Each December, we offer planning suggestions for the year ahead. But this isn’t meant to be a one-size-fits-all list. It’s up to you to take our broad collection of ideas and narrow them down to your personal “Top 10” for the new year. As you read, mark each idea that applies to your financial situation and season of life. Then narrow your checked items to 10 that will be your “action list” for 2019.

The next 12 months can be a season of steady financial progress for you — if you’re willing to plan and act.

“The main difference between Christians and others,” wrote the late Eugene Peterson in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, “is that we take God seriously and they do not. We really do believe that he is the central reality of all existence.” Because we believe that, “we order our lives in response to that reality and not some other.”

Interestingly, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, now considered a Christian classic, was rejected by 17 publishing companies before finally being released by InterVarsity Press in 1980. Publishers suggested that Peterson’s emphasis on steady, long-term discipleship in the midst of the “instant society” was out of step with what readers wanted. (“I was advised that it was irrelevant to the concerns of contemporary North Americans,” the author later recounted.)

Today, of course, our society is far more “instant” than it was then. Smartphones and social media have thrown open the information floodgates, constantly drawing our attention to the latest happenings and “hot takes” on the newest controversies. Some cultural observers warn that the way we now consume information has effectively “rewired our brains” to crave the random and the novel.

It has become increasingly difficult to “tune out the noise” and diligently order our lives around the “central reality of existence” that Eugene Peterson wrote about. But we must. Following Jesus Christ requires both sustained effort and sustained submission. We must be intentional in how we respond — day after day, year after year — to the Lord’s call to discipleship.

That call, of course, includes how we use the financial resources God entrusts to us. A true disciple seeks to be a faithful steward who recognizes that (1) God is the owner of everything (1 Chronicles 29:11), and (2) we are called and empowered to manage His resources for His purposes (Romans 11:36, Hebrews 13:20-21).

In 2019, we pray that your “long obedience” will include “honor[ing] the Lord with your wealth and the best part of everything you produce” (Proverbs 3:9 NLT). And one day, when your earthly journey has come to an end, may you hear these words from the lips of the Master himself: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).

Selecting your Top 10

Below are more than 50 suggestions that can help you manage money wisely and improve your financial condition over the next 12 months, based primarily on articles published in the SMI newsletter in 2018. Next to each suggestion, we’ve placed a small box. As you read, put a checkmark in the box next to each item that’s particularly relevant to you. Later, go back through your checked items, asking the Lord to guide you in selecting 10 tasks to set as your financial priorities for the new year.

Then, assign each item a specific priority. Make your most important item number 1, the second-most important number 2, and so on up through number 10, keeping in mind that some items can be accomplished quickly while others may take some time. If you’re married, go through this planning process with your spouse, so that you can discuss the items, clarify understandings, and be united in your financial goals.

This process is aimed at helping you turn intentions into actions. However, don’t try to accomplish too many things at once. Taking on too many things at a time can create a sense of being overwhelmed, which tends to lead to insufficient follow-through. As a practical matter, we suggest you finish implementing your top three tasks before starting on the other items on your list.

Each of the suggested “action items” below is linked to an article or resource that provides additional information. Most of the links will take you to articles published in the SMI newsletter in 2018 or in previous years. Other linked resources include The Sound Mind Investing Handbook.

Keep in mind that SMI’s “Top 10” approach to planning for the year ahead is intended to be a spiritual exercise as well as a practical one. Use this planning time meditatively, thanking the Lord for His faithfulness in the past and expressing your trust in Him for the future.

Focusing on things of first importance

Before turning to financial matters, consider your spiritual life and outlook. (Items in this section are not meant to be part of your 10 financial goals for 2019. They relate to foundational practices of Christian discipleship.)

Are you spending time each day with the Lord? Faithful stewardship isn’t just about doing all the right things, it’s about becoming like the Master. To become Christlike, we must spend time with him — in prayer, study, devotion, and worship.

Are you seeking God’s will for your finances? Doing so means accepting your role as a steward and faithfully managing resources according to the Lord’s direction.

Are the precepts of The Lord’s Prayer guiding your financial outlook? Do you see God as a wise and loving heavenly Father who owns everything and is in control of everything? Can you honestly pray, “Lord, if you provide just my ‘daily bread’ — i.e., my basic needs (not wants, demands, or desires) — I would be grateful”?

