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By Dan Kadlec
March 18, 2016
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In a few weeks, college basketball will have its final four—the survivors of March Madness that will play for a national title. Money has also picked a winner of the NCAA tournament if the outcome was determined by the school’s position in the Money’s Best College rankings.

But you can also determine your own “financial four”—top personal money goals for the year—right now, in similar tournament fashion.

Filling out the brackets that help you arrive at your financial four may not be as fun as filling out the brackets for March Madness. But the process surely will prove more productive. It’s also kind of fun. So why not give it a shot?

The National Endowment for Financial Education and Financial Planning Association assembled an interactive grid of 32 “teams” of financial goals. These goals are pitted against one another and as you choose winners the goals advance. The idea is to help you reach your top financial priorities for the year.

Your financial four is highly personalized and will depend on what you see as your most pressing money issues. I filled out two—one for myself and another as I imagine my twenty-something kids would have done. We have completely different “teams” getting to the final four. That is mainly due to our respective ages.

My kids’ grid is more closely aligned to the most popular picks—the top seeds, if you will. Their financial four: start saving early, avoid financial scams, use credit responsibly, and know how financial products work.

Their ultimate winner: start saving early, which is easily the top choice among both professional planners and individuals who have filled out the brackets. This suggests more young people have been engaged in the exercise because, clearly, someone in their 50s or 60s cannot start saving early. Hopefully, they did that 30 years ago.

My kids’ financial four strikes me as age appropriate. No financial goal is more important than saving early so that compound growth does the heavy lifting. Using credit wisely will build a solid credit score that lowers borrowing costs, and understanding financial products ensures that you take enough risk and get the best long-run return with the lowest fees. The elderly are perhaps most vulnerable to financial scams but young people without a lot of experience may also be fooled and should be wary of dreamy claims and promises from financial purveyors.

Calculator: How much will I need to save for retirement?

My brackets led to a financial four more appropriate for someone nearing (but not there yet!) retirement age: calculate retirement needs, organize financial documents, live within means, and rein in debt. The last two seem fairly obvious at any age but become increasingly important as you ponder life without a regular paycheck. The first two were the most instructive for me. Before this exercise I hadn’t really thought too much about formally calculating my retirement needs and organizing (and perhaps condensing and simplifying) my financial records.

The ultimate winner of my bracket: rein in debt, in my case mortgage expense. Housing debt can be financially crippling for a retiree and, sadly, more are carrying this burden into their retirement years. I am now accelerating payments, which you can do by making an extra payment each year, refinancing into a shorter-term loan, or paying more than the amount due each month. Try filling out the brackets for yourself. You may be surprised at how many worthy goals exist, and how your “teams” stack up against the field.


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