Whether you want to ramp up your earning power, finally start a retirement savings account, or just stop feeling like you're wasting money, now is the time to put together your New Year's resolutions. We've pulled together 50 ways you can improve your financial life in 2011, based on the latest economic research and interviews with financial experts. These ideas, which focus on spending, saving, and earning, give you the tools for a complete financial makeover.
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1. Decide on your big goals. Do you want to have more money in your bank account? Take a five-star vacation? If you're having trouble putting your finger on it, ask the people who know you best. Brainstorming with your significant other, family members, and friends can help shake loose your own thoughts.
2. Share those goals with other people. Telling friends and family members about your plans will help you stick to them. But you don't necessarily have to share your goals with people you know. At 43things.com, strangers list goals such as "save 20 percent of what I earn" or "identify 100 things that make me happy (besides money)." The website MyLifeList.org can also help; after you make a list of your goals, you can share them with others and give and receive encouragement.
3. Do a little every day. Take small steps toward your big goals every day, even if it means spending 60 seconds checking out a relevant website before bed. If you want to launch a small business, for example, small steps can include purchasing your website name, interviewing Web designers, and reading a book or two on being an entrepreneur. The most successful savers profiled in Generation Earn started by automatically saving a small percentage of their income; Nicole Mladic, a 31-year-old communications director in Chicago, couldn't afford to put away a big chunk of her salary when she was in her mid-20s, so she started saving 2 percent. A few months later, she raised it to 3 percent, then to 4 percent, and eventually she reached her goal of 10 percent. Today, her net worth is more than $90,000.
4. Take time to reflect. Look back on 2010. What were your personal money highs and lows? What mistakes did you make and what challenges did you face? What financial decisions are you most proud of?
5. Get rid of junk mail. The website catalogchoice.org lets retailers know which customers no longer want to receive their mail. Participating companies agree to stop sending any more catalogs within three months. Signing up with 41pounds.org halts junk mail. The Direct Marketing Association (the-dma.org) will let its members know when people sign up to stop receiving direct-mail marketing offers. Junk mail piles up over time, so these fixes can really make a difference in the long run. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that Americans receive four million tons of junk mail each year, almost half of which is never even opened. In addition to saving paper, you'll prevent yourself from spending needlessly by avoiding the temptations on those glossy pages.
6. Stop receiving E-mail sales alerts from your favorite retailers. Electronic junk mail might not carry the same environmental impact, but it can still convince you to spend money on items you don't need. Unsubscribe to retailer alerts to avoid the temptation.
7. Negotiate one big-ticket item each month. Often, big-box stories and department stores offer some wiggle room on their posted prices, especially when competitors offer a product for less. Before making any significant purchases, especially electronics, comparison shop and be prepared to ask the store clerk if their company can give you a better deal.
8. Get familiar with comparison and coupon websites. Websites such as PriceGrabber.com, BradsDeals.com, and Dealnews.com can help you pay less for items you buy often as well as splurges. Get in the habit of checking these sites before buying anything online or shopping in stores.
[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Save on Big-Ticket Items]
9. Budget by the year. Research shows that budgeting by the year instead of the month makes it easier to stay within your spending limits. That's partly because when we create an annual budget, we remember to take into account occasional expenses such as gifts.
10. Keep a spending diary. Even if you just track every dollar you spend for two weeks, it will open your eyes to where your money goes and what you could cut back on. You might not realize that you spend $100 a week on lunches, or that your taxi-cab habit is eating up half of your discretionary income.
11. Take advantage of your bank's free tools. Banks are increasingly offering easy ways of tracking your spending online. If your bank offers a free tool, use it to see where your money is going and where you can cut back.
12. Check up on your insurance. Do you have the auto insurance, renters insurance, and life insurance that you need? According to Allstate insurance, 2 in 3 renters skip insurance altogether, even though most people could benefit from the protection and it's relatively cheap. Life insurance is another awkward topic since no one wants to talk about death. But many people are under-insured, which puts their families at risk. Review the insurance that you have and decide whether you have the right amount.
13. Write a will. Consider working with a professional to make sure your assets will go where you want them to upon death; if you have any minor children, appointing a guardian is essential. At the very least, explore some of the online sites that allow people to write their own wills, such as buildawill.com and legacywriter.com, if you have a simple situation. (Financial experts say most people benefit from working with a professional.)
