Extra Time on Your Hands? Use it Wisely to Tackle Your Financial To-Do List
If you're worried about losing your job or seeing your income fall (or if you're just bored!), there's no better time than now to do all you can to solidify your finances.
The coronavirus has completely changed our everyday routines. Many people are working from home instead driving to the office and have a less rushed work/life pace. With this extra time, people are spending it with their families, helping their children get through the most unusual school year they may ever experience, or conquering overdue yard projects. And while it’s more fun to have a Zoom meeting with family members on the West Coast, it’s also a good time to update several financial and legal matters.
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Here are a few recommendations that will serve you well financially now and once the current environment settles back down.
Develop a budget to get through this economic downturn
Very few people have a documented budget, and even fewer regularly monitor their budget. Use this extra time to review year-end credit card and bank statements.
What categories do you spend the most money in? What are your true fixed living expenses, like your mortgage, property taxes and utilities? How much of your annual cashflow goes toward discretionary expenses, such as vacations, entertainment, a golf club membership? Knowing your base level of living expenses is important to ensure you have enough cash in the bank to ride out an economic storm, especially for those working who may fear their job is in jeopardy.
Next, assess the amount of cash you have in the bank. Most people should have at least three to six months of cash to pay bills in case of an emergency — such as the loss of a job or downturn in a business. People in their 50s or 60s and nearing retirement should be even more conservative, aiming to have one to three years of living expenses in a cash savings account. This will enable you to ride out any downturn or recession without needing to tap into your investments.
It’s also a good time to eliminate any unnecessary expenses. Because of “shelter in place” orders, many people are spending less money, as there’s simply limited ways to spend right now. Vacations are being postponed, flights are on hold, dining out has turned into an occasional grab-and-go meal. If these expense reductions are significant, use this time to build up your savings account as you plan for the future.
Consider refinancing your mortgage
If you have owned your home for several years, and will likely live there for several more years, review the interest rate on your mortgage against current rates. Run the break-even calculation to determine how long it will take to recoup the up-front refinance costs vs. the extra interest you’ll be saving each month.
Refinancing could cut hundreds of dollars from your monthly payment or even enable you to move from a 30-year to a 15-year loan. If you are unsure about your job security, it’s best to refinance while you have a regular paycheck coming in.
Review your will and other legal documents
As unlikely as it seems, I find most of my new clients don’t have a will or it’s decades old. Beneficiary designations are not matched up with their will or trust documents, and financial and health care powers of attorney are outdated, if they can even be located.
Take time now to set up a Zoom meeting with an estate attorney to discuss your will and overall estate plan. There have been a number of tax law changes over the past few years, including the SECURE Act passed in December 2019, that are impactful to estate plans. In some cases, you can simplify your will and make things much more streamlined than the type of wills typically drawn up a decade ago.
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Reviewing your will and estate plan every five years or when there’s a major life event is often a recommendation lawyers make. Take the example of a married couple with young children. At the time their first will was drawn up, the parents’ biggest concern was naming a guardian for their children. Now as their children are grown, the greatest concern is protecting their children’s inheritance from a future divorce or potential lawsuit. The amount of wealth to plan for can be very different over a span of a decade, tax laws change regularly, and legal documents need to be modified to keep up with a family’s current circumstances. Use this downtime to focus on the legal matters that have a large impact on your family.
Locate and examine your insurance documents
As with wills, insurance needs change over time. Years ago, you may have purchased millions of dollars worth of term life insurance when you had young children, a big mortgage, college to save for, and were worried about what a loss of income could do to your family.
If you are now nearing retirement, kids are almost through college, and you have a sizable 401(k) balance, the need for life insurance may be significantly reduced or even eliminated. Yet you’re entering a phase where long-term care insurance coverage is more important, and future health care expenses are rising rapidly. Gather together your insurance policies, understand what you have and what you are paying for, and discuss your risk management goals with an insurance agent. You may even find you can “refinance” your insurance portfolio and save some money, while getting more appropriate insurance policies in force now.
Plan for your 2020 taxes
The slowing economy means many people will earn less in 2020 than in previous years. Their investment portfolios may not have the sizable gains as in 2019, they may not receive a bonus or their businesses may not be a profitable. Work out a strategy on withholding taxes or estimated payments with your tax adviser to account for adjusted 2020 income, to ensure you’re not overpaying taxes during the year. This can also help with budgeting and cashflow, and using money otherwise earmarked for taxes toward other financial goals this year.
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About the Author
Partner and Wealth Advisor, Brightworth
Lisa Brown, author of "Girl Talk, Money Talk, The Smart Girl's Guide to Money After College," is the Chief Strategy Officer for corporate professionals and executives at wealth management firm Brightworth in Atlanta. Advising busy corporate executives on their finances for nearly 20 years has been her passion inside the office. Outside the office she's an avid runner and supporter of charitable causes focused on homeless children and their families.