Have you achieved all of the goals you set for 2015? If some of your 2015 New Year's resolutions remain unresolved, don't get discouraged. There's no time like the present to cross a few items off your to-do list after the holidays. Doing so will ward off the post-holiday blues and set a positive tone for achieving the rest of your personal financial goals in 2016. Here are a few simple ideas.
1. Refinance Your Mortgage
In December, the Federal Reserve announced that it would increase the target range for the federal funds rate to 0.25% to 0.5%. Although the central bank has kept this rate near zero since December 2009, it concluded that economic activity — including household spending, business fixed investment and labor market conditions — has been expanding at a moderate pace. So, it's calling for "gradual adjustments" to monetary policy throughout 2016, depending on economic conditions. Despite this increase in the federal funds rate, mortgage rates are still low compared to the historical averages. And, according to the Federal Reserve, "The federal funds rate is likely to remain, for some time, below levels that are expected to prevail in the longer run."
If you've been meaning to refinance your mortgage but haven't started the process yet, now may be your last chance to act before rates return to historical norms.
Most banks reserve their best rates for people with excellent credit scores who have at least 20% equity invested in their homes. You can lower your rate further by reducing its term (20-year loans are generally cheaper than 30-year loans) and providing a lump-sum payment towards equity at closing. Adjustable-rate loans usually have lower interest rates, too. But beware: These can be risky over the long run, because your mortgage rate can reset significantly higher as inflation rises.
Whether refinancing makes sense depends on more than the differential between your home's existing interest rate and today's prevailing interest rate. It also depends on how long you plan to live in your home, the closing costs and the term of your new loan.
2. Evaluate Your Insurance Coverage
Take stock of your insurance needs, including:
- Life and disability;
- Flood and disaster;
- Medical and dental; and
You might need more or less coverage (or higher or lower deductibles) than last year, as life situations evolve. Employer-provided policies usually can be modified at the company's fiscal year-end (or if your life situation changes). Consider shopping around now for other types of coverage.
Although it's easier to maintain the status quo, don't automatically renew without obtaining some competing bids. Often, bundling all your policies with one provider can lower costs.
Life insurance is a product that many people purchase — and then like to forget about. Every year, ask yourself whether existing coverage (combined with your savings and investments) will give your loved ones enough cash for a decent lifestyle if you should die prematurely.
One rule of thumb for a "primary breadwinner" is that coverage should be equal to six to ten times income. For example, if you have income of $75,000, purchase $450,000 to $750,000 of death benefits. You may want to be on the higher end of this range (or above) if you have young children, dependents with special needs, large debts or other out-of-the-ordinary considerations.
Also, review your life insurance beneficiaries. In some cases, you may want to add (or remove) a loved one, depending on changes in your family situation, such as divorce and the birth or adoption of a new child.
3. Cut Extraneous Spending
Take a hard look at your monthly expenses to decide what you can realistically eliminate. Many vendors — such as health clubs, magazines, online greeting card companies, anti-wrinkle (or acne) creams and anti-virus software — automatically renew monthly or annual memberships in accordance with the fine print on the original contract. Consumers who lose interest in these products are often too preoccupied to cancel them. Doing so can save hundreds of dollars over a year.
Also, compute how much you spend on dining out. Yearly totals might be sobering!
Other extraneous items are a matter of common sense and changing times. For instance, do you still need a landline at home, or will a cell phone suffice? Are you really watching all premium cable channels (that may have started out free), or could you downgrade your cable services? Often bundling cable, phone, internet and cell services can result in annual savings.
4. Start College Savings Programs
If you have children (or grandchildren), rising college fees are probably a concern. The average annual cost of a four-year institution for the 2015-2016 academic year ranged from $19,548 to $43,921, depending on whether the student is in-state or out-of-state and whether the institution is public or private, according to the College Board. These amounts include tuition, room, board and fees.
Who's going to pay for college in your family — and how? Fortunately, there are many college savings options, such as:
- Section 529 plans,
- Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, and
- U.S. Savings Bonds.
Each option offers state and federal tax breaks, risks and rewards, restrictions and limitations. For more information, consult with your financial professional. The sooner you start saving for college, the more affordable it will be.
5. Make or Update a Formal Estate Plan
Begin estate planning with an inventory of your assets, including:
- Cash and marketable securities,
- Insurance policies,
- Business interests,
- Automobiles, and
- Real estate.
Personal assets — such as jewelry and artwork — also can possess significant monetary (and sentimental) value. The difference between your assets and liabilities is your net taxable estate.
In 2016, you can transfer as much as $5.45 million of assets without incurring federal gift, estate or generation-skipping transfer tax. That doesn't include the annual gift tax exclusion of $14,000 per year per donor and recipient. Estate tax is calculated on the net value of the decedent's assets as of the date of death — or on the alternate valuation date, which is six months later.
Federal estate tax rates are currently as high as 40%. Quite a few states also impose estate or inheritance tax at a lower threshold (and possibly with a different lifetime gift exemption or portability provision) than the federal government does.
In addition to outright gifts, you can use other estate planning tools — such as qualified terminable interest property trusts, Crummey trusts and family limited partnerships — to minimize estate tax. They may also achieve other estate planning objectives, such as professional asset management, protection against creditors' claims and preservation of the portability provision in generation-skipping transfers and remarriages.
6. Meet with Your Advisers
These are just a few ideas for a healthy start to the New Year. Your financial and legal advisers can help devise a more comprehensive plan for adding discipline and trimming the fat from your financial budget in 2016.