People who read this column on a regular basis probably also read other newspaper and magazine articles on personal finances. You should all know, then, that to gain and maintain control of your money you must have a financial plan.

Any good financial plan attempts to answer three basic questions: Where am I now? Where do I want to get? How do I get there from here?

Answering the second and third questions can be quite difficult. You may very well have multiple goals: education for your children, retirement for yourself, cash to start a business. The third question is complicated by the increasing number and variety of investment media clamoring for a piece of your money.

On the other hand, answering the first question is usually easier. Yet a lot of people never get past that first hurdle -- and the answer to the first question really must precede any attempt to resolve the other two.

There is nothing particularly mysterious about preparing a personal inventory of your present financial situation, and it need not be a elaborate undertaking. It is simply a list of your assets (what you own) and your liabilities (what you owe).

When you get the two sides of your personal balance sheet completed, you add both lists. The difference between the two totals is your "net worth" -- positive if assets are larger than liabilities, negative if it's the other way around.

If you have never drawn up such an inventory, anytime is a good time to start. From a practical point of view, end-of-the-year is probably the most logical place to base your count. As an alternative, you might prefer to do it in conjunction with preparation of your income tax return, when you've working with your financial records anyway.

The date you select is really not critical. What is important is that you prepare your accounting on at least an annual basis, and at around the same time each year. After a financial plan has been developed, "feedback" -- a periodic look at progress -- is crucial.

Don't let the jargon frighten you off. Feedback is nothing more than a comparison of successive statements and with your original plans to see how well you are moving towards your goals.

Ideally, your net worth -- the difference between assets and liabilities -- should improve each year. But in the real world, the rate of increase will vary from year to year, and there may even be some years when net worth goes down. At the very least, this annual stock-taking will give you a clue as to where you're heading and whether you need to make changes in your lifestyle.

The important point here is that you must start with a baseline. If you haven't been doing this in the past, a good New Year's resolution would be to make your first financial inventory now and then to continue with an annual checkup to answer the question "How'm I doin'?"

Q: Would you please explain how gains and losses on the sale of stock in a self-directed IRA are treated on my tax return? Do I report these gains/loses on my 1984 return or wait unitl I begin withdrawing from my IRA to report them?

A: Tax reporting on all transactions in a self--directed IRA is deferred until withdrawals begin. When you do begin withdrawals, the original nature of all income to the account is lost; the total withdrawal amount is reported as ordinary income on your tax return for the year in which withdrawn.

This is why it is usually best to make transactions expected to generate capital gains or losses outside the IRA, so that you can take advantage of the special tax treatment afforded long-term gains, and can use losses to offset current income.

The same rule applies to tax-exempt income, such as interest from municipal bonds. The tax-exempt nature of the income is lost in the IRA, and is fully taxable when it comes out after retirement.

Your best bet in an IRA is usually an investment expected to generate current income rather than long-term growth -- income that would otherwise be taxable.