The year-end is approaching quickly, but there's still time to get some personal-finance tasks done and out of the way and take a big step towards a healthier financial outlook come the New Year.
But how to decide which moves to make? MarketWatch asked some financial planners for their ideas on the most fruitful personal-financial moves to make in the waning days of 2006.
Keep in mind that we're starting with the fun one first, with the caveat that all the other tasks listed here are the means for continuing to accomplish No. 1 for a long time to come.
1. Remember the important people
Financial to-do lists aren't always easy, so this one starts with the reason you want to heed the next six tasks.
"Buy a really nice gift for your spouse," said Norm Boone, founder and president of Mosaic Financial Partners in San Francisco.
"Relationships are the all-important thing. Money is there to support that. Money is not the first focus. Money is the support of all the other good things in life," he said.
2. Adjust retirement savings
Year-end isn't when most people focus on their retirement savings plan, but now's a good time to notch your contribution rate a tad higher, said Stuart Ritter, a certified financial planner with T. Rowe Price. Ideally, the thought of increasing your savings rate will be eased by a salary hike or bonus.
"The end of the year is usually when people are getting bonuses or salary increases," Ritter said. T. Rowe Price recommends you save at least 15 percent of your salary for retirement," including your employer match.
"If you're not at 15 percent yet and getting to that feels like a big jump, now's the time to increase your contribution rate by 1 percent or 2 percent," he said. "We're not saying put the whole thing in, but a piece of it. Your paycheck will still go up, you're saving more for retirement, and you're getting closer to that 15 percent goal. It's a way to incrementally move in the right direction."
3. Donate appreciated stock
After a decent year for the stock market, the thought of a sizable capital-gains tax hit may hinder you from selling stock, even though you're eager to get your portfolio back into balance. There's a way out of that conundrum.
"You can donate those stocks. If you were considering selling a portion of those shares anyway for diversification purposes, you could donate the stock, avoid triggering the capital gain and then get the full dollar value of the deduction," said Robert Gaan, a certified financial planner with Christopher Weil & Company in San Diego.
That transfer is easy: All major charities "have a brokerage account," he said. "If you say you have some stock to donate, they'll give you the brokerage account and your broker can do the transfer electronically. It's very simple." The amount you deduct is equal to the value of the shares on the day they're transferred, he said.
But, Gaan warned, "you have to make sure the cash you would normally have used for charitable giving, you put that in your portfolio and use that to diversify and buy new stocks. That completes the circle. Don't go spend it. This allows you to rebalance your portfolio without triggering the tax gain."
While you're checking on stocks, don't forget to harvest any losses to offset gains, Boone noted. Up to $3,000 per year can be used to offset regular income.
4. Revisit your financial plan
"The biggest mistake we see investors make is they make a series of reasonable decisions that are independent of one another, but when you put them all together they don't make any sense," Boone said.
"It's important at least once a year to go back and make sure that all of the things you are holding are what you think your portfolio ought to look like," Boone said.
Make sure "it's got the right number of stocks and bonds, you don't have too much or too little cash, you have the right percentage in international versus domestic, that you're not overloaded on tech or whatever it is you happen to like right now," he said.
"Some of the various stock sectors like real estate and some of the international have grown a lot over the least year. If you're not paying attention to them they might have gotten a little out of whack."
5. Lock in education savings -- for all ages
Sure, parents probably know they should consider the tuition-savings vehicles known as 529 plans, but what if you don't have children?
"There are a lot of adults using them," Ritter says. "Investment plans will allow anybody to open the account and then use them for [qualified] educational expenses," he said.
"You can use them for graduate school. You can use them for certain classes you want to take that offer credit at the local community college. There's a lot of flexibility, so check into it for yourself as well as your children," he said.
Whether you're a parent or an aspiring student, don't wait. "The deadline for most tax benefits which happen at the state level, if your state offers one, is going to be Dec. 31, so you need to get the money in the account by the end of the year," Ritter said.
While 529 plans offer a federal tax benefit -- investment earnings aren't taxed if the money is used for qualified educational expenses -- some state plans offer an additional tax benefit on plan contributions. But those state tax benefits shouldn't be your only consideration, he said.
You need to look at fees, performance and investment options. "It may make sense to forgo the [state] tax benefits and use a plan that's better in those attributes," he said.
6. Tap your medical spending plan
"If you've used a flexible spending account through your employer, either for medical expenses or dependent day-care expenses, you need to make sure you use that money up by the end of the year," Ritter said. Some plans will now give you until mid-March to incur expenses to your 2006 plan -- check with your plan administrator.
"If you've got some money still in there, now's the time to get the extra pair of eyeglasses if you want them. You can use the medical flexible spending account for aspirin, nonprescription drugs. The IRS has a whole list and it's fairly varied so now's the time to get those expenses taken care of with what are pretax dollars," Ritter said.
Some people avoid medical spending accounts for fear of losing the money they park there. Under the plan rules, if you don't spend the money on qualified medical expenses by a certain date, you forfeit the money.
But Ritter says that's the wrong way to look at it. "People aren't thinking about the big picture," he said.
"If you earn $100 from your employer, if you're in the 25 percent federal tax bracket, you lose $25 to the federal government right off the bat. If you use the flexible spending account, all $100 goes in the account. So, at the end of the year, even if there's still $25 in there, all you've done is broken even. That's money you would have lost to taxes anyway. Anything less than $25 in that account and you've come out ahead."
7. Watch your holiday spending
"One of the biggest financial moves for this time of year, and people don't even see it, is watch your holiday spending," said Barbara Steinmetz, a certified financial planner, enrolled agent and founder of Steinmetz Financial Planning, in Burlingame, Calif.
"Buying it today and extending the payments for the next year really" doesn't make sense, she said. "Sometimes you really don't need to give that big a gift. You can rethink your gift giving. A promise to baby-sit for someone's kids might mean more than spending $50 or $60," she said.
"That could mean you're not paying for this last-minute pressure for the rest of the year."