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.

By + More

A new year offers a fresh start. Whether you're ready to ramp up your earning power, start saving more money, or manage what you have more effectively, this 50-step guide is designed to help you improve every aspect of your financial life, from overall security to specific saving and spending strategies.

[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Give Your Money a Makeover.]

1. Focus on the "why" of your goals instead of the "how." Planning exactly how you will reach a goal, such as saving more money, can actually make it harder to reach that goal, according to research by Julia Belyavsky Bayuk, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. She found that focusing more on the motivation behind a goal instead of the specifics of how it will be achieved can increase the likelihood of success. That's partly because having a more "abstract" mindset can help people deal with unexpected challenges along the way.

2. Rethink your relationship with money. For those struggling to make better money decisions, life coach Christine Hassler suggests thinking about money as if it's a person. "How's your relationship with George?" she asks, referring to President George Washington's face on the $1 bill. In her book 20 Something, 20 Everything, she encourages readers to first examine their history with money. "If they don't excavate what they believe and their sense of worth, they are unable to progress," she explains. That history includes one's financial situation growing up and patterns of spending. The first step to fixing a dysfunctional relationship with money is to acknowledge its existence.

3. 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 email, 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.

4. Plan a comeback. A lot of people have struggled over the past few years, but that downswing doesn't have to be permanent. Jude Boudreaux, who now works as a certified financial planner in New Orleans, turned his life around after running up $5,000 in credit card debt in college. He did it by ruthlessly cutting out "extras" in his budget so he could focus on his bigger financial goals, including getting out of debt. Today, Boudreaux says his past struggles are an asset, since he's living proof to clients that it is possible to make a complete comeback.

[See 6 Steps to Dig Out of Debt.]

5. Visualize your future self. People who feel connected to their future identities are more likely to delay gratification, according to research from the Columbia Business School and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The researchers offer a relatively simple way to do this: Take a moment or two to meditate on your future self, and just how similar it is to your current self.

6. Get organized. Financial accounts often come with monstrous amounts of paperwork. You'll probably need to hang on to important documents (some states require taxpayers to keep up to 10 years of filings on hand), but much of your old paperwork belongs in the trash or the shredder if it has valuable information on it, such as bank account numbers. Store your most important documents, such as birth and marriage certificates, in an archival box or a locked metal file cabinet that's separate from your day-to-day files.

7. Create a paperwork system. Keeping all of your paperwork in one place can be step one to a better financial life. Brooke West, a private financial adviser and vice president at SunTrust, suggests a three ring-binder, which she calls her "financial bible." She uses a new one every year to hold all of her paperwork. She has tabs for bank statements, Social Security benefits, estate planning, pension and retirement benefits, investments, and credit reports. For a few paper-heavy categories, such as flex-spending receipts, she has separate files.