On the calendar, the new year begins Jan. 1. But in today's society it starts the day after Labor Day, the moment when vacations are over, the kids are back in school and work resumes in earnest.
And in many ways, early September is a better time than December and January to do a wide-ranging review of a family's economic situation. The holiday rush is not yet at hand, most of the professionals you might need are back at work, and a good part of the year's income and spending records are available.
More important, many key changes, or opportunities for change, take place late in the year, such as open season for fringe benefits at work, and a review now will better position you to make the right choices when the options are presented.
Also, planning as summer turns into fall can help keep year-end holiday spending under control--a chronic problem for many families, often leaving parents so concerned with just getting the bills paid that they are hard-pressed to do any long-range thinking.
Family financial lives are now very complex. Thanks to inflation--and for the lucky ones, prosperity--the typical Washington area family runs as much money through its books each year as a modest-sized business did a generation ago.
Further, matters such as retirement saving, education planning, life and health insurance, even choosing a bank account or a long-distance phone service, are now stunningly complicated. The truly wealthy can afford paid advisers to deal with these issues, but others must rely on their own wits.
So why not take a few evenings over the next few weeks and sit down with your books and records to see where you stand and what you can do to improve things? Here are some key areas to look at and some thoughts about getting the most out of them:
Pensions and retirement saving. It's a lucky worker today who has a traditional pension funded entirely by the employer. More often, workers have a retirement savings plan, such as a 401(k), that they must fund themselves in whole or in part and make investment decisions about.
If you have such a plan, you should make every effort to participate, especially if it's your only retirement plan. Beyond that, find out if your company makes matching contributions, and try to participate at least up to that amount.
If you are already in such a plan, consider boosting your contribution. Generally, the overall annual limit on contributions is $10,000, but there are special rules that may apply. Talk to your benefits office about the tax treatment of your contributions. At some point you may find putting money into a traditional or Roth IRA may be preferable to additional contributions to your 401(k).
Finally, every few years you should re-examine the allocation of your retirement assets. As retirement nears, it is prudent to shift some of the money into more stable assets, such as bonds and money market funds. But don't overdo it. Unless you've been very lucky and have a big bundle (or plan to die early), you'll need to leave some of your funds in assets with good growth potential.
Other savings. Do you have other savings goals? A house, for example, or the kids' college? Think about the time frame involved as well as the amounts. If time is short, stocks are a risky place to be. And you don't want to lose a dream house because the market tanked just as you were about to sign the contract.
Think also about your alternatives. For education, there is now a mind-boggling range of choices, from the $500-a-year Education IRA to state-run education savings trusts (sometimes known as 529 plans) that let you put in up to $100,000 or more to grow tax-deferred. There are also prepaid tuition contracts in many states, including Maryland and Virginia.
Insurance. Both property and life insurance should be reviewed every few years. Auto insurance rates have been falling in recent years. If you've been with the same carrier for years, it's worth shopping around. You can do that on the Internet, and one company, Progressive, has even been advertising that it will quote you rates from competitors if they are lower.
Homeowners should check their policies periodically as well. Home values and construction costs keep rising, and may have outrun your coverage. You don't want to learn that after a big storm.
Life insurance is more complicated, but if you have dependents who would struggle financially if something happened to you, you should look into it. Many employers offer group term policies at reasonable prices. And don't overlook disability coverage; you don't have to die to have your salary cut off.
Many companies offer various levels of medical insurance, with differing deductibles and co-pays. If you are young, single and in good health, you can often save money by treating your health insurance as true insurance--coverage against a catastrophe--while paying minor bills yourself. Two-income couples should analyze carefully how they can get the best deal if both employers offer coverage. Most employers now coordinate benefits, so staying on both employers' plans often isn't cost-effective.
If your employer offers several options and you can choose every year--the government is a classic example--think about health problems you expect to need care for and see which plan best matches your needs. That plan may cost more, but maybe you can switch the following year. Insurers hate this, but hey.
Review spending. All of the above may seem fairly daunting, but if you are making a good income, you should be able to do a fair amount of saving. If not, it's time to sit down with the checkbook, credit card statements and other records and find out where it's all going.
It's surprising what leaky pocketbooks many of us have, but it's also true that at least some of the spending goes for things we don't really need. Even small savings, such as bringing lunch from home, add up over time. Couple them with the occasional big one--say, a camping vacation in a state park in place of a week at Disney World--and pretty soon you're talking about real money.
High-tech millionaires get a lot of attention these days, but if you stay around Washington long enough, you'll discover more than a few very well-off people who never earned more than a government salary. Their secret: They spent less than they earned, and they invested the difference.