50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2011

These New Year’s resolutions will help you save, spend less, and earn more.

By + More

20. Start making cleaning supplies from scratch. Even Martha Stewart endorses this technique. A bowl of vinegar or simmering lemon rinds can absorb smells just as well as manufactured air freshener. Scrubs made of baking soda and water make kitchens sparkle just like chemical-laden cleaners. The Internet contains hundreds of do-it-yourself recipes; Jennifer Taggart's thesmartmama.com can get you started.

21. Find inspiration online. There are hundreds of personal finance blogs and websites; find the ones that speak to you and visit them regularly to help keep you on track. Popular options include Wise Bread, The Simple Dollar, and Centsible Life.

22. Give yourself a stress test. How vulnerable are you to sudden job loss or unexpected expenses? Do you have an emergency fund? If not, start building one. You should have at least three months' worth of living expenses in your bank account.

23. Work with family members. Sometimes, family members can help each other save more money by working together. Adult children are increasingly living with their parents, for example, but this arrangement doesn't have to be a burden if the adult children contribute to household costs or pay rent. You can also help out by gardening, doing housework, or sharing your computer skills.

[See top-rated mutual funds funds by category ranked by U.S. News Score.]

Investing:

24. Decide what type of investor you want to be. If you're like most people, you probably want to skip stock-picking and put your money in low-cost index funds instead. Create a diversified portfolio, with longer-term savings in more aggressive investments (such as an index fund that tracks the S&P 500) and shorter-term savings in safer spots such as money market funds.

25. Begin investing today. Waiting to start a retirement account until you feel like you can afford it might mean that you can never retire. Don't put off opening a 401(k) account if your employer offers it, even if you start by contributing just 2 percent of your salary. Soon, you can raise that percentage to 4 percent, and eventually to 10 percent or higher. For extra motivation, plug your numbers into a retirement calculator on Bankrate.com, and see how much you need to fund your golden years—it's probably much more than $1 million.

26. Ignore the market (for the most part). Focusing too much on the ups and downs of the market just causes stress. When the market's plunging, instead focus on your hobbies, family, and getting outside. Avoid cable television news, which often treats every dip in the market like a major crash. If your investments are well-diversified, you've done all you can.

Debt:

27. Pay off your expensive debt, even student loans. Student loans that carry a 5 or 6 percent interest rate (or higher) are costing you much more than your savings can earn in this current low-interest rate environment. Paying off a chunk of your student loans will immediately start saving you more money than you could if you continue to make those slow-and-steady monthly payments. Of course, not everyone has the cash to pay off a large portion of their loans, and it will probably take five-plus years after graduation to get to the point when you can even consider it. But once you have a healthy bank account, don't wait too long to start paying off big chunks of those more-expensive student loans.

28. Choose the best credit card for you. If you pay your balance off each month, you should have a card that gives you rewards points. If you carry debt, just focus on getting the card with the lowest interest rate. Most people have multiple cards that aren't suited to their needs. Pick the one that fits you best and stop using the other ones. Don't close them, though, because that can hurt your credit score.

29. Improve your credit score. The easiest way to do this is by making steady, on-time payments every month and otherwise keeping your accounts in good standing. Get your free credit report once a year at annualcreditreport.com to check for any mistakes (and fix them).