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Each stage of life has different needs. As you progress through your career, your family and work dynamics will change. Because of this, your priorities and the way you see money will also change. If used correctly, a financial plan can help you navigate through those life changes–whether you are a single income household or a small business owner. Through a financial plan, you can make decisions that will give you the outcome you seek.

You may already be doing some planning without knowing it. Participating in a 401(k), buying life insurance, or naming a beneficiary on your work benefits are all parts of the financial planning process.

However, a financial plan is much more than calculations of expected rates of return or a strategy for investments. Your plan should also cover various essential topics, such as estate planning and risk management. Here is a checklist of the needed items, so you have an idea of what may be missing from your plan:

Cash Flow, Budget, & Debt Management

Cash flow and a budget create the cornerstone of a financial plan, leading to debt management. For example, without proper cash flow planning, your financial plan will lack the lifeline it needs. Also, a budget earmarks every dollar that comes in and designates it to a goal or purpose.

Once a cash flow and budget are established, debt management strategically considers student loans/payment alternatives, secured debt payment (such as homes, autos, and second mortgages), and unsecured debt (such as credit cards). At this point, debt refinance and alternative payoff options should also be considered.

Investment Planning

Many investors find that selecting a portfolio allocation and learning how to participate in the market is daunting. With over 7,900 mutual funds that are registered in the United States and 2,000 ETFs (in addition to the thousands of other vehicles readily available), the research is time-consuming and intensive.

Fortunately, the process can be simplified. You can determine your asset allocation through your goals, time horizon, and risk tolerance. Some individuals get caught up in the investment planning and management aspect. More important than the vehicle you invest in, however, is the amount of your investment and how long you invest for.

Retirement Savings & Income

Because it helps determine the level of income needed versus the amount of income that can be generated, a proper retirement needs analysis is a must. The sooner the retirement needs analysis can be done, the longer you will have to make any necessary changes. This analysis should also consider other sources of income, including Social Security, pensions, and other investments (such as real estate and business holdings). Healthcare costs should also be accounted for through Medicare or Medicaid planning, along with long-term care planning.

Tax & Estate Planning

Although it is important, this topic is covered less often. Tax planning focuses on the concepts of tax law and techniques to work around taxes, including IRA conversions, profit sharing plans, and proper tax preparation. On the other hand, estate planning deals with passing wealth onto the next generation with maximum tax efficiency, along with the distribution of assets at the end of life and planning for estate taxes if they arise. Some fixes are as simple as adding a per stirpes designation or changing the beneficiary of a retirement account to a person instead of a trust or entity.

Education Planning

Although not applicable to everyone, parents and children need to plan for higher education, especially if parents wish to help with the rising costs of tuition. The advisor should balance planning for higher education expenses with other goals, including debt payoff and retirement.

Risk Management and Insurance

This is perhaps the second most overlooked topic. When putting together a financial plan and creating financial goals, we fund many of our objectives through our income. However, an unexpected death, extended hospital stay, or disability can set back or completely destroy this plan when it lacks the needed funding.To combat this, you should properly consider life, disability, home, and auto insurance, so you have alternative funding and hedging against unexpected losses.

Each topic has a myriad of planning opportunities and strategies designed to reach a financial goal. Not all financial plans are the same, and not all families or individuals need extensive planning around each topic. As always, please consult with a financial, tax, and legal expert to determine the best solutions for your needs.