A Maintenance Checklist for Financial SecurityThink of your personal finances like a car. In order for the car to run smoothly, you need to regularly maintain each piece. The difference is, most cars have easy maintenance checklists written for them, breaking down how often you need to take care of each part. We thought that money matters should have the same thing, so we wrote a checklist of things you can do right now, every few weeks and every few months throughout the year to keep your financial vehicle in working order. Put each step in your phone as a regular alert or mark them on your wall calendar, and pretty soon you can have a handle on your financial security all year round.

Right now

Create a budget: If you don’t have one already, a budget is one of the best things you can do for your financial security. It can help you plan for the essentials, save for long-term goals and take some of the mystery out of your future so there’s less uncertainty to worry about. Budgets are free and easy to make, so there aren’t many excuses to not have one. Even a quick and dirty budget that just covers your rent, utilities and an estimate of your grocery bill is much better than nothing and will help get you into the habit of tracking your expenses. Just don’t forget to update it on a regular basis – we suggest monthly – to be sure that you’re staying on target.

Freeze your credit: Considering how many people have had their sensitive personal information exposed in recent data breaches such as September’s Equifax disaster, if you haven’t already, you should seriously consider freezing your credit. While it doesn’t work for everyone’s financial situation, credit freezes block all applications for new lines of credit, so if an identity thief gets your social security number, they can’t open a credit card or take out a loan in your name. It does have its drawbacks, most notably that you’ll have to pay a small fee to the credit bureaus to temporarily unfreeze your credit files when you apply for new credit or do something that requires a hard credit inquiry. That said, the protection and peace of mind a credit freeze provides in return for the cost is invaluable.

Every one to two weeks

Make credit card payments: While it’s true that credit card bills are typically due once a month, paying off your credit cards a couple times a month has a few advantages. First, since the payments are smaller and cover fewer items, it’s easier to see how much you’re spending and where your money is going. In fact, research from Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Stanford has shown that paying for something with a credit card doesn’t feel like spending money to most people, so it can be easy to lose track of how much you’re charging to your cards. The good news is making payments as you spend can break this thought pattern. Second, regularly paying off your cards will help keep your credit utilization ratio low, which will give your credit scores a boost. Third, paying several times per month eliminates your chances of making late payments, which rack up unnecessary fees and damage your credit scores, or having an unpaid amount at the end of the month that you carry over to the next – which usually means paying interest.

Every month

Go over your statements: Financial statements from your credit card and banking accounts break down exactly how much money you have coming in and how much you’re paying out, as well as where that money is going. Keeping up with your statements will let you easily see where you’re spending too much, which should inform how you develop and manage your budget. To make things more convenient, do this at the same time you pay your bills and get a bundle of financial housekeeping done in one clean sweep. Additionally, checking your statements every month can help you spot and report fraud as soon as it appears on your account.

Put away savings: It’s also a good idea to contribute to some kind of long-term money reserve, such as a savings account or retirement fund. Regular contributions are easier to stomach than putting away big chunks of money at once, and in many cases, you can set up automatic deductions from your paycheck or checking account so you never even see the money you put away until you need it. Even if you only have $50 per month to put in, start early and let compound interest work its magic to help you build a nest egg over time.

Every few months

Check your credit reports: While you probably think about the money going in and out of your bank accounts on a near-daily basis, credit is something a lot of people don’t consider until someone asks to check it. Your credit history is an important aspect of your financial security, and making sure it’s as strong as possible will let you qualify for the best credit card offers and personal loans when you need them – among other things. Regularly reading your credit reports can also alert you to errors or unfamiliar items that could be signs of identity theft.

When it comes to how often you should check your credit reports, it’s ideal to check all three of your credit reports at least once per year. You can get a free copy of your credit reports from the three major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – once every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. You can order all three simultaneously once a year and compare them for errors or, since you can request a report from each bureau individually, you can opt to stagger the requests so you get one free report every four months. However, if you’re trying to boost your credit scores or you’re especially worried about identity theft, you may want to check your reports more often, such as every one to three months. To make this easier on your wallet, you can sign up for a credit monitoring service, which are designed to regularly update you with new copies of your credit reports and credit scores, as well as monitor your credit reports for any changes to help you see how you are doing and notify you of any noteworthy changes.

Review your budget and monetary goals: That budget you made at the beginning of your financial maintenance checklist isn’t static, so don’t forget to update it on a regular basis – if not every month, as noted above, then at least once per year. Once you make a budget and set your goals, it’s natural to tinker with them a bit after you get a better picture of what you need for financial security. However, even when you think you have your plans all lined up with the realities of your life, you should take some time each year to go over your overall budget and financial goals to see if anything has shifted. Times change, circumstances change and people change, and it’s important to take an inventory of that to make sure you’re still working toward something you want, and that you can realistically attain it.

While you’re building good financial security habits, you may also want to start building good cybersecurity habits, as our finances are increasingly tied to the digital world. For more advice on how you can handle your money to build a successful future, follow our personal finance blog.