How to Create a Financial Plan in 11 Steps

Structure is the key to growth. Without a solid foundation — and a road map for the future — it’s easy to spin your wheels and float through life without making any headway. Good planning allows you to prioritize your time and measure the progress you’ve made.

That’s especially true for your finances. A financial plan is a document that helps you track your monetary goals to measure your progress towards financial literacy. A good plan allows you to grow and improve your standing to focus on achieving your goals. As long as your plan is solid, your money can do the work for you.

Thankfully, a sound financial plan doesn’t have to be complicated. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to create a financial plan. 

What Is a Financial Plan?

Financial planning is a tangible way to organize your financial situation and goals by making a roadmap to achieve them. When determining where to start, you should consider what you currently possess, your long-term goals, and what opportunity costs you’re willing to take on to meet your money goals.

Financial planning is a great strategy for everyone — whether you’re a budding millionaire or still in college, creating a plan now can help you get ahead in the long run. If you want to make a roadmap to a successful future, here’s how to create a financial plan in 11 steps. 

1. Evaluate Where You Stand

Building your financial plan is similar to creating a fitness program. If you don’t have exact steps to reach your goals, you could end up doing random exercises without making progress. To create a successful plan, you first need to understand where you’re starting so you can candidly address any weak points and create specific goals. 

Determine Your Net Worth

One way to figure out your financial status is to determine your net worth. To do this, subtract your liabilities (what you owe) from your assets (what you own). Assets include things like the money in your accounts and your home and car equity, while liabilities can include any debt, loans, or mortgages. Here’s how to calculate your net worth using your assets and liabilities.

Your ratio of assets to liabilities may change over time — especially if you pay off debt and put money into savings accounts. Generally, a positive net worth (your assets being greater than your liabilities) is a monetary health signal. You should regularly keep track of your net worth to monitor the trajectory of your financial plan.

Track Your Spending

Another way to evaluate your financial planning process is by measuring your cash flow, or how much you spend compared to how much you earn. Net worth is a great way to understand where you stand financially, but measuring cash flow is how you might ensure you’re heading in the right direction.

Negative cash flow means that you’re spending more than you make, leading to things like credit card debt and bankruptcy. Conversely, positive cash flow means you’re earning more than you’re spending — which is an excellent step towards achieving your money goals. 

Now that you have an idea of your net worth and cash flow, it’s time to set your financial goals. 

2. Set SMART Financial Goals

By setting SMART financial goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound), you can put your money to work towards your future. Think about what you ultimately want to do with your money — do you want to pay off loans? What about buying a rental property? Or are you aiming to retire before 50?

Start by putting together a list of your goals and dreams, from running a doggy daycare to living in Paris. Even if it feels outrageous, your financial plans should help you work towards your long-term goals.

SMART goals help you break down your more extensive financial planning process into actionable pieces. Remember that dream to move to Paris? Using SMART goals, you may make your dream to live on the Seine a reality. Here’s how to get started creating your SMART goals:

SMART goals are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.

Setting concrete goals may keep you motivated and accountable, so you spend less money and stick to your budget. Reminding yourself of your monetary goals may help you make smarter short-term decisions to invest in your long-term goals. 

It’s important to understand that your goals aren’t static. When your life goals change, your financial plans should follow suit.

3. Update Your Budget

Creating a budget may help you determine how to create a financial plan and achieve your long-term monetary goals. When you create a budget and stick to it, you can understand what areas you might afford to spend and where you should be saving. 

An excellent method of budgeting is the 50/30/20 rule, popularized by Senator Elizabeth Warren. To use this rule, you divide your after-tax income into three categories: 

  • Essentials (50 percent)
  • Wants (30 percent)
  • Savings (20 percent)

Pie graph shows how you can break down your budget with the 50/30/20 rule.

The 50/30/20 rule is a great and simple way to achieve your financial goals. With this rule, you can incorporate your goals into your budget to stay on track for monetary success. 

No matter what financial goal you’re working towards, it’s essential to have an updated budget and plan to achieve it. For example, if you’re planning for a wedding, you might eat out less to reduce your grocery budget each month.

