By Kimberly Palmer
With just a few months left until the end of the year, it's time to squeeze in some last-minute retirement savings, revisit financial goals from the beginning of the year and update your insurance accounts, among other tasks. U.S. News reached out to financial planners about the action steps you should take now to make sure your money is in tiptop shape for the new year. Here are their suggestions:
1. Squeeze in more retirement savings. When it comes to maxing out your 401(k), you still have time to increase your savings rate into your employer-sponsored retirement accounts before the end of the year. For 2015, those under age 50 can contribute up to the maximum of $18,000, which is an increase of $500 over last year. For those age 50 and over, the maximum is an additional $6,000. Mary Beth Storjohann, certified financial planner in the San Diego area and founder of Workable Wealth, recommends checking your account to see how close you are to the maximum and to increase contributions accordingly. Another option, she says, is to contribute to a Roth IRA, which has a maximum of $5,500 for the year (and an extra $1,000 for those age 50 and over). "If you can't do the maximum, work to put as much as you can away," she says.
2. Don't forget to check your accounts. Daniel Wrenne, a certified financial planner and founder of Wrenne Financial Planning in Lexington, Kentucky, says people often forget to check in on their retirement accounts, which are often housed in separate financial institutions than checking and savings accounts used for daily expenses. He points out that you might even need to pull out a calculator to make sure you're hitting your maximum contribution limits. "You'd think there'd be a box to check that says, 'Max it out,' but it requires a little bit of planning," he says. Another risk is maxing out too early in the year, which in some cases can mean earning less of your company's matching plan. He recommends a slow and steady approach, contributing the same percentage from each paycheck throughout the year.
%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-449%3. Consider a conversion. Ben Wacek, certified financial planner and founder of Wacek Financial Planning in Minneapolis, says anyone who has a lower income this year, perhaps because of a gap in employment, should consider converting money from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA. That way, you'll pay taxes on that income during a year when your tax rate is lower than usual. The deadline for Roth conversions is Dec. 31, he adds, not April 15 like regular Roth IRA contributions. "It's a great chance to pay tax in the year that you're in a lower tax bracket," he says.
4. Think big. Katie Brewer, certified financial planner and founder of Garland, Texas-based Your Richest Life, suggests stepping back and examining your overall financial situation. If you changed jobs, sold or bought a house, or expanded your family, you might need to add new insurance policies, adopt a more ambitious savings policy or rebalance your long-term investments. "Life changes almost always necessitate a review of your financial situation," she says.
5. Give yourself assignments. Storjohann adds that after holding a money review with yourself, you can give yourself one assignment a week for the rest of the year. That could include creating a plan for paying off debt, reviewing investments or calculating your net worth. The weekly approach helps prevent you from feeling overwhelmed and also guarantees that you'll end the year on strong financial footing.
6. Change up your goals. Eric Roberge, certified financial planner and founder of the firm Beyond Your Hammock in the Boston area, says he often finds that clients' goals have changed by the time fall rolls around. If you've already achieved your target for funding an emergency savings account, for example, then you can shift the excess savings into a more aggressively invested account to maximize returns. After one client reviewed his goals set earlier in the year, he realized he no longer wanted to be saving for a home, so he shifted his savings into other investments. "You might want to be putting that money toward something else," Roberge says. "If the goal is 10 years down the road, then maybe shift some money into the stock market."
7. Rebalance accounts. In light of the recent market volatility, now is a great time to rebalance your investments, suggests Kristi Sullivan, a certified financial planner based in Denver. "Rebalancing means taking those assets that are above your target percentage and selling what you have too much of to buy what you have too little of," she says. "Professional money managers usually do this quarterly for clients, but once or twice per year will do the trick, too." If you're selling positions at a loss in a taxable account, then you can take advantage of a tax write-off for 2015, she adds.
8. Look back at spending. Reviewing where your money has gone so far in the year will help you plan for next year, Brewer says. "Figure out if you need better systems in place, like a separate savings account for travel and vacations, or putting business expenses on a separate credit card," she says.
9. Rein in kid-related expenses to prioritize college savings. If you have children, then you are probably familiar with the exorbitant expenses that can come with a new school year and new activities. Kevin Reardon, president of Shakespeare Wealth Management in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, warns that many parents end up overspending on club sports in particular at the expense of college savings. He has spent thousands of dollars on his three children's athletic pursuits and questions the high school culture that encourages that kind of spending. "If I hadn't spent $25,000, that money could have gone elsewhere," he says.
