Grim reminder for financial review

It's one of those sad axioms that tragedy motivates actions previously neglected. In the wake of the devastating terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, many Americans will want to re-evaluate their personal finances.

This examination should extend well beyond reassessing one's investment portfolio, says Dennis Filangeri, a certified financial planner based in San Diego. "It may well involve taking a fresh look at how we live our very lives, and the financial consequences of that re-evaluation."

As one planner put it recently in the Journal of Financial Planning, the attack has prompted "a grim reminder of what clients should be doing with their money while they're alive."

Review Life Goals

The faltering market and weak economy may grab our immediate financial attention, but ultimately it is our life goals that should drive our overall personal money management decisions, financial planners say.

Events as horrific as the attacks frequently cause people to reflect on the meaning of their work, their life and their money. Should they spend more time with their family and less at work, change jobs or careers, move, retire earlier or later, or pursue more seriously dreams they've long put on hold?

Many of these life goals have financial consequences and require careful planning in order to be reached.

Review Objectives

Accomplishing goals requires achieving established objectives along the way, such as saving a certain amount of money by a certain date. Filangeri says that people may want to review their objectives with a new sense of urgency. Are you saving enough? Are you saving and investing in the right way? Are you budgeting finances in order to free up money to put toward those goals?

Reassess Portfolio

Ideally, a portfolio should be reassessed in response to changing life goals and needs, not in reaction to events that may dramatically, but temporarily, affect the market or the economy. Most financial planners believe that the stock market will bounce back in time and they are strongly advising their clients not to sell out of panic in a down market.

However, should you decide to alter life goals, it may be appropriate to alter your investing plan in order to achieve them. Furthermore, the sudden drop in the stock market following the attacks, compounding the steep decline of the market since the spring of 2000, may have highlighted weaknesses in your mix of investments. Is your portfolio too heavily weighted in one investment area, or is it balanced so it can weather the inevitable downs of the market? Most important, are you finding yourself uncomfortable with the investment risks you are taking now that you've experienced that "risk"?

Prepare for Financial Emergencies

As the Sept. 11 attacks devastatingly illustrated, disasters usually strike without warning. These include not only man-made disasters, but also natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes.

Many people have a thin or nonexistent financial cushion, living from paycheck to paycheck. The sudden loss of a job — as many airline industry workers are going through — is devastating if you don't have a cash emergency fund (at least enough to fund three months of bare-bones living) and other financial resources to fall back on. Being properly insured — health, property and casualty, and so on — is also key.

Use this opportunity to assess how you would fare if tomorrow you suddenly lost your job or your business.

Be Prepared for Death

Yes, this is a grim subject to contemplate. That's why people often avoid doing basic estate planning. But the horror of Sept. 11 should graphically illustrate the critical need to prepare for the unthinkable. A recent poll found that roughly 60 percent of adult Americans have no will. Even fewer have powers of attorney or living wills. Many families with dependents have inadequate life insurance. Estate plans either have not been made or are in disorder for survivors.

All these financial issues are difficult to tackle in normal times, let alone in the wake of our recent national tragedy. But just as our country has been forced to reassess and alter how it protects itself against terrorism, so too must families reassess their financial health and perhaps alter how they manage their financial lives.

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