9 Money Moves To Prioritize This Fall

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Your finances aren’t a set-it-and-forget-it thing. Having a healthy budget and specific financial goals is only a start.

Why? Because things change, that’s why. That grocery budget worked just fine until food prices skyrocketed. Higher gas costs pushed the needle on the “commuting” budget toward “E.” Your cat was fairly low-maintenance — until it developed diabetes and needed insulin shots, a prescription diet and frequent vet visits.

Even if everything went well this year, it’s still important to make sure your finances are on point. If they are, great! If not, it’s better to catch a small issue before it turns into a bigger problem.

Doing your financial checkup heading into fall means you’ll have a couple of months left to recalibrate this year. You’ll also probably be less stressed as we get closer to the often-demanding winter holidays.

Here are several important ways to help keep your goals on track and save or grow your money.

1. Tune up your budget

Confused man holding a calculator
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How’s your spending? Inflation has kicked a lot of budgetary butt this year, so you may have spent more than planned for things like tax prep, lessons/instruction and workplace attire. And you could hardly have anticipated that you’d pay more for a dozen eggs than a gallon of gas.

Time for a financial deep dive. Set aside an hour or so to track your spending, saving and progress toward any existing money goals.

Suppose you vowed last Jan. 1 to put $50 in your emergency fund every month. Have you done this, or did you have to skip a couple of months because groceries cost so much? Or maybe you’ll realize you should have limited the kids to one summer sport rather than soccer and tee ball and swimming.

Maybe you’re not where you wanted to be — but all is not lost! You’ve still got a couple of months to get yourself back on track and to avoid dragging those bad habits into the new year.

Focus on money leaks, such as banking fees or the snacks for all those kiddie sporting events. Start saying “that’s not in the budget right now” to extras that are breaking the budget: frequent meals out, subscriptions services, unneeded shopping trips.

For more ways to get control of your cash, see “14 Ways to Budget for Your Personality and Goals.”

2. Review your health insurance coverage

Open enrollment for health insurance or Medicare
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Generally speaking, you can change your health insurance plan only during open enrollment, which is Nov. 1 through Dec. 15, if you want to have coverage in the new year. Have you always just let it renew automatically, either at work or through the Health Insurance Marketplace?

That could be a mistake. Sure, your current coverage works great – but health care plans do change. You might be able to get better care and/or a better price by taking a closer look at all available options.

Your situation changes, too. Perhaps you plan to start a family soon, or maybe someone in your household was diagnosed with a health condition. Will the current plan meet all your needs?

Before open enrollment comes and goes, take time to make sure you’re getting the right coverage at the right price. For tips, see “3 Simple Steps to Prepare for Open Enrollment at Work.” And speaking of health care …

3. Make a plan to use all your FSA dollars

Smiling woman making a budget and planning to save money with good financial strategy represented by a smart piggy bank
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If you have money in a flexible spending account (FSA), it’s time to use it or lose it. You might be allowed to carry over some of that money or be given a couple of extra months to spend it, if you’re lucky. But don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. Instead, come up with a way to use those tax-free dollars.

For example, when was your last dental cleaning? Schedule it now. Maybe one of your kids needs an eye exam. Or perhaps you’re pregnant and expecting to breastfeed; if so, start shopping for a breast pump and other supplies.

Use the FSA to stock up on health-related items such as contact lens solutions, blood sugar test kits, bandages, hearing aid batteries, and even over-the-counter medications (with a doctor’s prescription).

You earned that money. Don’t let it go to waste.

4. Pay down credit card debt

Seniors happily planning budget and spending money
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It’s never a good idea to carry a balance. Sometimes it can’t be helped, due to wild cards like unemployment, divorce or major home repairs. Too often, we carry debt because we get a little self-indulgent (see it, want it, buy it) and then we can’t quite pay it off when the bill arrives.

Then we get car trouble, necessitating another $500 on plastic, and the interest grows, and so on. Over time, the interest that accrues could make a slightly troubling credit card balance into a Really Big Deal. Here’s an example:

  • A plumbing disaster requires you to put $2,000 worth of repairs on your 15% APR card.
  • All you can afford to put against that debt is $40 a month.
  • By the time you zero out the balance, you’ll have paid over $1,000 worth of interest!

And that’s assuming you don’t put anything else on the card during that time frame. Think of what that extra grand could have done for your financial goals if you hadn’t had to pay it out as interest. Stop doing that!

To build a plan to slay your own debt dragon, see “How to Pay Off $100,000 in Debt.” Start now, before the holidays distract you.

5. Get ready for changing utility bills

A woman adjusts a thermostat
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Baby, it’s cold outside. In a lot of U.S. states, anyway, and as fall comes on we’re spending a lot more time indoors than out. The cost of staying comfortably warm can be a shock to the budget.

Sure, air conditioning is also pricey. But in the spring and early fall, and even in the summer, there are plenty of days temperate enough to get by with open windows and a few fans. Winter isn’t usually so kind.

