Basics of taxes

Income taxes are filed in April. School tuition is due in August. Open enrollment for company benefits is in November. With choices to be made and payments due left and right, when should a family evaluate its own finances?

Just as an annual medical checkup evaluates a person’s health, a financial checkup does the same for the family finances.

Too often people pay their bills without taking the time needed to dig into the financial papers. Not making necessary changes can cost your family money. You may not be taking advantage of helpful corporate benefits or saving enough money for their goals.

Performing an annual financial checkup can be a rewarding experience. Pick a date on the calendar and dig in. Here are the key things to look at:

1. Budget

Whether you keep detailed spreadsheets or you spend an hour pulling together invoices and receipts, it’s helpful to have a general idea where your money is going. Include broad categories such as housing, auto, student loans, investments, medical payments, groceries, dining and entertainment. If you’re not using a tracking system already, piece the categories together from credit card and bank statements.

Knowing where your money goes is step one in determining whether you’re comfortable with your spending. Sometimes just reviewing credit card statements is enough of a reminder to lower your monthly bill. For example, you may reduce spending by discontinuing memberships to clubs and retail chains that you don’t use regularly, or finding less expensive options on cable and cell phone packages.

2. Savings

It’s important to have at least three to six months of expenses in the bank. If one of the family’s breadwinners loses a job, the money can be handy for basic expenses and softens the financial blow. The emergency funds can also be tapped for unbudgeted home repairs or other unexpected costs. Evaluate how much money you are currently saving and what you want the money for. Setting goals can motivate you to save money to achieve these objectives.

3. Insurance review

Once a year, schedule an appointment with your insurance agent to go through your coverage. Perhaps your child will be driving soon and you want to find out how that affects your insurance. An upgrade such as a new roof or room addition can change your homeowners’ insurance coverage. Also, ensure that your life insurance is adequate for your family’s needs.

4. Company benefits

Open enrollment is usually in November, though companies often provide the benefits information a month or two before. Take advantage of that time to make sure your medical plan is adequate for your family. If your company offers health savings accounts (HSA) or flexible spending accounts (FSA), get more information about them and possibly enroll in those as well. They save you money by setting aside pretax income to use on qualified expenses, which means you pay less in taxes. Companies often provide access to a benefits advisor at this time of year.

5. Debt management

Whether it’s a car loan, student loan, credit card debt, home equity loan or mortgage, once a year look at what you owe. Can you set aside extra money to pay off some of these debts early? Should you consider refinancing your mortgage or your car, if the interest rate is lower than what you’re paying? Money that you’re not paying in interest is like money you earn, so a lower interest rate can help you get out of debt sooner.

6. College savings plans

As part of the budget, many families put money aside for their kids’ college tuition. If you don’t yet have a college savings plan, consider opening a 529 Plan. It lets you save money in a tax-advantaged way. Even if your child is a few years away from college, you can still open an account and put away some money.

The once-a-year time spent assessing your family finances can pay off in spades. Family circumstances change throughout the year, just as financial plans and benefits change. Taking the pulse on your family’s financial situation will keep you healthier and in better financial shape over the long run.