14. Protect your privacy. Whenever someone asks for your Social Security number, question if it's necessary to share it. Never give it to a solicitor on the telephone or in an E-mail, and if you ever notice a suspicious charge on your credit card, follow up with your card company—it could be the first sign of identity theft.
15. Write down how much money you want to save by the end of the year. As with your other goals, the simple act of writing it down will help keep that goal at the top of your mind throughout the year.
16. Become a better cook. Sometimes you have to spend money to save money. Nowhere is that truer than in the kitchen, where investing in a few key pieces of hardware can help you cook better, faster, and cheaper. And anything that makes your food taste better and gets it on the table quickly can lessen the temptation to order budget-busting take-out. Consider investing in a slow cooker to make meals even easier.
[In Pictures: 10 Kitchen Tools That Will Save You Money]
17. Reduce your utility bills. Making sure your home is properly insulated can save you money on heating and cooling costs. Using a programmable thermostat so that the temperature automatically rises (in the summer) and falls (in the winter) when no one is home during the day can yield annual savings of about 30 percent. While some 25 million households own programmable thermostats, only half actually use them.
18. Use less energy. Small changes, like closing doors to unused rooms or turning off the air conditioner during the day, can make a serious dent in utility bills. So can unplugging appliances, turning off lights, and shutting down computers at night. Even televisions can use power when they're turned off, so unplugging them when they're not in use saves energy. A $30 power strip, called the Smart Strip, automatically cuts power to devices that don't need it when they're off, such as a DVD player, while maintaining power to those that do, such as a cable box.
19. Use fewer products. Instead of lathering up with soap, shaving cream, shower gel, and body scrub, Diane MacEachern, author of Big Green Purse, suggests cutting back to just a handful of products. "Put everything you use in one day on the counter and it will blow your mind. Pick a day where you just brush your teeth and your hair and forget about the rest," she says. In addition to creating less waste, the change will lower your monthly drugstore bills, because you won't be buying all of those unnecessary lotions and creams. You can save up to $200 a year.
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.
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.
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).
30. Make a plan for paying off high-interest rate debt. If you carry any credit card debt, auto loans, or high-interest student loans, it's time to come up with a plan for paying them off. With interest rates on savings account so low, it often makes more sense to unload your expensive debt rather than continuing to make interest payments.
31. Run some numbers. Most people fail to calculate exactly how much they're on track to save, or how much they'll need, in retirement. Check out the retirement calculators available through your financial institution (Fidelity, T.D. Ameritrade, Transamerica, and T. Rowe Price have them, among others) or use free calculators from Bankrate.com. Experiment with different rates of returns, inflation rates, tax rates, and lifetime expectancy, since no one can predict those factors with any accuracy.
32. Ramp up your retirement savings by a few percentage points. Those calculations might convince you that you need to start saving more. To keep anxiety (and a major budget crunch) at bay, increase your savings in small increments. Start by upping your retirement account contribution 2 percent, and see if you can add another 2 percent in six months. Most people need to save about 15 percent of their salaries to be on track for a healthy retirement.
33. Consider opening up new tax-advantaged accounts. Make sure you know what tax-advantaged accounts are available to you. If you're currently not working, you might be eligible for a spousal IRA or Roth IRA. If you work full-time and have access to a 401(k), make sure you're taking full advantage of it. If your employer offers the relatively new Roth 401(k), which lets workers invest post-tax dollars into an account that will not be taxed again in the future, you might want to consider doing so.
[Visit the U.S. News Retirement site for more planning ideas and advice.]
34. Rebalance your retirement investments. If your investments have been battered by the stock market swings—and whose hasn't—it might be time to rebalance. For a quick evaluation, subtract your age from 100. That's roughly the percentage of your funds you should have in stocks, with the rest in more conservative investments such as bonds. If you're 40, that means you should have about 60 percent in stocks and 40 percent on bonds.
35. Check in with the Social Security Administration. Every year, wage earners receive a statement from the Social Security Administration, which provides a useful estimate of your future monthly benefits. It will help you determine how much you'll need to supplement with your own savings.
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36. Invest in your career—even when you're being frugal everywhere else. Investing in a career coach or development course can help you snag a promotion, get "unstuck" from a career rut, or transition into your dream job. The price of one-on-one coaching typically starts at about $200 an hour, but less formal advice can come from meeting with more experienced colleagues over lunch or coffee.
