12/20/2013 07:12 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2014

Why You Should Take a Financial 'Selfie'

Last month, Oxford Dictionaries declared "selfie" the word of the year for 2013.

That's a triumph for social media fans and a tragedy for language traditionalists, but however you feel about it, the popularity of impromptu self-portraits reflects the current fascination with self-reporting. Between checking in as you change locations, updating your relationship status, tweeting your passing thoughts and of course posting selfies, it seems no activity is too trivial to escape reporting. So how about putting this trend toward self-reporting to good use?

Take a financial selfie

A financial selfie would be an honest picture of some aspect of your personal financial condition. Here are some examples:

  1. A list of what exactly you spend money on. As with any close-up, you might be surprised at what you see if you kept a detailed list of how you spend your money during a typical week. Project those numbers out over the course of a full year, and you might figure out ways you could save money just by cutting back a little on everyday things.
  2. A glimpse of what your retirement income would look like at your current rate of saving. Young people especially tend to view retirement as a remote, far-off goal, with plenty of time to between now and then to build up a nest egg. To bring that far-off target into a little bit closer focus, use a retirement calculator to figure out what level of annual income your current pace of saving would support. This glimpse into the future might convince your present self to devote a little bit more money to taking care of your future self.
  3. A snapshot of your checking account fees. Gather your paper or online statements, and see what you spend on your checking account over the course of the year. Average maintenance fees on checking accounts average nearly $150 a year, but can be avoided altogether. There still are some checking accounts that don't charge those fees, and many more that will waive those fees if a reasonable balance requirement is maintained. Did you also pay overdraft fees? Those can be eliminated through a combination of better record-keeping habits and opting out of overdraft protection. You might also be able to cut down on ATM fees by switching to a bank whose machines are more conveniently located for you.
  4. A look at what your savings is doing for you. Savings and money market rates are so low you might not give them a second thought, but if you settle for average, you are selling yourself short. Why accept rates near zero when there are several options that pay closer to 1 percent? If interest rates start to climb next year, those differences might become even wider. If you look at these differences in dollar terms, you will probably agree that the difference would be worth having at the end of the year. Be sure to check out online savings accounts, since these generally offer better rates than traditional accounts.

It's possible that today's selfie is tomorrow's regret, but people have always been able to learn by taking a good, long look at themselves. What you learn by looking at your financial selfies might lead to a much more attractive picture in a year or two.

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