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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8. Live below your means. Danny Kofke, a teacher and father of two, manages to live well on his $40,000-a-year salary. In his book, A Simple Book of Financial Wisdom, he explains that he does it by following a pretty simple strategy: Living below his means. He doesn't buy what he cannot afford, even when he wants to, and avoids debt at all costs.

9. Coordinate with your partner. Not talking about money is one of the biggest money mistakes couples make. Couples considering moving in together or marriage can save themselves a lot of trouble by talking about hot-button topics such as how to share household expenses, credit card debt, and anticipated future expenses. Don't forget to bring up your long-term goals, too, which can make the discussion a little more romantic. Do you want to swim with dolphins in the Bahamas? Backpack around Europe together? Agreeing on common goals makes it easier to save.

[In Pictures: 10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Budget]

10. Pick a better bank. There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to banks anymore, which means consumers have to do their own research to pick the best fit for them. In general, says Today Show financial editor Jean Chatzky, larger banks offer more ATMs and lower interest rates on savings accounts, while smaller banks might be less convenient but offer lower fees. Meanwhile, online-only banks might be able to offer higher interest rates, but lack the bricks-and-mortar presence. She recommends the comparison tool FindABetterBank.com, which makes it easy to search by ZIP code. Other websites, including Bankrate.com and Google Advisor, also offer free customized searches.

11. Automate savings. Online banking makes this technique easy: Sign up for monthly transfers into a brokerage or savings account. You can also transfer funds directly from your paycheck so you never even see the money, which means you won't miss it. Check in with your human resources department—you might be able to set up an automatic savings account through your paycheck in addition to your automatic retirement savings.

12. Take advantage of online tools. Mint.com lets users upload account information and get immediate insight into where their money is going. It's free and user-friendly, and comes with a smartphone app that lets you track your budget wherever you are.

13. Create stronger passwords. Scam artists prey on those with easy-to-guess passwords. Avoid becoming a victim by never using the same password on multiple sites, avoiding common words or names, and using a long password that only you know, such as a sentence.

14. Bank safely online. With more customers managing their money through online accounts, mistakes that lead to vulnerability are also more common. Don't "friend" strangers online, and beware of sharing any personal information publicly that could be used to guess your passwords. Take care when entering passwords on smartphones, too, because such devices generally lack the anti-virus software that's more common on computers. If you do notice anything suspicious, contact your bank right away.

[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Avoid Online Scams]

15. Watch television for free. From the network news to serialized primetime shows to cable programming, the show you want can almost always be found online. In most cases, all the viewer has to do to access a show is watch a short 30-second advertisement before the opening scenes, or a longer two-minute ad where a commercial break would normally be. Not a bad price, considering that most of us watch ads anyway when we tune into our expensive cable channels. Check out Hulu.com, iTunes, and network websites.

16. Travel for free. By taking advantage of credit card reward programs as well as airline mileage, Brad Wilson, 30, earned a free trip to Australia and New Zealand, valued at around $40,000. "It turns out there are a lot more opportunities than people realize," he says. He suggests actively seeking out deals, layering them on top of each other, and staying organized.