Are you trusting God or leaning on your own understanding? Biblical wisdom acts as a counterweight to behavioral tendencies that tend to result in bad financial decisions.

Do you know the foundational pillars of Christian stewardship? Learn to articulate the biblical teaching that shapes your outlook on money.

Are you making acceptable sacrifices, well-pleasing to God? SMI wants you to have more so you can give more. Are you a cheerful giver? Is your life characterized by increasing generosity? Are you learning to excel in the grace of giving (2 Corinthians 8:7)?

Are you investing with a “sound mind”? This involves basing your decisions on spiritual wisdom and guidance that come through faith in Jesus Christ. It is in contrast to making choices based on emotions and immediate circumstances.

Are you longing for the return of the Lord? Career goals and retirement plans should pale in comparison with our desire to see the return of Jesus, the King of glory. We should long for His appearance even more than we long for our next meal.

Strengthening your foundation

A strong financial foundation is essential to short-term and long-term financial health. If your foundation isn’t yet firm, concentrate your efforts here, rather than moving ahead to more advanced topics.

Create a spending plan (i.e., a budget) or bring your existing plan up to date. Don’t think of a spending plan as restrictive but as liberating. Having a plan will help you gain financial peace of mind.

If married, work together on setting up and implementing your financial management system. Whatever approach you use, be sure it provides financial transparency and fosters good husband/wife communication.

Take the steps necessary to get out of debt. Paying off debt can be hard, but you can do it if you create a plan and stick to it. Trust in God’s grace to see you through.

Save before you invest. Building an emergency fund is essential to financial stability. Make sure you have such a fund in place — equal to three-to-six months’ worth of living expenses — before putting money at risk in the stock market.

Use multiple savings accounts as an aid to reaching your savings goals. Setting up a series of dedicated savings accounts, especially when combined with automatic transfers from your checking account or direct deposits from your paycheck, will help ensure that you have savings on hand both for periodic expenses as well as emergencies.

Learn how the new tax law affects you. 2018 saw the biggest changes in the federal tax code in decades — altering your deductions, credits, and overall federal income-tax liability. Do you need to adjust your withholding or make other changes to take advantage of the new law?

Use tax data to gauge your tax bite as well as your level of giving. The data you put on your federal income-tax forms, especially if you itemize, can help you measure your tax liability and your giving as a percentage of your overall income. (Note: Fewer taxpayers will itemize under the new law.)

Add a “generosity” category to your budget. This category isn’t for tithing (a practice we also strongly recommend), but rather for spontaneous giving in response to needs you learn about day-by-day. You might help someone who’s lost a job or a single parent struggling with an unexpected expense. It’s fun to be not only willing but able to help others.

Have a will drawn up — and be sure it protects your minor children. Parents who die without a will empower the government to decide how to distribute their assets and to choose who will raise their children.

Developing your investing plan

Understand how people commonly misthink” money. Irrational behavior can interfere with your best intentions regarding saving, spending, and investing — and can cost more than you know.

Create a written long-term investing plan. Without a written plan, your ongoing financial decisions likely will be driven by the emotions of the moment. That is not a formula for long-term success.

For shorter-term savings, consider a bank money-market account or money-market mutual fund. Don’t let your shorter-term savings languish in a low-paying regular savings account. You can earn more in a money market account (i.e., an insured account available through banks) or a money-market fund (a type of mutual fund available through brokerage firms).

Choose the brokerage firm that’s right for you. Your choice of a broker will be determined in part by which SMI strategy (or strategies) you use. Fidelity and Schwab are tough to beat when it comes to the specific needs of SMI investors. Vanguard is a good option too, especially now that it allows free trades for almost all exchange-traded funds.

Learn about mutual-fund expense ratios and various fund “classes.” All mutual funds carry costs, but those costs — and how they are charged — can vary widely from fund to fund.

Study how investment returns are measured. Many investors confuse “total return,” “average annual return,” and changes in “net asset value.” All are important, but they aren’t interchangeable.

Know the probabilities of stock market success. No other asset class has grown like stocks — over the long haul. But over shorter periods of time, the market is subject to unsettling reversals. Don’t be surprised when the market goes through up-and-down cycles (or when investors go through related up-and-down emotional cycles).

Prepare for investment “accidents.” Unanticipated things happen sometimes. But you can stay the course if you have an investing approach that’s governed by “mechanical” guidelines rather than emotional triggers.

