Know where you stand financially


Published: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 11:43 a.m.
Just about every morning, even before I brush my teeth, I get on the scale.
I know most fitness experts say not to weigh yourself every day, but I do anyway. I just have to know where I stand weight-wise. Is it up or down? Knowing often helps me eat healthier. The knowledge that my hips are spreading keeps me from eating the carrot cake that I love. Or it makes me skip buying the bags of potato chips that call out my name as I pass them in the grocery store.
And you know what? When it comes to your net worth, knowing where you stand - how much true wealth you have - can also be a barometer to better manage your money.
Unfortunately, only about half (49 percent) of adults know what personal net wealth is, according to a newly released survey by the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) and the Financial Planning Association. CFA and the association commissioned the Opinion Research Corporation to survey a representative sample of more than 1,000 Americans to get their views on personal wealth.
Even after respondents were given the definition of what personal net worth is, almost half (48 percent) indicated they didn't know exactly or even approximately how much wealth they have.
You determine your net wealth by adding up all your assets (household and personal possessions, money in a bank or credit union, cash value built up in an insurance policy and retirement savings, plus any equity you might have in your home) and subtracting your liabilities (what you owe on your home, credit cards or other loans). The dollar figure you end up with is your net worth.
I know you're probably tired of hearing about these surveys. But I see them as a constant reminder that we all have to do better. And clearly some folks really need a reminder because they think their best chance at wealth-building is luck. In the survey, an unbelievably high percentage (21 percent) of respondents said the most practical way to accumulate several hundred thousand was to win the lottery. Determining your net worth is an interesting and often shocking exercise. A family's net wealth reveals, in large measure, the extent to which people can meet emergencies, afford major expenditures, such as a home, or whether they can retire comfortably, said Stephen Brobeck, CFA's executive director.
Instead of calculating what they are worth, many people are measuring their financial health by just looking at the asset side. Yes, you might have $50,000 of equity in your home and maybe another $20,000 in other assets, but if you have $80,000 in consumer debt (credit cards, car loans, etc.) your net worth is in negative territory.
Brobeck said he was surprised to find so many people who didn't know their net worth.
''This is an important finding because those who know their personal wealth are more likely to spend, borrow and save sensibly,'' Brobeck said. ''They tend to be more aware, for example, that overspending on a car diminishes their wealth.''
James A. Barnash, the Financial Planning Association's chair, said he encourages his clients to use their net worth as a kind of scorecard.
''At the end of the year that report card should show that either your net worth grew or shrank,'' Barnash said.
If you haven't calculated your net worth lately or at all, then use the ''personal wealth estimator'' on the America Saves Web site (www.AmericaSaves.org). By the way, America Saves is a nationwide campaign sponsored by a coalition of nonprofit, corporate and government groups whose goal it is to get more people saving.
Not sure how to start or what to do to build up your net worth? Volunteer certified financial planners, who are members of the Financial Planning Association, are available at no cost to answer basic personal finance questions submitted via the association's Web site at www.fpanet.org/public. Click on ''Ask a CFP Professional.''
For another source of general advice, Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine has partnered for the third year with the National Association of Personal Financial Advisors to provide free financial advice for two days in January.
Last year, advisers fielded telephone calls from more than 7,500 people. To get such advice, call toll free at (888) 919-2345 from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. on Jan. 27. - Am I saving enough to live the lifestyle I want in retirement?
- Is my money invested properly?
- What kind of IRA should I have?
- How should I be investing in my 401(k)?
More information about this initiative can be found in the February 2006 issue of Kiplinger's Personal Finance, which is currently on newsstands.
Just like stepping on that scale, you may not want to know the truth. But not knowing is worse.
Write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or singletarym@washpost.com.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top