Your Back-to-School Financial Checklist

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Getty ImagesEven if you don't have any kids to buy school supplies for, the back-to-school season can serve as an excellent chance to revisit your finances.
By Susan Johnston

Many of us give ourselves a little more latitude (financially and personally) during summer. We'll have that extra mojito or leave work a little early on summer Fridays without thinking twice.

"Here in the Midwest [and elsewhere], we're trying to do as much as we can with travel," says Michael Foguth, president and founder of Foguth Financial Group in Howell, Michigan. "The sun is shining, we're spending more on gas and hotels." Yet as the seasonal spending starts to wind down, Foguth says you should ask yourself: "What do I need to prepare for?"

With the dog days of summer drawing to a close, back-to-school season is a good opportunity (even if you're not a parent or a student) to revisit your finances and get on track for the rest of the year. Here's a look at expert tips for checking in with your money goals and getting your financial house in order.

1. Assess where you stand. If you set financial goals at the beginning of the year, now's a good time to check your progress. "How much have you saved?" Foguth asks. "Are you on track for your goals? Or are you behind in that and need to catch up?" A good goal for most people, according to John Rosenfeld, head of everyday banking at Citizens Bank, is to save up at least three to six months' worth of living expenses in an emergency fund. Rosenfeld also suggests looking at financial areas you've been ignoring such as credit card balances or student loans.

2. Check (or create) your budget. On a more micro level, now's also a good time to check in with your budget (or if you don't have a budget, actually make one). "The majority of Americans do not have any kind of budget and do not monitor their cash flow," says Laura Adams, author of "Money Girl's Smart Moves to Grow Rich." "Most people find that they are overspending in ways that they don't realize, so it's about checking in, and if you're one of those really on-top-of-it people who already have a budget, make sure you're on target through the end of the year." If you've had a change in life circumstance earlier this year, such as a marriage, divorce, new baby or new job, it's doubly important to revisit and recalibrate your budget (and employer withholding) accordingly.

3. Break down your goals. If you're trying to reach a certain financial milestone by the end of the year, Foguth suggests breaking your goal down into smaller parts. Instead of saying, "I need to save $500 by December 24" (which could feel overwhelming to some people), calculate how much you need to save each week or month to make that happen. "If you need to save and you're behind your goal, re-evaluate your numbers and adjust your goal," Foguth adds.

4. Review your credit report. Consumers are entitled to one free credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies once a year through, so Adams recommends requesting a report from a different credit bureau every four months to spread it out. "Make sure you're not the victim of identity theft," she says. "Criminals can take your personal information and open up new accounts in your name, and you could have no idea that they'd done that unless you saw it on your credit report." In addition to suspicious activity, also make sure that the amount of debt reported matches your own records. If not, it's time to reconcile the difference.

5. Revisit your insurance needs. Adams recommends checking your insurance coverage once a year. Does the coverage still suit your needs? Are you overpaying for coverage? You can't always switch health insurance at any time of the year, but you can certainly switch homeowners or auto insurance providers if you find a better deal. "Check in, get quotes and compare that to your current coverage," Adams says. "You may find a better deal."

6. Look for rate-cutting opportunities. Most homeowners know they can refinance their mortgage to a lower rate (provided they qualify based on equity, credit standing and so on). But you can also refinance other types of loans, including student loans. "A lot of people who are paying student loans got them when the rates were much higher," Rosenfeld says. "By refinancing at a lower rate, you can pay less in total interest." If you have credit card debt and a decent credit score, explore zero percent balance transfer offers, but do the math to make sure that the savings won't be offset by other fees. Those without credit card debt might want to see if they can qualify for a credit card with better rewards or other perks. "Select the card that's a better deal than what you may have today," Rosenfeld says.

7. Optimize your tax strategies. Looking ahead to year-end, Rosenfeld suggests that consumers plan how they'll reduce their tax liability through charitable contributions or retirement contributions. If you haven't reached your 401(k) contribution limit yet and have extra money coming in, consider boosting your contributions to lower your taxable income and put aside extra money for retirement.
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