50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2012

A guide to mastering your money in the new year.

The Commerce Department said Wednesday that the economy contracted at an annual rate of 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter.

"Forget the number: It says nothing about the state of the economy," says one economist.

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39. 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 others. Don't close them, though, because that can hurt your credit score.

40. Check up on your insurance policies. Do you have the auto insurance, renters insurance, and life insurance that you need? According to insurer Allstate, Two in three renters skip insurance altogether, even though most could benefit from the relatively cheap protection. 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.

41. Host affordable (and fun) parties. Socializing with friends doesn't have to be expensive. In their new book, Plan to Party, professional party planners Elizabeth Mascali and Dawn Sandomeno suggest saving on invitations by emailing them and splurging on a few special touches, such as adding fresh lemons to water and other drinks or berries as a cocktail garnish.

42. 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.

43. Celebrate friends' milestones without hurting your bank account. Bridesmaids are famous for their self-sacrifice. Not only do they have to wear the dress, but they are often expected to host events in honor of the bride, travel to the wedding and related events, and give the happy couple wedding gifts. The WeddingChannel.com recently reported that it costs more than $1,600, on average, to serve as a bridesmaid. You can avoid that by splitting costs with friends by room-sharing at the wedding and giving a more personal gift than one on the registry.

44. Create an estate plan. You don't need to be rich and famous to need an estate plan, although celebrity estate planning mistakes hold a few lessons for all of us. Amy Winehouse left her affairs in remarkable order, despite having a relatively complicated personal life, including an ex-husband. Michael Jackson created some complications for his heirs by choosing his elderly mother as a guardian for his young children.

45. 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. 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.

46. 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.

47. Get a detailed home inspection before buying. Home inspections, it turns out, are much more limited than many first-time buyers realize. "The purpose of a home inspection is to look for material defects of a property—things that are unsafe, not working, or that create a hazard," explains Kurt Salomon, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors and an inspector based in Salt Lake City. Home buyers, however, "think we can see through walls and predict the future," he says. If you have specific concerns, such as pool safety or childproofing, consider working with a specialist before buying.