What to Include in Your Budget

If you’ve ever tried to put together a budget, you’ve likely considered the basics like rent, loans, and groceries. But what other expenses should you consider? Over time, those daily lattes may start to add up — which is why it’s crucial to think about the many different costs you could incur during the month. When updating your budget, here are some of the most common items to include:

  • Rent
  • Groceries
  • Dining out
  • Household maintenance
  • Emergency fund
  • Subscriptions and memberships
  • Travel and transportation
  • Prescriptions
  • Bank account fees
  • Car registration or lease
  • Pet costs
  • Entertainment
  • Clothing
  • Personal care
  • Charity

So you know what you need to include in your budget. Now what? Check out our budgeting tips to get smart about creating your budget in line with your financial plan. If you’re ready to get the ball rolling on your future, try using a spreadsheet, a piece of paper, or a budgeting app to create your financial plan today. 

4. Save for an Emergency

Did you know that four in 10 adults wouldn’t be able to cover an unexpected $400 expense? With so many people living paycheck to paycheck without any savings, unexpected expenses might seriously throw off someone’s life if they aren’t prepared for the emergency. 

It’s important to save money during the good times to account for the bad ones. This rings especially true these days, where so many people are facing unexpected monetary challenges. Whether you’re just starting on your path to financial literacy or have been saving for years, it’s good practice to review your emergency finances to ensure they would adequately cover your current needs. 

You already know you should be storing away money in case something goes wrong. But did you know that you should be saving for both a rainy day and emergency fund? It’s important to have multiple backup funds to hold you over in case of an unexpected crisis. 

5. Pay Down Your Debt

It can be frustrating to allocate your hard-earned money towards savings and paying off debt, but prioritizing these payments can set you up for success in the long run. With two significant methods of paying off debt, it’s essential to understand the difference between them so you can make the smartest decisions for your financial future. 

A chart shows the differences between debt snowball and debt avalanche repayment. Debt snowballs start with the smallest, while the avalanche method targets the highest interest loans.

No matter the debt repayment option you choose, the key to successfully paying down debt is to be disciplined with your budget. Skipping even one or two months of debt repayments may throw a wrench in your financial plans, so it’s essential to create a realistic budget that you can stick to. 

6. Organize Your Investments

Investing may seem like a difficult topic to navigate, but you can put your money to work and passively grow your wealth when you understand the basics. To start investing, you should first figure out the initial amount you want to deposit. No matter if you invest $50 or $5,000, putting your money into investments now is a great way to plan for financial success later on. 

When deciding how to create a financial plan, you should consider budgeting a set amount each month to go directly into your investment portfolio — this will be your contribution amount. Over time, those small bits of money may begin to grow into increasingly larger sums. However, it’s important to note that investing is a long game. If you want to see serious results, you’re going to have to wait for at least five or more years. 

Ready to get started on your path towards long-term financial success? Check out our investment calculator to create goals, forecast metrics, and find opportunities to grow your wealth even further. 

7. Prepare for Retirement

When thinking about how to create a financial plan, it’s crucial to consider your goals far in the future. Although retirement may feel a world away, planning for it now is the difference between a prosperous retirement income and just scraping by. 

The earlier you can start saving for retirement, the better. If you start saving for retirement in your 20s, you’ll have 30+ years of consistent contributions to your funds by the time you retire. Generally, the older you are, the more you should try to contribute to your retirement fund. However, a good rule of thumb is to save around 10–15 percent of your post-tax income annually in a retirement savings account.

Retirement Plan Types

There are several types of retirement savings, the most common being an IRA, a Roth IRA, and a 401(k):

  • IRA: An IRA is an individual retirement account that you personally open and fund with no tie to an employer. The money you put into this type of retirement account is tax-deductible. It’s important to note that this is tax-deferred, meaning you will be taxed at the time of withdrawal.
  • Roth IRA: A Roth IRA is also an individual retirement account opened and funded by you. However, with a Roth IRA, you are taxed on the money you put in now — meaning that you won’t be taxed at the time of withdrawal.
  • 401(k): A 401(k) is a retirement account offered by a company to its employees. Depending on your employer, with a 401(k), you can choose to make pre-tax or post-tax (Roth 401(k)) contributions. 

A chart shows the difference between IRA, Roth IRA, and 401K retirement options.

8. Start Your Estate Planning

Thinking about estate planning isn’t fun — but it is important. When figuring out how to create a financial plan, it’s crucial to start estate planning to outline what happens to your assets when you’re gone. 

