Since this is the last column of the year, it's the right time to talk again about a perennial favorite topic: the need to take stock of your financial situation.
Everyone should have a financial plan. Well, not everyone -- I'm enough of a realist to understand that quite a few of the good folk in the land are just barely making it from day to day.
This column is aimed primarily at the large middle class, and not at either the poor or the rich. The poor don't need me to tell them they're in trouble; and the wealthy can afford personal counseling.
So to the rest of my audience I say: Get thee a financial plan. This is no more than a feeling for where you want to go in financial terms, plus some idea of how you expect to get there.
It involves nothing more complicated than making a list of what you own (your assets, to an accountant) and what you owe (your liabilities). When you add up the two lists, the difference between the two totals is your net worth, another accounting term.
I have my own ideas -- which differ in some respects from most others -- on what should go into your lists.
Perhaps that's because I really think there are two different kinds of personal balance sheets. One is what might be called an estate inventory, on which you would include every item with a value that can be converted to cash in the event of your death.
The other kind of balance sheet -- the one we're discussing here -- might be called a living inventory. On this balance sheet you include only the things that have cash equivalency as a part of and in terms of your daily life.
Following that line of reasoning, I suggest you omit such things as furniture, jewelry, clothing and cars. Although these are assets with some value, they are not resources, because you would not normally sell them to generate cash.
The same reasoning is true of art objects such as paintings, etchings, or sculpture, and collectibles such as stamps or coins, which you bought for your personal pleasure. But if you bought any of these as investments and are holding them primarily for that purpose, then do include them as balance sheet assets.
What then should go on the asset list? Cash assets such as a savings account, certificates of deposit, and money market fund shares (plus any Spanish doubloons stuffed in the mattress or buried in a coffee can in the back yard).
Don't count the money in your checking account, since for most people that's a fluctuating balance used to pay current expenses. By the same token, omit from the list of liabilities any credit card balance you expect to pay from that checking account during the current month.
Then include any investment paper like Treasury bills and notes, corporate and municipal bonds, stocks, investment partnerships, mutual fund and unit trust shares -- priced at market value on the date of inventory.
List your home (unless you're renting) and any other real estate you own, at net value--that is, your best estimate of selling price minus agent's commission and other expenses of sale.
Don't subtract the mortgage from the value to get a net figure. Instead, list the current mortgage balance as a liability, along with any home improvement, car or other personal loan.
Count as assets the cash value of any permanent plan life insurance, the vested value of your company pension plan, and the present market value of IRA and Keogh accounts.
When you've finished listing assets and liabilities, you can come up with your current net worth. And if you go through this exercise every year, you can develop a good picture of how well you're moving along toward your personal financial goal.