Experts were asked to weigh in on what our personal finance priorities ought to be in 2012. With economic uncertainty still the order of the day, your best strategy for financial health is to control the things you can control.
So, here are 7 financial moves to make in the new year.
1. Trim Your Waistline — and Your Insurance Premiums
Two ever-popular resolutions are to lose weight and quit smoking. Those are good ideas not just for your health, but for your wallet, too.
According to research from eHealthInsurance, smokers pay an average monthly health insurance premium that’s 14% higher than for nonsmokers. Being heavy costs big too: Obese policyholders pay 22.6% more on average than their normal-weight counterparts.
As an added incentive, some employers and insurers are offering rewards in the form of gift cards or discounted deductibles for employees with healthy habits and fewer sick visits to the doctor.
2. Become a Smarter Shopper
Vicky Oliver, in her column Eight New Year’s Resolutions for Frugalistas, advises trying to stay one step ahead of the retailers who are forever luring us with clever marketing strategies. “BOGO” sales (Buy-One-Get-One), she points out, only save you money if you actually want the second item. Ditto for “loss leaders,” — items the store under-prices so far that it loses money on them, in the hope that once you’re there to buy them, you’ll also pick up some higher-margin items that will allow them to turn a profit on you. Using special promotions and loss leaders only when they can really supercharge your savings — and shunning them otherwise — is the best frugalista formula, Oliver says.
She also recommends becoming a “groupie.” Take advantage of the power of group buying sites, like Groupon and LivingSocial, that offer deep discounts, and special promotions from social sites like foursquare.
3. Simplify Your Day-to-Day Finances
What’s complex can be intimidating, and therefore tempting to ignore. Vow to simplify your financial life.
For starters, put bill-paying on auto-pilot. If you’re still writing and mailing checks, set up online accounts so that bills are paid automatically. In addition to giving you easy access to your bank and credit-card accounts and spending history, going paperless has an unexpected benefit: People who pay bills online are happier.
Automate savings too. To the extent your cash-flow permits, max out your contributions to tax-advantaged savings vehicles — 401(k)s, traditional or Roth IRAs, and 529 plans for college savings, advises Benjamin Sullivan, a financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group. Also, reduce the number of retirement accounts you have by consolidating 401(k)s from former employers and any other traditional IRAs into one rollover IRA.
4. Increase Your Financial Literacy
If the last few years have taught us only one thing, it’s that you can’t afford to be in the dark about money matters. Make 2012 the year to focus on your financial education.
The more knowledgeable you are, the more active you’ll be in planning to reach your financial goals, says Bob Stammers, director of investor education at the CFA Institute, a nonprofit organization of investment professionals. Consider joining an investment club, or take advantage of any investing help that may be offered by your employer, such as one-on-one professional advice or educational workshops.
5. Expect the Unexpected
For most of us, it’s less a matter of if an emergency will arise than when. And anyone who’s been out of work for any length of time at all knows how quickly you can deplete your resources.
Start an emergency fund if you don’t already have one. According to Susan E. S. Howe, a Philadelphia-based CPA and a member of the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, your emergency fund should have enough cash to cover at least three months of basic expenses.
It make take a while to reach that goal, but keeping track of where you spend your money even for a week can help you identify ways to cut back and start saving. Put all your change in a bucket for a month to see just how much money you could be saving rather painlessly, says Luke Vandermillen, vice president of retirement and investor services with the Principal Financial Group. Consider using that spare change to build or add to an emergency fund. If you’re paying someone to mow your grass or wash your car, do it yourself and stash the extra cash. Not only will having a safety cushion help you when personal emergencies arise, it will also help you feel more comfortable during ups and downs in the economy.
6. Pay Down Debt
Here’s a risk-free place to put your money with a surefire return on investment of well over 10%, suggests Michael Kresh, president of Creative Wealth Management: Pay off your high interest debt. If you’re getting charged 12.99% on your Visa account balance, and you’re earning 1% on your money market account, take money out of the money market to pay off the credit card — you’ll end up with an 11.99% return.
Try to pay more than the minimum each month. Bankrate.com’s credit card minimum payment calculator can show you how paying just a little more each month can dramatically reduce overall payback time.
If you’re staggering under the weight of credit card debt and don’t have the cash to pay it off, consider getting help from a nonprofit debt management program, such as the one offered by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
7. Do a Basic Budget
One key to getting financially fit is a creating a household budget. You don’t have to get too granular, so skip the complicated categories and subcategories. While having all those details may seem like a great way to help you understand your spending, a budget designed that way is unrealistic to maintain for the long term, says Devin Miller, CEO of Balance Financial.
Automate the tracking process as much as possible. Look for budgeting tools that do the work for you — aggregating disparate accounts into one place, downloading data nightly, categorizing/memorizing transactions and more.
Monitor your progress. “No one gets it right on the first try, so check in regularly to make sure you have a clear understanding of how much money you have spent or have left, and adjust your budget accordingly,” says Miller.
Be transparent. A household budget isn’t a state secret. Keep your spouse or significant other up to date on spending, remaining funds and what the priority expenses are to ensure you’re on the same page.
The New Year is a fresh start. Learn from last year’s mistakes and move on. As for this year’s resolutions, don’t mean to change, do change.