We can’t affect the price of propane, natural gas or heating oil. However, we can take steps to use less of these products. Don’t wait until the first cold snap to run out in search of insulation and weather stripping or to try and book a furnace tune-up. All the other procrastinators will be fighting you for those resources.

A great place to start is a home energy audit. Professional auditors exist, but you can also try a DIY audit with help from this Energy.gov publication. Either one will give you a blueprint for reducing total energy costs.

You can also find easy-to-implement tips at “How to Prepare Your Home for Winter and Lower Your Heating Bills” and “7 Energy Savings Tips to Lower Utility Bills.”

6. Check your retirement plan contributions

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Are you leaving money on the table? If your employer has a matching contribution plan, you should make darned sure that you’re getting the full amount.

If your workplace matches up to 3% of your salary and you earn $50,000, the company would be willing to put $1,500 in your 401(k) — but only if you did, too. Should you put in less, they’ll match your amount, but no more than that.

Review the annual limits on your retirement plan; if you aren’t hitting them, make “retirement savings” a line item in your budget. You’ve got a couple of months to make up for some of the lost time.

And if your company doesn’t have a match? Reach for those limits anyway. No one cares more about retirement than you do.

7. Get real about end-of-year giving

Woman looking at laptop
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Towards the end of the year, our mailboxes and inboxes overflow with letters from charities, nonprofits and other causes. How to choose from all those good works?

It’s especially tough to choose if our own finances took a hit due to inflation or having a kid in college. Depending on how your budget looks, you might not be able to give as much as you did last year.

Yes, it will feel bad. But you cannot, and should not, put your own financial health at risk.

Before you click “donate” (or write that check), run the name of the cause through a site such as CharityNavigator.org or GuideStar.org.

This will give you a current picture of just how much of your donation will go toward helping those in need.

Do this for favorite causes as well; if you don’t like what you see, you can send your dollars elsewhere. (Note: If it’s a new cause or a small charity, go to their website and look for an IRS “990 form” to check out its expenses and salaries.)

Finally, consider other ways to give. A few examples:

Volunteering. It doesn’t have to be physical. For example, you might write articles for a nonprofit’s monthly newsletter or call companies to solicit items for the school auction.

Getting free stuff to donate. The sale/app combo can help you get food and toiletries free or nearly free that you can pass on to shelters and food pantries.

Join a Buy Nothing Facebook group. Things you no longer need could be a lifesaver to someone in your neighborhood. Bonus: It helps you declutter.

8. Re-think the holidays

Couple shopping for holiday gifts
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A new survey from Bankrate says that more than half (53%) of this year’s holiday shoppers plan to use credit cards; of those, nearly two-thirds (64%) say they’ll pay the bill in full to avoid interest.

That means that 36% of credit card-using holiday shoppers accept that they’ll carry a balance. Hoo boy.

You don’t have to start the new year off with debt! Instead, think about your own holiday plans — starting with last year’s celebrations. Did it take months to pay off those bills?

Start looking for ways to pare back and shop smarter. For example:

  • Do you really need three different meats and five different desserts at your giant family holiday dinner? And is there any reason it couldn’t become a potluck?
  • Tell adult children that you’re planning to throttle back on gifts; for example, presents only for those 18 and under or 80 and over. That could help everyone’s budget, especially older family members whose retirement isn’t stretching far enough.
  • Inventory your existing inventory before shopping for things like decor and gift wrap. Use up gift cards and credit card rewards.

Expect pushback. Wails of “But we’ve always had turkey, ham and goose!” or “So, you’re saying that because I’m in my 30s I don’t deserve gifts?” might make you feel guilty. But will those naysayers be around to help you pay off the cost of these celebrations?

If you can afford to celebrate the way you always have, more power to you! But if you can’t, start figuring out ways to make your holidays memorable without a huge cash outlay.

9. Start a ‘sinking fund’

Excited man with piggy bank
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You may be staring down the barrel of some major expenses in the next few years: a wedding, a baby, a down payment on a new home. Or maybe you’ve been stalling on replacing your tires (or the whole car), but know you can’t wait much longer.

Time for a “sinking fund”: a pot of cash you build over time, to spread out the cost of a big expense.

You can do a sinking fund for recurring expenses (holidays, quarterly self-employment tax payments, summer child care), and for the fun stuff, such as weddings, birthdays or anniversaries.

Figure out what you need in the next year, then divide the payments by 12 and move that money over each month. (Dividing it by 52 and then making weekly payments might be easier. Your call.)

A bigger expense, such as a down payment, would obviously take longer. But you’d be saving that money while making other smart moves toward homeownership, such as improving your credit score and working toward a better-paying job.

Note: A sinking fund is not the same as an emergency fund. The sinking fund is aimed at a specific goal, whereas an emergency fund is left untouched until it’s absolutely needed for whatever comes up.

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