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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17. Move in with family. The Pew Research Center recently found that there are more multigenerational U.S. households today than at almost any point in modern history, with a total of about 51.4 million Americans living with relatives. That's about 16.7 percent of all Americans, the highest percentage since the 1950s. (During World War II, shared housing was more common, with about 1 in 4 Americans living in a multigenerational household.) The report likens the phenomenon to an "anti-poverty program" that Americans are enacting to insulate themselves from the dark side of the Great Recession.

18. But don't ruin each other's finances. Parents are often pressed for cash, too, especially as they near retirement, which means they have to watch out for their own finances. Budgeting for any support can help, as can exchanging non-financial help, such as shared meals and networking advice.

19. Waste less money on food. Jonathan Bloom, author of American Wasteland, estimates that Americans waste at least 160 billion pounds of food each year. To minimize that, he suggests shopping more frequently and buying less on each trip to the store, and maintaining an uncluttered fridge so you don't forget about items that will soon expire.

20. 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 Ways to Save on Food Costs]

21. 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.

22. 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.

[In Pictures: 8 Ways to Reduce What You Pay at the Pump]

23. Forget the Joneses. With Facebook making it easier than ever to compare your own material status to others, it can be easy to always feel one step behind. But it's easy to be unaware of the debt supporting a friend's lifestyle, or their own private financial stresses. Cultivating a sense of gratitude can help ameliorate feelings of jealousy.

24. Take advantage of job benefits. If your employer offers flexible-spending accounts, gym-fee reimbursements, or other perks, be sure to take advantage of them. The human resources department can help connect you with the right paperwork.

25. Plan ahead with big-ticket purchases. Big purchases, such as cars, homes, and vacations, often come with major hidden costs. Homes, for example, can lose value or spring a leak in the roof. Cars depreciate and break down. Waiting to buy until you have the cash reserves to handle those unexpected costs can prevent a lot of financial stress later.

26. Stop receiving email 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.

27. Take advantage of your bank's free tools. Banks are increasingly offering easy ways to track 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.