The holidays are fast approaching and it’s that time of year when people start writing out their shopping lists and planning family get-togethers. As the year winds down, it’s also the perfect opportunity to do some financial housekeeping.
When you’re in your 20s, staying on top of your money situation may not be a priority, but it’s nothing to play around with. The things you do right (or wrong) now can follow you well into your 30s and 40s. We’ve got some year-end financial advice for millennials who want to get 2015 started off right.
Check your retirement contributions
Millennials have a reputation for being savvy savers when it comes to their retirement and they’re much more likely to start growing their nest in their 20s compared to previous generations. Not only are they saving earlier but they’re also jumping on the 401(k) bandwagon at staggeringly high rates versus older workers. If you’ve been diligently socking away money into your employer’s plan throughout the year, now’s the time to add it all up.
Specifically, you want to look at how much you’ve put in and whether you need to step up your contributions to hit the annual savings limit. For 401(k)s and other employer-sponsored plans, that comes to $17,500. If you see that you’ve still got a ways to go before you hit the ceiling, you might want to look at upping your elective deferrals. Putting in more money reduces your taxable income, which can help to lower your tax bill or bump up your refund later on.
Figure out your tax filing
One of the toughest year-end financial issues 20-somethings have to deal with is figuring out their tax situation for the upcoming year. If you just graduated and recently landed your first job, you might be a little murky on what the rules are for tax exemptions. Generally, if you’re under 24 and you started off the year as a full-time student, your parents are entitled to claim an exemption for you if they provided more than half your support. If none of those things apply then you can claim it yourself, reducing your taxable income by $3,950 for 2014.
The other thing you’ll want to take a look at is your withholding for the year. This is the amount of taxes your employer takes out of your check each pay period, based on how many exemptions you claimed on the W-4 you filled out when you got hired. If you withhold too much, you’ll likely get some of the money back in the form of a refund. On the other hand, if you don’t pay enough taxes in during the year you’ll probably be looking at a big bill when you file.
Re-evaluate your budget
Routinely reviewing your budget is a good idea at any time of the year but as you get closer to the holiday season, you may find yourself spending more on gifts or travel. If it’s been awhile since you crunched the numbers, now’s the time to take another look at what you’ve got coming in and going out each month to make sure you’re staying in the black. That way, you can start planning ahead for those extra dollars you’ll be shelling out for holiday-related expenses.
If you’ve been keeping good records of your spending all year long, it’s also a smart move to review your expenses as a whole. Seeing how your monthly bills have increased or decreased and whether your discretionary spending has fluctuated significantly in any particular category can help you pinpoint any budget leaks that need to be addressed.
Take a second look at student loans
Without a plan for paying them off, student loans can haunt you long after you’ve traded your cap and gown for professional attire. Whether you’ve been out of school for six months or six years, it’s important to keep a close eye on your progress. If you normally just write a check each month without reading over your loan statements, you could be costing yourself money unnecessarily.
Doing a quick calculation of how long it’ll take to clear your loans at your current interest rate can be a sobering experience if you’ve been oblivious to the amortization tables up to this point. That’s especially true if you borrowed from private lenders, since rates tend to be higher compared to federal loans. If you’re paying out thousands of dollars each year just for the interest, look into consolidating or refinancing your loans, which should be at the top of your new year’s financial to-do list.
Map out some goals
When you’ve finally got some real money coming in, you need to have a plan for what to do with it. If you’re just throwing money into a savings account without a clear idea of what it’s for or making payments on your debt without any rhyme or reason, it’s easy to lose steam. Coming up with a few achievable goals can help you get off on the right foot once January rolls around.
For instance, home ownership is a long-term goal for some millennials. If your dream of buying a property someday, you could start earmarking money in an online savings account specifically for your down payment.
If you’d like to try your hand at investing, you could set a goal to save up $1,000 to play the market with. The more specific your goals are, the more incentive you have to keep working towards them and setting new ones.