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.


28. Negotiate, even in this economy. Even if their salary itself is fixed, employees often have room to negotiate on other benefits, such as flexible work hours or vacation, which can result in a more appealing employment package. In the worst-case scenario, the request will be denied, but many employers expect some back-and-forth during the negotiation process.

29. Pick up a few side jobs. Many people don't realize they have valuable skills that others are willing to pay for, such as teaching 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.

30. 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.

[In Pictures: 10 Ways to Start Earning Extra Money Now]

31. Save up before quitting your job. Even in this economy, between 1.5 million and 2 million people quit their jobs each month. Storing up enough savings to pay for a year's worth of expenses can make that transition easier. Of course, toxic or depressing work environments don't always allow for that kind of flexibility.

32. Get famous. Boosting your own name recognition can lead to a salary increase in almost any profession, according to public relations experts Maggie and Jay Jessup, authors of Fame 101. They suggest choosing a specialty within your field, then gaining notoriety as the go-to expert by taking advantage of social media channels as well as free publicity by being quoted in articles.

33. 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.

34. Embrace DIY projects. From making candles from scratch to growing your own potatoes, crafty projects can save money throughout the year. In their book The Bust DIY Guide to Life, Laurie Henzel and Debbie Stoller explain how to sew, grow, and craft your way through dozens of do-it-yourself projects.

35. Reduce your tax load. Have you moved to take a new job? Do you have business expenses? Or child care that allows parents to look for work? If so, you are probably eligible for certain tax deductions. The IRS website, irs.gov, offers detailed guidance on what's allowed—and what's not.

36. Pay off expensive debt. If you're carrying around high-interest credit card debt, paying it off can save you a lot of money in the form of fees and interest. If you already have an emergency savings account and have the funds to pay off the high-interest rate debt, consider doing so.

37. Build a strong credit history. Some people avoid debt and credit cards to such a degree that they fail to build up a strong credit history, which can make it hard to get a loan when they want it, such as a mortgage. Recent college grads with little credit history, for example, can get penalized when they apply for a mortgage or auto loan. Lenders often want to see that you have experience taking on credit and paying your bills on time. As Rod Griffin, public education director for Experian puts it, "You need to demonstrate over time that you handle your debts well."

38. 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).