Other than starting a new diet, the decision to tackle the family finances ranks near the top of all New Year’s resolutions. But while many people know that they need to save money, invest wisely, and reduce their debt, few develop a comprehensive money management strategy to achieve these goals.
The key to developing a sound strategy is to establish your goals, organize your financial statements, and adjust your budget to reach those goals. Much like the person who wants to lose 15 pounds in the first six months of the year, you must make a commitment and stick to your plans to achieve your financial goals.
To get you started, here are some tips to get your finances in order for the new year:
1. Determine how much you owe. Many people do not keep track of their total debt and instead focus largely on their monthly payments. But the only way to fully understand what you are facing is to have a realistic picture of what you owe. First, gather all your credit card statements and other bills. Then, add up the total. This will show you how much debt you’re carrying.
2. Create a spending plan. Once you know your total debt, develop a plan to cover your monthly expenses and debts. This is not glamorous, and it can be a daunting task, but it gives you the power to decide where your money goes.
The plan should be flexible and include monthly expenses such as mortgage or rent, utilities, food, transportation, entertainment, and clothing. Make sure your expenses are not more than your income. If they are, go back to the plan and make adjustments.
3. Pay off credit card debt. People who received credit counseling from CredAbility in 2013 had an average of approximately $18,000 in credit card debt. Just think of what you could do with an extra $300 to $350 a month in your budget. Stop charging additional purchases today, and make a commitment that once you have paid off your debt you will not charge any purchases unless you can pay them off in 90 days or less. Sacrifices now will mean less stress and a better financial future.
4. Build a savings cushion. Even before paying off your credit card balances, begin to build a savings cushion. Your goal should be to have three to six months of living expenses put aside in a savings account. This will help protect your financial health in case of emergencies, unexpected expenses, or job loss.
Without any savings, you could find yourself unable to make payments and in immediate financial stress if your circumstances were to change. With this cushion in place, you will not have to put unexpected expenses, such as when the refrigerator stops working, your car’s transmission gives out, or your mother-in-law moves in, o¬n a credit card.
5. Develop a strategy for your financial future. If you have not started setting money aside for retirement in a 401(k) or other retirement plan, do so in 2014. Most employers will match at least the first 4 percent of funds you invest, so find out how much free money you will receive. If you already contribute to a savings plan, consider investing an additional amount. If you earn $50,000 annually, investing an additional 1 percent of your pay is only $500 a year, or less than $10 a week.
Managing your finances can be tough, but it’s certainly worth the payoff. If you take these steps early in 2014, you can use the entire year to work toward your financial goals.
Mechel Glass is the Vice President of Education for ClearPoint Credit Counseling Solutions. She is responsible for developing the curriculum and financial education materials for online classes including webinars, podcasts, videos, and listen-on-demand classes. She provides support and training for the agency’s community outreach programs and staff, including financial education specialists in 15 states. Glass also manages the development and reporting of the agency’s online education. She is the co-author of The Veteran’s Money Book to be published by Career Press in April 2014.