Take these steps soon and you’ll improve your finances for the entire year.
By Kimberly Lankford
Early in the new year is a great time to take advantage of new opportunities to save and improve your finances. Here are 10 financial moves to make in the next few months.
1. Stash more money in your retirement accounts. The new year brings new contribution limits for 401(k)s, 403(b)s, 457s and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan. Maximum contributions rise by $500, to $18,000, in 2015, and you can add an extra $6,000 (up from $5,500) if you’re 50 or older anytime during the year—even if your birthday is months away. It’s also a good time to decide whether to contribute some or all of that money to a Roth 401(k) (or the Roth version of another retirement plan). Doing so won’t give you a tax break now, but it will let you build up a stash of tax-free money for retirement.
2. Automate your savings. The contribution limit for IRAs remains at $5,500 per person for 2015 (or $6,500 if you’re 50 or older anytime during the year). Instead of scrambling to contribute at the last minute, do your budget a favor by spreading your contributions over the whole year. Contributing $458.33 per month gets you to the maximum $5,500 by year-end (and $541.66 adds up to the $6,500 you can invest if you’re 50 or older anytime during the year). Ask your IRA administrator to move the money directly from your paycheck or checking account, before you have a chance to spend it. And take advantage of extra opportunities to save. If your spouse isn’t working but you are, you can make spousal IRA contributions.
3. Master new strategies to save money on medical expenses. Picking the right health insurance policy is just one of many ways to save on health care. Now that most people are shelling out for higher deductibles before coverage kicks in and paying coinsurance based on a percentage of the cost of care, it is more important to become a smart health care shopper. Learning a few key strategies and taking advantage of your insurer’s shopping tools can save you hundreds—or even thousands—of dollars in medical expenses throughout the year.
4. Get extra cash from wellness programs at work. Even if in the past your employer offered a wellness program that didn’t seem worth the hassle, take a second look. One of the biggest trends in employer health care is providing added incentives to get employees to participate in wellness programs. You might get some extra cash, too—many employers give employees $500 or more if they sign up for a health assessment, get biometric screening to measure cholesterol, blood pressure or body mass index, or participate in programs to reach health goals.
5. Get triple tax savings in a health savings account. If you have a high-deductible health insurance policy, contributing to an HSA can be one of the most valuable ways to save. You can build up a tax-free stash of money to use for health care costs either now or in the future—and you can save for out-of-pocket medical expenses and Medicare premiums in retirement. To qualify in 2015, your health insurance policy must have a deductible of at least $1,300 for individual coverage or $2,600 for family coverage and meet a few other criteria—whether you get coverage through your employer or on your own. Ask your insurer if your policy qualifies. If it does, you can contribute up to $3,350 for the year if you have individual health insurance coverage or $6,650 if you have family coverage, plus up to $1,000 if you’re 55 or older anytime during the year.
6. Fix the rest of your insurance. You can save a lot of money—and protect your savings—by making sure you’re getting the right coverage, at the best price, for all of your insurance, not just health coverage.
7. Make a charitable plan. Rather than scrambling in December to write checks to charities, you may be able to make a bigger impact (and get a bigger tax break) if you create a charitable plan to follow throughout the year. Think about stocks you may want to transfer to charity when they reach a certain price, or consider opening a donor-advised fund to build your charitable savings over several years (while getting a current tax break). You can also start setting aside money for bigger gifts, such as a scholarship fund, or build a charity “slush fund” so you have some extra money ready to give quickly after a natural disaster or other emergency.
8. Start planning for your required minimum distributions. You have to take required minimum distributions from many of your retirement accounts after you reach age 70½ (although you can delay taking withdrawals from your current employer’s retirement plan if you’re still working). Because your required withdrawals for 2015 are based on your life expectancy and your account balance as of December 31, 2014, you can take the money anytime during the year. Start thinking about which traditional IRA accounts to tap. You must calculate the required withdrawals from each traditional IRA separately, but you can take the money from any of those accounts. You don’t have that option with 401(k)s and other employer retirement-savings plans—you must take the required withdrawals from each of those accounts separately—but you can decide which investments to tap. You may want to shift money to a stable value fund or another fixed fund within the account to be ready for the next few years of withdrawals. That way, you won’t need to worry about selling mutual funds in a down market to withdraw the required amounts.
9. Squeeze some extra tax savings. Start gathering your tax files now so you don’t miss out on valuable deductions when you do your 2014 tax return. Don’t forget about the tax break for summer day camp and other child-care costs if your kids are younger than 13; the retirement savers’ tax credit for low- to middle-income people who save in an IRA, 401(k) or other retirement plan; and tax breaks for college costs and continuing education.
10. Give yourself a financial checkup. Now is also a great time to make sure you’re still on track to reach your financial goals. Consider enlisting help from a financial planner to get a one-time financial checkup or to get more frequent help with saving and investing. While you’re at it, visit http://www.annualcreditreport.com to check your credit report with each of the three bureaus to look for any errors or to spot areas you’d like to improve.
© 2015 The Kiplinger Washington Editors