Clearly that’s the case with the financial press.
On December 12th, the Wall Street Journal ran an article under this headline: “Family Finances Looking Up.” The very next day, the Journal-owned MarketWatch website featured an article under this headline: “Americans Are 40% Poorer Than Before the Recession.”
So, which is it? Are people doing better or worse? And why is it so tough to answer that question?
While we may not be able to improve macro-level financial reporting in this country, it's important that each of us do a good job on the micro level of our own family’s finances. And the end of a year is a natural time to run some numbers, come to some conclusions (are your finances looking up or are you worse off this year than you were last year?), and plan for the year ahead. Here are the major areas to look at.
Net worth. Add up your assets and subtract your liabilities. How does the total compare to last year? And how does it compare to how you thought you’d be doing vs. a year ago?
Investment performance. How did your total portfolio (all investment accounts together) do in 2014? This may be the area where the truth is most difficult to decipher. Those who want to be as precise as possible—factoring in not just how much you deposited into your investment accounts, but when—will need to know those amounts and dates and then use a financial calculator to determine your portfolio’s internal rate of return. Those content with a broader-brush view could use what is sometimes referred to as the approximation method or personal rate of return.
Cash flow. I’m a strong believer in budgets—setting monthly targets for giving, saving, investing, and spending—and then monitoring how you’re doing in comparison to those targets. Actively managing cash flow is one of the most essential keys to finding the money to give, save, and invest. And you can’t actually manage cash flow unless you know how much is coming in and going out.
We use an online budget in our household. My wife and I looked at our year-to-date totals the other night, and while we were over in some categories, we were under in others. All told, we’re pretty much right on plan, with giving, saving, investing, and spending equal to income.
Generosity. How much did you contribute to your church and other charities and what percentage of gross income did that amount to? Both numbers are important. If your income and the actual amount you gave away went down this year but the percentage of income you gave remained the same, you were just as generous as you were last year.
What other types of financial analysis do you run each year?