It’s time to make your New Year’s resolutions. You know the ones: You swear to lose fifty pounds by swimsuit season, exercise more, stop smoking, get out of debt and, if you have the time, get a better job, volunteer more, and open your own business. If you’re like most people, you’ll be discouraged and off the wagon by February. It’s not that New Year’s resolutions are bad; it’s that most of them are too big, nebulous, and unrealistic to give you a chance of success.
I can’t help you stop smoking or lose weight, but I can help you with your financial resolutions. Rather than taking on big tasks, like completely eliminating all debt and cutting out all unnecessary spending (not that these aren’t worthy goals, but for many people they’re going to take longer than a year), why not try something a little more manageable? Here are six financial New Year’s resolutions that are small enough to be doable, but large enough that they can make a difference in your financial picture by the end of 2008.
1. Promise to save something each paycheck, no matter how little. The hardest thing about saving money is getting into the habit. This year, try saving just $10 or $20 from each paycheck in a high yield savings account. Don’t touch the money unless it’s a dire emergency (and no, that new outfit isn’t a dire emergency). To make this easier, have the money automatically deducted from your paycheck so you never see it. Most people can easily come up with a small amount to save each pay period just by sacrificing one lunch or dinner out. Once you establish the saving habit and see that balance grow, you’ll find it becomes easier to save a little more, and then more still.
2. Pay off one debt. Just one. Whether it’s a student loan, a credit card, or a car loan, vow to pay off just one debt this year (and then don’t replace it with another debt). The satisfaction you’ll get from paying off that one thing will probably push you to pay off more. But even if it doesn’t, you’ve still kept your resolution because you paid off one debt. That’s one more debt you won’t be carrying next year.
3. Learn something about finance. It doesn’t matter what you choose to learn, but take the time to learn one new thing about personal finance. Whether you want to learn more about taxes, insurance, investment products, retirement funding, the stock market, or owning a small business, pick one topic and teach yourself. You can get books from the library, read personal finance or business magazines and newspapers, or read finance articles on the web. Hang out in Internet forums that cater to your topic and learn from the experiences of others. At the end of the year you’ll have accumulated a body of knowledge that will help you make financial decisions in the future. One of the biggest problems people face when trying to better their financial situation is lack of knowledge and a feeling that, “It’s all over my head.” Education empowers you to overcome that problem.
4. Pick one area of your spending and work on controlling it. Rather than eliminating all unnecessary spending (which usually leads to a spending binge when you start to feel deprived), look at your finances and identify one problem area and work on fixing it. Maybe you eat out too much or buy too many toys for the kids. Maybe your weakness is clothes or shoes. Figure out where your financial drains are and plug one of them this year. Once you get one area under control, you can tackle another problem area if you’re motivated. Just make sure that you don’t take the money you’re saving and spend it on something else. Put it in your savings account or use it to pay down a debt. Then you’ll be tackling two or more resolutions at once!
5. Take care of one financial chore you’ve been putting off. Maybe you know you need a will or to set up a power of attorney. Maybe you need to reevaluate your current insurance policies or buy additional insurance. Maybe you know you can get a better deal on some services your household uses, but you’ve put off making the switch. These sorts of chores are time consuming and not very much fun, which is why they get put off. Pick just one chore you need to do and resolve to do it this year. Having tackled one, you may be inspired to take care of another. But if not, at least one area of your financial picture will be better off than last year.
6. Save something for retirement. If you aren’t saving for retirement, vow to start doing so, even if you only put a tiny bit away. If you’re eligible for a 401k, sign up to have a percent or two deducted from your paycheck and put in the plan. If your company matches your contribution, try to contribute enough to get the full match; it’s free money. If you can’t get into a company sponsored plan, open your own IRA. Contribute what you can. Next year, try to contribute more.
Even if you only complete a couple of these resolutions this year, you’ll see a difference in your financial picture next year and beyond. The satisfaction you get from completing these small resolutions may lead you to take on more financial improvements. Even if you don’t complete any more than one or two of these resolutions you will have moved your financial life in a positive direction, which is more than most New Year’s resolvers will accomplish year.