10. Watch monthly costs. If you haven't reviewed your cable and wireless bills recently, now is a good time to do so, suggests Andy Tate, a certified financial planner at Tate & Setterlund in Minneapolis. He calls his providers at least once a year to request a lower rate and saves money every time, he says. When he called his phone company, he got a new and cheaper data plan that still fit his needs. When he called his cable company, he mentioned a competitor's offer and received a matching offer. "They almost always are willing," he says.
11. Dream of next summer's vacation. It might seem early, but planning for next year's summer vacation now can help ensure you have the funds to pay for it, says Jason Reiman, a certified financial planner based in the Tucson, Arizona area. He adds that by encouraging clients to focus on such an enjoyable goal -- vacation -- it gives them more positive feelings around saving and budgeting.
12. Save any surplus. Employees earning over $118,500 will get a boost in their paycheck toward the end of the year after they've maxed out their Social Security contributions for the year. "Instead of just consuming this 'bonus,' put it to work to increase your emergency reserves, pay down any consumer debt, fund a Roth IRA or set it aside for a vacation or holiday travel," suggests Charleston, South Carolina-based Tim Maurer, director of personal finance for the BAM Alliance, a community of investors and advisers, and author of the forthcoming book, "Simple Money."
13. Contribute to a 529 account. Evan Beach, a certified financial planner and wealth manager at Campbell Wealth Management in Alexandria, Virginia, suggests contributing to a 529 college savings plan to help pay for children's or grandchildren's future educations. He points out that for grandparents, the annual gift limit of $14,000 a child can actually be combined up to five years in advance. That means you can put $70,000 in a 529 account in one year without triggering federal gift taxes. That way, the money gets into the market more quickly.
14. Check your emergency fund. Artie Green, a certified financial planner at Cognizant Wealth Advisors in Palo Alto, California, encourages clients to have at least three to six months' worth of expenses in the bank and to adjust the amount based on family size and current savings. "It should be kept in very liquid and very safe investments," he says.
15. Review beneficiaries. Tate says clients often forget to update their employer benefits after marriage or other major life events. "It's good to align beneficiary designations with your estate planning documents," he says. Similarly, he suggests reviewing your current insurance coverage to make sure you're not overpaying for coverage you no longer need (or are underinsured because you've acquired new assets).
16. Get more insurance. On the same note, Maurer recommends making sure you have enough auto coverage and checking that your liability limits are sufficient. Some people, especially those with significant assets, might want to also take out an umbrella liability policy for more coverage. Disability insurance is also an important category to review to make sure you and your family would be protected in the event of a disability interfering with your ability to work.
17. Organize your taxes. Sure, April 15 is still a long way off, but Brewer says if you start collecting information now, including any relevant receipts, then it will be much easier to submit your taxes early in the new year -- and get any refund earlier, too.
18. Take advantage of tax credits. Also with taxes in mind, Charlotte Dougherty, a certified financial planner based in Cincinnati, recommends using your credit card to purchase items in December that might be tax deductible, even if you'll pay the bill in 2016. "If you are able to charge some deductible expenses on your credit card prior to Dec. 31, then it can generate deductions for this year," she says. Examples of deductibles or tax credits include investments in energy-efficient home improvements or certain school expenses . "Taxes are something that many of us don't want to think about, but you can get a lot by paying a little more attention to your tax return," she says.
19. Make donations. Mitchell Kraus, a certified financial planner at Capital Intelligence Associates in Santa Monica, California, encourages clients to finalize their charitable plans this fall and make contributions by Dec. 31 so it counts toward your 2015 contributions for tax purposes. Charitable giving can also be a great way to teach children about the value of giving back, he adds.
In the spirit of giving back, Lynne Strang, a Washington-based author who used to work in the financial services industry, says that as a result of her and her family's love of reading, they have a lot of books around the house. "I usually donate some of them to a public library during the last quarter of the year, which provides a charitable donation and more room on our shelves."
20. Make preventive care appointments. You have until March 2016 to spend any remaining money in your health care flexible spending account, says Pamela Capalad, certified financial planner and founder of financial planning firm Brunch & Budget in Brooklyn. She suggests replacing your contact lenses, as well as making any preventive care appointments you need.
Kimberly Palmer is a senior editor for U.S. News Money. She is the author of the new book, "The Economy of You." You can follow her on Twitter @alphaconsumer, circle her on Google Plus or email her at email@example.com.
By Kimberly Palmer