a credit card that charges 18% interest will cost you $43 in interest. Keep it up, and after 15 years of charging $10 a week, you’ll owe $40,000!
Suddenly, the small stuff doesn’t seem so small, does it? Maybe that Buffett guy is on to something.