To create an estate plan, you should list your assets, write your will, and determine who will have access to the information. Estate taxes can run up to a steep 40 percent, so having a plan for how to set up your estate may ease the financial burden of your passing on your loved ones. 

Using a Lawyer for Estate Planning

Using a lawyer for estate planning can solidify financial plans that you don’t want to leave to chance. By clearly outlining your estate plan, you can protect against potential legal battles or missteps that could occur when sorting out your estate. If you plan to use a lawyer for estate planning, here’s what you need to know:

  • Find an estate planning specialist: Just like doctors, lawyers specialize in all different fields. You wouldn’t expect a dermatologist to be performing knee surgery, so why would you expect a lawyer with a different specialty to create your estate plan?
  • Clarify legal fees: Estate planning fees may vary dramatically depending on the lawyer and your specific needs. Some lawyers charge based on the complexity of the plan; others charge a flat or hourly fee. There is no right or wrong with estate planning fees, but you should have an upfront conversation with your lawyer to determine which method would work best for you.
  • Find a lawyer you trust: Estate planning is a very personal matter, so you should find a lawyer with whom you feel comfortable sharing personal matters. 

9. Insure Your Assets

As your wealth grows over time, you should start thinking about ways to protect it in case of an emergency. Although insurance may not be as exciting as investing, it’s just as important. 

Insuring your assets is more of a defensive financial move than an offensive one. When determining how to create a financial plan, you want to have insurance to protect yourself from any unforeseen difficulties that could hinder your success. 

Types of Insurance

There are several types of insurance you might get to protect your assets. Here are some of the most important ones to get when planning for your financial future. 

  • Life insurance: Life insurance goes hand in hand with estate planning to provide your beneficiaries with the necessary funds after your passing.
  • Homeowners insurance: As a homeowner, it’s crucial to protect your home against disasters or crime. Many people’s homes are the most valuable asset they own, so it makes sense to pay a premium to ensure it is protected.
  • Health insurance: Health insurance is protection for your most important asset: Your life. Health insurance covers your medical expenses for you to get the care you need. 
  • Auto insurance: Auto insurance protects you from costs incurred due to theft or damage to your car.
  • Disability insurance: Disability insurance is a reimbursement of lost income due to an injury or illness that prevented you from working. 

10. Plan for Taxes

Taxes can be a drag, but understanding how they work can make all the difference for your long-term financial goals. While taxes are a given, you might be able to reduce the burden by being efficient with your tax planning. When planning for taxes, it’s important to consider:

  • How to reduce your taxable income: You can capitalize on tax savings investment options like a 401(k) or 403(b) to help you save money by reducing your taxable income (while putting more money away for your future). 
  • How to itemize your deductions: Tax deductions are a way to lower taxable income as a full- or part-time self-employed taxpayer. You can deduct incurred expenses from doing business to reduce your taxable income. 

11. Review Your Plans Regularly

Figuring out how to create a financial plan isn’t a one-time thing. Your goals (and your financial standing) aren’t stagnant, so your plan shouldn’t be either. It’s essential to reevaluate your plan periodically and adjust your goals to continue setting yourself up for success. 

As you progress in your career, you may want to take a more aggressive approach to your retirement plan or insurance. For example, a young 20-something in their first few years of work likely has less money to put into their retirement and savings accounts than a person in their mid-30s who has an established career.

Staying updated with your financial plan also ensures that you hold yourself accountable to your goals. Over time, it may become easy to skip one payment here or there, but having concrete metrics might give you the push you need for achieving a future of financial literacy. 

After you figure out how to create a monetary plan, it’s good practice to review it around once a year. However, this is just a baseline metric, so checking it more often may be necessary if a significant life event occurs. 

It’s always a good idea to reevaluate your financial plan if you get married, have kids, or quit your job. Every few months or so, take some time to look at your progress and assess problem areas. Take the time to celebrate milestones — it may help motivate you going forward.

Ask for feedback on your financial plan from people who know you. Your best friend might point out some things you’d forgotten about, like your desire to get a dog or live in a downtown loft. You can also run it by a professional, who can provide some objective insight and professional wisdom on how to create a financial plan.

It’s important to remember that the journey to financial success is a personal one, and should be taken at your own pace. However, the earlier you get started, the more prepared you may be for a strong financial future. Download Mint to get started taking control of your finances today.

Sources: CNBC | Federal Reserve | IRS | IRS

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