The Final Four of finances

Posted: March 27, 2013

PART OF the thrill of the NCAA college basketball tournament is filling out the brackets for the 64 teams that vie for the championship.

Playing off the excitement of March Madness, the National Endowment for Financial Education and the Financial Planning Association have created an interactive bracket of 32 financial goals that people can use to narrow down the most important money issues they want to address. To complete the bracket online, visit financialfour.org.

Just as with the NCAA tournament, there are four major divisions in this financial game: saving and investing; values, communication and advice; protection and security; and spending.

"Identifying and managing priorities is the key to keeping your financial life in order," said Ted Beck, president of the National Endowment for Financial Education.

Beck says that using the brackets takes "the madness out of ranking your fiscal responsibilities."

I like the concept and the game. One of the things people often ask me when it comes to organizing their finances is: "Where do I start?" There is so much to managing your money, it is hard to figure out what you need to concentrate on in the stressed-out lives many of us lead.

"Americans are increasingly responsible for an overwhelming amount of financial choices," said Lauren M. Schadle, chief executive of the Financial Planning Association. "Our goal is to provide insight on what they should be thinking about when developing their financial plans."

As part of the fun, about 300 financial experts ranked their top financial priorities for Americans to focus on in 2013. Based on their picks, the National Endowment for Financial Education and the Financial Planning Association came up with a Final Four. The winners?

Live within your means. I agree that this should make it to the Final Four. Actually, I would retitle this "live below your means." You only have a limited amount of money. To meet your goals, you have to reduce your expenses so that you get to keep some of what you make for savings.

Protect yourself with adequate insurance. Thirty-nine percent of U.S. adults do not have life insurance, according to a survey released last year by InsuranceQuotes.com. If you put this in your winning bracket, don't just focus on life insurance. Determine what other insurance you might need. For instance, if you rent, do you have renter's insurance? Only 34 percent of renters have renter's insurance, InsuranceQuotes.com found in another survey.

Tackle debt. Stop promising yourself to get out of debt and, instead, do it. I suggest you list your debts starting with the lowest balance and knock that debt off first. Often, getting rid of some debt quickly motivates people to continue on their quest to be debt-free.

Build an emergency savings account. If you live below your means, you'll likely have the money to start an emergency fund. Your tax refund is a great emergency starter amount. So far this year, the average refund is about $2,900.

My Final Four were "manage food costs" (our eating out has gotten crazy), "pull credit reports" (haven't done that yet this year), "track spending" and "calculate retirement" (I've done this before, but I need to update some numbers based on the recent uptick in the stock market).

So what would your Sweet 16 be? What about your Elite Eight financial goals or your Final Four picks?

Once you finish the bracket, you can go to smartaboutmoney.org, a program of the National Endowment for Financial Education. You can use the site to look for more information to meet your goals.

While you're watching the basketball games or during breaks, fill out this bracket. You can't lose.

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