37. Start earning extra money on the side. Many people don't realize they have valuable skills that other people are willing to pay for, such as a second language or even craft skills. To get ideas for how to earn extra money, check out the services section on Craigslist and see what people are advertising—editing, gardening, and event planning. Earning just a few hundred dollars a month can help get you back on your feet, plus you'll get valuable job experience and the possible start of a successful small business that you can continue to grow.
38. Launch your own business. Have you always dreamed of being your own boss? Make this the year you start taking small steps toward that goal. Decide what you can sell, buy your website address, and consider taking on a few clients.
39. Use social media tools to boost your career. Making connections on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn can enhance your overall profile in your field and strengthen connections that will come in handy when you're job-hunting. Many people err by not fleshing out their profile information on their social network accounts; start by adding more information about yourself, along with a photo.
40. Develop a back-up plan. In today's economy, no job is 100-percent secure. Create a list of steps you would take if you were to lose your job, even though you hope never to have to use it. Having a Plan B can give you peace of mind as well as a practical "to-do" list if you ever face the shock of an unexpected job loss.
41. Schedule creative time for yourself. Boost your productivity with scheduled downtime, in which you give yourself the freedom to brainstorm about new ideas and possibilities for yourself and your career. Todd Henry, founder of the Accidental Creative, suggests blocking out a regular time period and reading material that you wouldn't normally look at, such as an engineering magazine or copy of Vogue.
42. Consider asking for a raise. If it's been a while since you've seen an increase in your paycheck, it might be a good time to make an argument to your boss for why you deserve a raise. Put the reasons in writing and run the request by a friend to make sure it's as strong as possible. Of course, if your industry or company is experiencing especially difficult times, you might want to put that request on hold until business picks up again.
43. Free up your time and energy by outsourcing chores. Think of money spent on a cleaning service or grocery delivery as an investment in your career, because these things free up more time (and energy) for you to focus on your day (or night) job.
44. Talk with parents and siblings about any support you expect to give to them. Giving doesn't relate only to charities; many people also support their aging parents and needy siblings. Make sure you understand what your parents or siblings expect from you, if anything, and that you can afford to provide them the support that they need. If you can't, talk with them about your limits and potential nonmonetary ways that you can assist them.
45. Choose a cause that you believe in. Many of us give haphazardly throughout the year, donating $30 for a friend's walkathon and $100 at a school auction. Instead, put some thought into the causes you'd like to support this year. Read a book or two to further educate yourself. For example, if you believe in ending world water shortages, then you might want to read When the Rivers Run Dry: Water—The Defining Crisis of the Twenty-first Century. If your passion is addressing poverty, then you might want to check out When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Yourself. Then, figure out what you can do to help
46. Learn everything you can about your chosen cause. Bill Gates shared this advice for would-be philanthropists with the New York Times: "The key thing is to pick a cause, whether it's crops or diseases or great high schools ... Pick one, and get some more in-depth knowledge" by traveling, reading, or volunteering. Studying up on your cause doesn't need to cost much money, but it will make you a more informed—and more effective—giver.
47. Look for free ways to give, too. Giving blood, signing up to be an organ donor, or donating the gently used books and clothes in your home can be just as helpful as monetary gifts. Your time, of course, is one of the most valuable things you can give, along with any special skills, such as computer expertise, to charities in need of such assistance.
48. Give better gifts. Surveys show that most Americans say they want to spend less and give more meaningful presents. When birthdays or other events come up, think about how you can give an experience, such as an afternoon at a museum or conversation over tea, instead of things.
49. Clean out your closet. Not only will you have a more organized space for the new year, but you probably have some valuable items—books, CDs, and games—that charities could make good use of. See what you have that you're ready to give away, then look up local charities in need. Be sure to retain a record of what you give for next year's taxes.
50. Join forces with friends. By forming a giving circle, a group of friends can pool their money for a good cause. The number of giving circles has doubled to at least 800 over the past four years, and the trend is partly frugality-driven. Combining money and time makes it easier to research charities more extensively, check up on how the funds are being used, and garner enough power as donors that charities make an effort to reach out to you. A representative might visit your donor circle one night to explain the programs, or invite you to participate in some of the charity's activities. To find a giving circle that already exists in your area, visit givingcircles.org.
Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.