BOSTON – As the first half of the year comes to an end, many investors will pause to review the performance of money managers, to examine stocks and mutual funds to decide what to keep and to consider how to tweak their holdings to do better in the future.
Unfortunately, this midyear review most likely will leave out the most important manager of all, because people don't evaluate their own performance as a saver, spender, consumer and investor. They're so busy looking at investment results that they fail to consider their own progress (or lack thereof) toward personal goals.
This is odd, because investors have more power and control over themselves than over any pro. Your investment decisions may improve your portfolio, but you have complete control over your savings rate, your ability to cut debt and more, and those actions will improve your overall financial condition as much or more than dumping a money-losing stock or fund.
The review oversight may be caused by the lack of a plan to serve as an appropriate yardstick for progress or shortfall. While investors quickly can determine if a mutual fund beats the average, they may not have given much thought to the specific amount they hoped to save this year; that makes it hard to gauge progress.
If you set goals at the start of this year — and countless studies show that people with a plan, even an informal one, have much better financial results than people without — it's time to see where you are on the road to reaching them. If you didn't do much planning for 2006 then sit down and think out what you would like to accomplish by year's end and set out after those benchmarks.
Your personal midyear review should include the following:
Anyone with debt has a goal of being rid of it, but sound debt-reduction strategies involve determining a target for how much you will shave from your liabilities each year.
Take your target number for what you want your debt load to be at the end of this year and see if you are halfway toward achieving that goal. If not — or if your current debt load is higher than it was six months ago — that's a problem.
A recent study by Experian showed that the average consumer's debt load has increased 12.5 percent since 2004, and the number of late payments made by the typical consumer is up 20 percent over that period.
Debt lingers if you don't take care of it, so stop the behavior that has prevented you from reaching your debt-reduction targets. And if you are on track with your debt-reduction plans, spend the rest of the year trying to exceed your expectations.
If you can't make big cuts in your debt, at least help your credit score by making timely payments; from a scoring standpoint, keeping current on your debts — even if you just pay the minimum — is more critical than forking over big wads of cash.
It doesn't matter if the stock market has disappointed you this year, because that has no impact on whether you are setting aside enough cash to fund the college-savings or retirement plan.
If, for example, you planned to fully fund a Roth IRA this year, at least half of that money should be accumulated by now. While you can catch up by saving more later, the finish line will be harder to reach if you have barely started that journey yet.
The Securities Industry Association this week released the results of a May 2006 study which showed that more than 40 percent of Americans are not saving anything at all, and that only one-third of Americans are setting aside enough to maintain their standard of living in retirement.
Experts suggest that if you haven't reached 50 percent of your savings targets for this year, it's time to plot a catch-up strategy. Establishing automatic investments — where money is pulled directly from your paycheck or bank account and rolled into a retirement plan or other savings account — goes a long way toward actually hitting your savings bull's-eye.
This might seem like an odd topic, given the debt discussion, but most consumers have goals for spending too, particularly when big money is at stake as with the purchase of a car, home, large-scale repairs and improvements, family vacations and more.
Financial specialists suggest sitting down and listing everything your family needs or wants for the home, and prioritizing each of those goals. Then compare those prospective purchases to your budget so that you've got an idea which goals you can accomplish now and which will stay out of focus until 2007 or beyond.
You earn money for a purpose beyond saving and paying off debt. Keeping in mind the specific life-improving things you want to buy may motivate you to eliminate the wasteful consumption that short- circuits spending plans.
Insurance and estate planning are necessities that should be reviewed each year; the longer you wait, the bigger the potential problems. If your financial plan for 2006 included protecting your family better, but you haven't moved toward getting it done, there's a very simple question you face: "What am I waiting for?"
If you wait too long, and suffer a worst-case scenario, it's your family that will pay the price for your procrastination.
With those other, more-pressing elements covered, bring the focus back to investment performance.
Examine your portfolio as a whole, in relation to relevant benchmarks. If money is divided into thirds, for example, with one part in large-cap stocks, another in small-company stocks, and the rest in bonds, compare performance to the Standard & Poor's 500 index (large-cap), the Russell 2000 (small-cap), and the rate of return on Treasury securities.
See if your individual investments beat those bogies, and then check out the portfolio as a whole to see if it delivered the returns you expected when you came up with an asset-allocation plan. Remember, your own needs and goals are the biggest factor in judging performance and strategy and seeing if you are on the right path for the future.