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How to Create a Financial Plan

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  • Financial planning is a practice that helps you track and manage your money with the purpose of reaching your financial goals.
  • Create a strong financial plan by setting goals, tracking cash flow, budgeting, investing, and paying down debt. 
  • A CFA or CFP can assist you in creating a personalized financial plan.

Life may be full of twists and turns, but a strong financial plan can help you stay on track toward reaching your goals. From paying off your student loans to buying a house, a comprehensive individualized plan is the best way to go. 

Financial planning is a broad and encompassing practice that aids you and your family in better managing your money and preparing for potential risks. No matter what your current financial situation is, a solid financial plan offers guidance and insight beneficial to all households.

Read about our picks for the best online financial advisors here.

What is financial planning? 

Financial planning is essential to achieving long-term and short-term financial goals, while also preparing you for potential future risks and obligations. No two financial plans are the same. Your plan should accurately reflect your own financial needs, goals, and best course of action. 

“The purpose of a financial plan is to help clients — whether it be an individual, family, or business — achieve their financial goals and objectives by creating a structured roadmap for managing their finances effectively,” says Chloe Wohlforth, CFP, Partner at Angeles Wealth Management. “A well-crafted financial plan considers a person’s current financial situation, future financial goals, and risk tolerance.”

Financial plans often address retirement savings, wealth-building strategies, emergency savings plans, tax optimization strategies, college funds, and debt consolidation.

To create a comprehensive plan, you’ll need to thoroughly evaluate your current financial situation, such as household income and debt (including car payments, loans, and credit card debt). Most plans tend to involve budgeting, saving, and routine investing. 

You can craft a financial plan yourself or enlist professional assistance. Search for the best online financial advisors or planners, or look for in-person advisors.

“Financial advisors can help you create a financial plan by understanding your goals, values and risk tolerance, and then building a customized path that they can guide you along to enrich your life to its fullest potential,” says Jordan Gilberti, CFP and senior lead planner at Facet.

6 steps to create a financial plan

Financial planning isn’t as hard as you might think. Here are six steps you can take to create your own financial plan. 

1. Set financial goals

The first step in creating a strong financial plan is identifying your goals. Whether by yourself or with a partner, you should know what you’re aiming for. 

“Set your goals and priorities by envisioning a future for yourself over the short, medium, and long term, and what you would like to achieve financially,” says Gilberti. “Get yourself organized by gathering all relevant financial documents, including your investment accounts, insurance policies, debts, and other assets.”

You can start by asking yourself: What do you want to achieve in five years? How about in 10 or 20 years? Are you looking to buy a house? Have kids? Plan a huge trip? 

Financial planning should feel intentional, and you can more easily draw motivation from clear, obtainable objectives. Consider at least three goals with the following information: 

  • How much will it cost? If you’re looking to save for a house or pay off student debt, for example, you should have a number you’re aiming for. For instance, how much will it cost to buy a house and how much are you needing to save to make it happen?
  • What is my deadline? Once you know how much you need to save, you’ll need to set a realistic timeline. For example, how long do you think it will take to save up for a down payment on a house? 
  • Where should I store the funds? While you can store all your funds in the same bank account, you may want to separate your funds into different savings accounts or brokerage accounts. 

2. Track your finances

What’s coming in and what’s going out? Before you can start responsibly budgeting, review your cash flow to reveal more ways to save. While some expenses — like rent or gas — are mandatory expenses, you may uncover nonessential charges that are draining your funds.

“The best way to budget is to ask for help. Often clients don’t budget because they don’t know where to begin. An advisor can help you think about your expenses in different categories. What is discretionary, what is non-discretionary? What is an expense that might be costly now, but only for a fixed amount of time?” says Wohlforth.

Once you have a grasp on your spending habits, you can budget. A beginner-friendly method of budgeting is the 50/30/20 rule, which is suitable for both consistent and irregular-income households. Basically, this plan is a rule of thumb that designates 50% of your income to mandatory expenses, 30% to wants, and 20% to debt or savings.

But keep in mind that everyone’s financial situation is unique and the 50/30/20 budget plan won’t be suitable for everyone. 

3. Create an emergency fund

Part of establishing a realistic budget is setting aside cash in case of emergencies.

“An emergency fund is typically a savings account that serves as a safety net from unforeseen financial difficulties that you may face throughout your life,” Gilberti says. “Examples may include a job loss, disability, home appliance breaking, and more.”

Emergencies are unexpected, so having the extra funds on hand can help you pay for medical emergencies and other sudden bills. An emergency budget may also protect you against racking up credit card debt and interest. 

