Ask Melanie

Ask Melanie: New Year's evolution

Melanie Nutbeam, a certified financial planner based in Hong Kong, addresses common personal finance queries. Send your questions to

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 January, 2013, 4:31am

What strategies should I consider in 2013 to shore up financial security?

Here's a programme for the next 12 days, weeks or months.

Define your goals: these are the drivers of your planning. Discuss them with any significant other(s) and list them as short, medium and long-term targets. Referencing them to your age gives razor-sharp focus, for example to "providing college fees for two kids from when we're 47-53 years old" and "retiring when we're 60".

Prepare your statement of financial position: this snapshot of your current assets and liabilities indicates any gap to be bridged between the resources you have and those you need to meet your goals. It's your first glimpse into whether your goals are realistic.

Prepare your budget: putting your spending on paper is a very powerful way to change behaviour. Your savings, and your investment earnings, are the bridge across the financial gap. How much you save is largely within your control. By now you might be resolving to either change behaviour or modify your goals.

Review your investment portfolio: investors only need two strategies to navigate difficult markets. The first is sensible asset allocation based on personal circumstances and the second is disciplined rebalancing to maintain appropriate asset allocation. Your goals, your time frame, your current resources and your expected savings are an indicator of how much investment risk you may need to take to achieve your goals.

Stay abreast of trends in investment products: check for fee and tax drag on your investments.

There's also a risk in doing nothing - there was plenty of uncertainty at the start of last year but markets closed the year with respectable gains. If taking the level of risk required to meet your goals will cause you to lose sleep, modify your goals, the time frame for achieving them, or save more. These are the only levers to pull short of unexpected windfalls or taking a cut in lifestyle at retirement.

Understand the true value of your remuneration package: if you are thinking of changing jobs quantify all the benefits included in your package so you can improve on them. Many people take for granted contractual benefits such as additional MPF, share plans, medical benefits and life insurance. Replacing these out of your own income can be expensive.

One of my clients realised he needed to earn more to meet retirement goals and that his job was shaky. After quantifying the true value of his package he set up his own consulting business with cornerstone clients who will pay enough to meet and exceed his remuneration package quite quickly. Detailed financial planning, with belts and braces, has been crucial to helping him take control of his career and financial security.

Invest in your career: investing in your ability to earn a living is critical. Despite your best efforts, redundancy or employment setbacks happen even to the most assured. Keep a weather eye on the financial buffer needed to cope with job losses or re-engineering your career. Review this regularly. Having your finances under control often increases career enjoyment.

Review all insurance cover: know what type and level of cover you should have and the trade-offs to make if your budget doesn't allow for optimum coverage. Know which insurers to select for the best policy terms and conditions and how to structure policy ownership. I harp on about this as most people don't have any, enough, or the right cover.

Review your will and estate planning matters: it won't be your problem if you die intestate, but you might not want to create a problem for others. You might also get peace of mind in this life from knowing you have made the best provision you can for beneficiaries. Review guardianship matters and trust arrangements.

Invest in your financial knowledge: Carol Loomis is Fortune magazine's Warren Buffett expert. Her book Tap Dancing to Work pulls together articles from and about Buffett and his lifetime approach to investing. It would be hard to read it without picking up at least one practical piece of advice from one of the world's wealthiest individuals.

If you take each of these steps, and review and revise them on a regular basis, you will be well on your way to shoring up your financial position despite the uncertainty which is always with us in one form or another.

The views presented are of a general nature. For specific advice, talk to a professional planner. See the column archive at