Understand “regression to the mean.” Periods of above-average performance in the stock market (or in particular stocks or funds) are eventually and inevitably followed by times of below-average performance. Knowing that will help you manage your expectations regarding returns.

Know the difference between “growth” and “value” stocks. Sometimes “growth” dominates for an extended period (as in recent years). At other times “value” can have the upper hand for years at a time. Understand why such long swings are not uncommon.

Submit to the discipline of a structured, proven approach to managing investment risk. This will save you from counterproductive buying/selling.

Automate your investing whenever possible. One of the best ways to follow through on your investment plan is to insulate yourself from having to make regular decisions about where, when, and how to invest. Putting your investing on autopilot via an employer-sponsored retirement plan (or another automated approach) can help you maintain a steady course over a long period of time.

If you’re still relatively young, be sure your long-term investing plan isn’t too conservative. Many millennials, frightened by the financial crisis of a decade ago, are reluctant to put their money at risk in the stock market. Unfortunately, they’re exposing themselves to the greater risk that inflation will eat away at the value of their money. Unlike bonds and other fixed-rate vehicles, stocks have the potential to beat inflation.

If you’re at the stage of life where bonds should be part of your portfolio, learn about gauging bond risk. Knowing a fund’s “duration” will help you project how the fund’s performance will be affected by interest-rate changes.

Don’t raid your retirement account to meet short-term needs. Early withdrawals result in taxes and penalties, plus there can be an extremely high “opportunity cost.”

If you like SMI’s strategies but don’t have the time or the inclination to implement them yourself, consider using the professionally managed SMI mutual funds or the SMI Private Client service.

Broadening your portfolio

Familiarize yourself with “Upgrading 2.0.” This new iteration of our long-standing Fund Upgrading strategy seeks to offer true downside protection during bear markets. During times of particular market stress, Upgrading 2.0 will call for “going to cash” rather than staying fully invested in stock-based funds.

Investigate the best cash option(s) at your broker. Money-market funds, for example, are an increasingly attractive option for holding cash.

Study the rationale behind SMI’s Dynamic Asset Allocation (DAA) strategy. The “winning-by-not-losing” advantages of DAA play out slowly, over long market cycles. To stick with it, you must constantly keep the big picture in mind.

Don’t underestimate the risk of SMI’s Sector Rotation (SR) strategy. Because SR’s overall returns have been so impressive, you might be tempted to tilt your portfolio too strongly in SR’s direction. Beware of the danger.

Learn how to combine SMI strategies to build a portfolio that potentially offers higher returns with less risk. Investment volatility can inflict wear-and-tear on your emotions. Combining SMI strategies to minimize overall volatility can help you stick with your long-term plan.

Understand the implications of a “flattening yield curve.” As the Federal Reserve has raised interest rates, the gap between short-term rates (set by the Fed) and long-term rates (set by market forces) has narrowed. Learn why that could be an important indicator for both the economy and the markets.

Learn how “fund distributions” affect share prices. A sudden one-day drop in a fund’s share price may not reflect a loss! It could be that fund is simply distributing dividends, interest, or capital gains to its investors.

Review SMI’s approach to investing in late-cycle bull markets. Warning signs suggest the long-running bull market may be running out of steam. But that doesn’t mean a bear market is imminent. High returns can continue long after warning indicators start flashing — returns you can miss if you try to predict the timing of the bear market.

Exercise caution if using “after-hours trading.” With some brokers, you can now trade stocks and exchange-traded funds anytime, not just during normal market hours. But liquidity tends to be lower and bid/ask spreads wider than during normal hours.

Take advantage of personalized financial planning with MoneyGuidePro®. MoneyGuidePro® is considered by many advisors to be the best financial-planning software on the market, and now it’s available to SMI Premium-level members. MoneyGuidePro® can help you stick to your investment strategy, make smarter decisions, and relieve anxiety about the future. (If you started with MoneyGuidePro® but didn’t follow through, you may find it helpful to reactivate the step-by-step “labs” videos and start again.)

Looking toward retirement

Start planning for the transition to post-paycheck living. Work on answering these questions: Have you decided on a retirement age? Can you be debt-free by then? Have you estimated your retirement cost-of-living? Do you want to sell your house and move when you retire or stay where you are?