Check out Insider’s picks for the best budgeting apps

4. Reduce and manage debt

Reducing and managing debt is a crucial step in financial planning. Even if you’re storing a good chunk of cash in a savings or brokerage account, high-interest debt will weigh you down. The longer your debt accumulates interest, the more money you’ll lose in the long run. 

You may want to pay down expenses like credit card balances, student loans, and car payments sooner rather than later. You may want to include regular debt payments in your budget plan. 

5. Diversify your investment portfolio

One of the best ways to save for future financial goals and build wealth is through investing. While investing can be risky, a diverse portfolio of stocks, bonds, ETFs, and alternative investments can significantly lower the risk. There are plenty of beginner-friendly online brokerages, robo-advisors, and investing platforms.

The best investing apps for beginners and the best online brokerages for beginners are low-cost and best for passive traders. These sites also allow you to customize your investing portfolio based on your financial goals, risk tolerance, and time horizon.

Automatic investing platforms like SoFi Invest, Fidelity Go, and Wealthfront are also ideal for new investors. Robo-advisors are a flexible and accessible way for hands-off traders to buy and sell assets. 

6. Plan for retirement

A retirement account is one type of investing account. Early retirement may even be one of your long-term financial goals. The best retirement plan for you depends on your individual situation. 

One of the easiest ways to start savings for retirement is through an employee-sponsored retirement plan like a 401(k), 403(b), or SEP IRA. These are tax-advantaged accounts that collect a portion of your salary. Some plans, like most 401(k)s, may offer to match an employee’s contributions up to a certain percentage. 

In order to grow your account faster, find out how much your employer matches and contribute enough to reach the maximum contribution amount.  In 2023, you can contribute up to $22,500 if you’re under 50 years old (people age 50 or older can add an additional $7,500), but keep in mind that you can’t withdraw funds until you’re 59 1/2. 

Another option is an individual retirement account (IRA), which functions similarly to a 401(k) but it is not sponsored by an employer. IRAs are also tax-advantaged accounts and are often more flexible. In 2023, you can contribute up to $6,500 if you’re under 50 (up to $7,500 if you’re 50 or older). You also can’t withdraw until you’re at least 59 1/2. 

Benefits of financial planning

A well-thought-out plan not only helps you meet your financial goals but will also map out an accessible course of action based on your individual circumstances. Not only can you better your understanding of your own finances, but you can also focus on reaching important steps. Plus, you’re more likely to reach your goals faster. 

While it may be stressful in the beginning, having a clear insight into your income and spending can reduce future stress and financial worry. The more you understand your own financial needs, the more realistic your expectations about the future.

You may also be better prepared for emergencies, like disability or financial trouble. Routinely contributing to an emergency fund is a great way to reduce financial stress and prevent your savings from being drained if trouble arises. 

Financial planning frequently asked questions (FAQs)

Financial planning means that an individual(s) tracks cash flow, budgets expenses, saves for retirement, pays down/manages debt, and invests funds in order to reach long and short-term financial goals. It’s a personalized plan based on individual values, risk tolerances, and time horizons.

An example of financial planning may look like a young couple with dual income devising a plan to buy a home in five years based on their current cash flow. In order to reach this goal, the couple establishes a reasonable budget based on necessary monthly expenses (including debt payments), consistent monthly income, and what’s left over to save. They develop a plan to pay down their high-interest credit card debt first. Then they open a high-yield savings account and put savings for their down payment into this account, while also contributing to an emergency fund in case any unexpected expenses come up in the next five years.

You can start financial planning by determining your financial goals and tracking your cash flow. If you’re struggling to start, you can reach out to a financial planner or financial advisor for help. 

How to start financial planning

Everyone can benefit from financial planning, no matter what your current financial situation is. A plan can lay out the steps you need to take to reach your long and short-term goals. Whether it’s early retirement, buying a house, savings up for a wedding or creating a college fund, a personalized financial plan can help you get there. 

You can start planning by setting goals, tracking your cash flow, budgeting, paying down debt, investing in a diversified investment portfolio, and saving for retirement.

But remember that financial plans aren’t static. You’ll need to consistently reevaluate your plan in order to make sure it reflects your current situation and goals. 

“While you should be constantly monitoring and adjusting your plan as your life changes, some typical triggers for an update in your financial plan may include a change in income/employment, change in marital status, birth of a child, receiving an inheritance, and much more,” says Gilberti. 

If you’re having trouble getting started, a certified financial advisor or financial planner can guide you through the process. You can find a financial advisor through online reviews or by talking with friends and family.