The changing tides and fortunes of the stock market and the undulating emotions of investors make this one of those rare times when a few key common steps could deliver real financial benefits.
I talked to a small group of consumers and savers recently and was asked about my “year-end advice” for investors. The group wanted the live version of “Five things to do before the year ends.”
Generally, I hate year-end tips because most December-based financial advice is standard and bland, with “tips” that apply situationally to a small percentage of the populace which typically knows it can benefit from a strategic move long before reading about it somewhere. Moreover, most year-end moves have a tough time generating real value.
Thus, I moved past the question without answering it.
On my way home, however, I realized that while I don’t have much to offer in year-end advice, there is plenty to discuss in year-ahead advice. The changing tides and fortunes of the stock market and the undulating emotions of investors make this one of those rare times when a few key common steps could deliver real financial benefits.
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The year-end time frame is not essential to the advice here; all of the same steps an investor would be wise to take now could be just as prudent, say, at midyear 2019.
But New Year’s Day is always an impetus for change, so if you can fix some financial wrongs before the start of the year, go for it. Here are five forward-looking financial moves to make before the New Year:
• Rebalance your portfolio (… and check your financial plan.)
This has been a year when volatility re-entered the picture; the February bumps were easy to get past, but the October doldrums have shaken investor confidence.
Rebalancing makes changes without succumbing to the nerves.
Many investors have let their winners run throughout the decadelong bull market and now have portfolios that are too heavy in stocks or overweight certain sectors. Rebalancing means selling some leaders and reinvesting into laggards until your portfolio is back to your target allocations.
Thus, if the 50-50 stock/bond portfolio you set up a decade ago is now closer to 75-25, sell stocks and buy bonds until you are back on plan and feel properly balanced.
Before you rebalance, however, be sure your allocation plan is still appropriate. Your risk tolerance or financial situation may have changed since you last rebalanced; make sure not only that you are on-plan, but that your plan reflects your current status, needs and financial condition.
• Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Many people start out their investment lives as collectors, buying things here or there, adding retirement plans through work, until they ultimately have a bunch of stuff instead of a portfolio. Worse, they often either a) lose the same amount of brain time worrying about some small 401(k) account from long ago as they do working with their much-larger current accounts, or b) lose track of small, old accounts.
Consolidate accounts wherever and whenever possible. Many fund companies that once sold only direct to the public are now available on platforms run by the major brokerages or fund families; get your investments under one or two roofs, instead of having them spread out and hard to follow.
And while you are simplifying, check out the online offerings of your financial firms. Consider getting rid of paper statements — if you haven’t already — once you are familiar with your providers’ web portals.
If the market is as volatile as many observers suggest it will be in 2019, the more easily you can see what you have got and recognize what is happening, the better off you will be. Closing and consolidating accounts — especially if there are no associated tax consequences — always is a savvy move.
• Get an insurance checkup.
2018 has brought us stories of fires, tornadoes, floods and any other disaster you can imagine. What has happened behind the scenes, however, has at times been equally devastating, with people finding out that insurance protection they paid for was inadequate. Review your needs and your situation, both for where additional coverage is appropriate and also where you can do without. Insure what you can’t afford to lose or pay to replace.
Moreover, recognize that in the competitive world of insurance, real money can often be saved without the loss of protection.
Insurers are happy to keep collecting on policies put in place decades ago, even when the deal they might offer if you were a new customer today would be different (and cheaper) from what was available back when you signed up for protection.
• Go on a search-and-destroy mission on fees and unnecessary charges.
A friend recently told me that our old gym had charged him a $5 monthly fee for being an “inactive member.” He had quit the gym while injured, but kept paying because he missed the fine print in a contract.
It’s a common problem. Most people don’t look at all account statements closely, so they miss things like the $3 fee for getting a paper bank statement or the $1-a-month charge for some old subscription, or worse, the real dollars involved in services that were paid for but are now seldom used.
Search your credit and bank accounts for any recurring charges, monthly fees, unused memberships or subscriptions and more.
Every dollar you save here is pure profit, money you spent on nothing that benefitted you; while you can’t control what happens to your investments in the market, you can eliminate unnecessary fees and expenses.
• Get your life documents in order.
Just as 2018 was a wake-up call to volatility, insurance coverage and more, so should it remind us that we can’t avoid the inevitable forever.
If you haven’t updated your will, beneficiary documents, health-care proxy and more, review those papers to ensure they reflect the changes in your life since they were first drawn up.
If 2019 is a continuation of the turmoil seen in 2018, the value of peace of mind will skyrocket; capture that payoff by getting your affairs in order before serious problems force you to do it under duress.