Counting calories isn’t the only way you can resolve to bring about positive change in your life during the new year. If you’re like many Americans, it may be a good time to start counting your way toward better financial health.
The past year brought financial setbacks to nearly two-thirds of United States households, according to a survey by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE). In fact, more than a quarter of U.S. adults say the current quality of their financial lives are worse than they hoped. Topping the list of setbacks in 2017 were transportation issues (23 percent), housing repairs or maintenance (20 percent), and the inability to keep up with debt and falling behind on bill payments (16 percent).
In an effort to reverse that trend, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults will make financial New Year’s resolutions for 2018, according to the survey. Among those that plan to step up their financial game, top goals include setting and following a budget (40 percent), making a plan to get out of debt (39 percent), establishing savings (32 percent) and boosting retirement savings (31 percent).
“We continue to see a lot of anxiety about money,” said Ted Beck, president and CEO of NEFE. “Three-quarters of Americans said something causes them financial stress, and it’s most often not saving enough and debt that are to blame.”
Reduce money stress and take control of your finances with these tips for financial success from the experts at NEFE:
1. Get debt under control. Take a hard look at what you owe. If there’s a clear warning sign of too much debt, take action. Set a goal to reduce your debt load next year by 5-10 percent. That might mean reducing impulse shopping. When you face temptation, delay the purchase and give yourself time to consider whether it’s a wise move that fits within your budget.
2. Save now and do so often. Preparing for unexpected events like medical emergencies can help reduce the financial impact of a life-changing event. Emergency savings can offset unexpected costs and help you get back on solid footing. A good rule of thumb is to have 6-9 months of income set aside. If that feels out of reach, start with a smaller goal, even as little as $500. When it comes to saving, it’s also a smart idea to think long term. Review your long-term savings and ensure they are on target for your retirement plans.
3. Shop for better services. You may be surprised by how much you can save when you periodically shop for the most competitive rates on your recurring bills. Make a game out of shopping providers to find the best value on your insurance policies, cell phone plan, internet and utilities. Ask your providers about current rates and any promotions available to long-time, loyal customers. Then look at alternative providers to determine where you can trim some spending. Be sure to understand your current offering thoroughly so that you are comparing apples to apples.
4. Understand what’s behind your financial decisions. If you ever wonder why you feel good about spending money on vacations but avoid saving for retirement, the answer may lie in your unique values and how they influence your financial decision-making. Consider taking the LifeValues Quiz at smartaboutmoney.org, where you can also find help with setting goals and getting your finances in order.
To take control of your money and your financial life, it’s important to get organized. The most effective tool is a budget. Creating a budget can help you meet personal goals such as buying a house or car, or taking a vacation. It also can help you prepare for emergencies and manage debt.
Income: Start by listing all income sources, including wages, bonuses and tips, as well as non-employer income such as child support, alimony or Social Security. Generally, you’ll want to look at your recurring income, but also include long-range, infrequent income that you anticipate, such as tax refunds.
Expenses: Next, take into account all of your recurring monthly bills. If you have major periodic expenses, such as a six-month auto insurance premium, account for it in monthly increments so you can save up and have the money ready when the payment comes due. Remember to account for the bills you pay (mortgage or rent, utilities, etc.), as well as unspecified items like lawn maintenance and personal hygiene purchases.
Categorize Spending: Some people find it helpful to break expenses into categories, such as housing, transportation, health, personal, entertainment and so on. The key is to capture every point where money is going out so you can get a thorough picture of your ongoing expenditures. It can take a couple months to get a true understanding of what your typical spending looks like.
Savings: An effective budget doesn’t just capture what’s going out; it also reflects what you’re able to keep. If you haven’t already, outline a savings plan that allows for an emergency fund, regular savings, retirement and investments.
Debt: Consistently paying down the accounts you owe with the maximum amount you can afford is the surest way to reduce your debt load. Account for each debt you owe in your budget, and establish a payment plan that shows how much you can allocate to each account each month.