Use MoneyGuidePro® to project how long your nest egg will last in retirement. MoneyGuidePro® is able to test 1,000 scenarios at a time. You can learn how even small changes in your projected spending levels, drawdown rates, and Social Security claiming strategy can increase the likelihood that your money will last until a ripe old age. Also discover how MoneyGuidePro® can help you evaluate specific retirement threats.

Study how to use a “bucket strategy” to manage cash flow in retirement. It’s wise to insulate the money you need month-by-month to live on from the ups and downs of the market. Creating a “cash bucket” (i.e., two or three years of living expenses set aside in a savings account, CDs, or a money-market fund) can provide peace of mind during times of market volatility.

Avoid making an ill-informed decision about claiming Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration can’t be relied on to explain the best approach. Resources are available that can help you conduct your own careful research.

Learn how to convert a “traditional” retirement account to a Roth IRA. And be sure you understand the upside and downside of such a conversion.

Understand recent rule changes for reverse mortgages. New rules affect reverse mortgage contracts entered into as of October 2017 or later. They make reverse mortgages less attractive for some borrowers.

Learn about “managed payout funds” — mutual funds that pay like an annuity. These funds are among several options for establishing a steady income stream in retirement. We don’t necessarily recommend them, but it’s a good idea to understand what they are and how they work.

Develop a plan to cover the cost of long-term care. Long-term care, which is not necessarily synonymous with nursing-home care, could prove to be one of your biggest expenses in retirement. Assess the risk and plan accordingly.

Consider funeral and burial pre-planning. Making “pre-need” decisions — i.e., well in advance of death — is better financially as well as emotionally. Planning ahead allows you to compare costs and make well-considered decisions.

Engaging with other important financial matters

Teach your children (and perhaps other young people you know!) to be wise money managers. The financial habits they establish now will be magnified — for better or worse — as they go through life.

Leave a financial legacy: Make a one-time investment on behalf of an infant child or a grandchild. Just $3,000, invested when a child is born, could grow (under the right conditions) to more than $4 million by the time the child reaches age 65 — thus providing a solid retirement income. It might even grow to tens of millions more(!) during his or her retirement years.

Help a high-school age child or grandchild fund a Roth IRA and then teach them how to manage that investment using SMI’s high-risk/high-reward Sector Rotation strategy. A one-time investment could grow to many millions over the course of a lifetime.

If you’re going to buy a house, learn the pros and cons of both “conventional” and FHA mortgages. The type of loan you choose will make a difference in the down payment required, closing costs, and (possibly) even whether you qualify for the loan.

If you think you’ll need to replace a car soon, research buying a used car that has a warranty. In comparison with buying a new car, buying “pre-owned” can save money up front and on the ongoing cost of insurance. Today, many late-model used vehicles come with warranties, providing peace of mind (for a certain period of time anyway) about future repair bills.

Take action to cut your prescription costs. Finding lower prices on prescription drugs has become much easier with the advent of discount cards and cost-comparison websites. You also can save by buying generic substitutes (when available) rather than name brands.

If you have medical debt, whether from a one-time health-related issue or an ongoing condition, take action to reduce it. Sometimes you can reduce your debt or get more favorable repayment terms simply by asking or by proposing a payment plan. Also consider hiring a patient advocate who can negotiate on your behalf.

Educate yourself about flood insurance. Standard homeowners policies don’t cover flood damage, so a flood policy might be worth considering. Although flood risk is greatest near coasts, rivers, and streams, flooding can occur almost anywhere.

If you’re the owner of a small business, learn how you can provide a retirement plan for your employees. Several types of plans are available under federal law. Find out which are likely to be the best fit for your business.

Walking in the way

Being a faithful servant of Jesus Christ is the work of a lifetime. It is “a long obedience in the same direction.” And, as Eugene Peterson noted, you will face resistance.

Not a day goes by [that we don’t] deal with that ancient triple threat that Christians in the Middle Ages summarized under the headings of the world, the flesh, and the devil: the world — the society of proud and arrogant mankind that defies and tries to eliminate God’s rule and presence in history; the flesh — the corruption that sin has introduced into our very appetites and instincts; and the devil — the malignant will that tempts us and seduces us away from the will of God….

There is a fight of faith to be waged. But the way of faith itself is in tune with what God has done and is doing. The road we travel is the well-traveled road of discipleship. It is not a way of boredom or despair or confusion. It is...a way of blessing.

May you walk in the well-trod “way of faith” in 2019 and beyond, holding fast to the promise that “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).