Every January, we promise we’re going to get our financial houses in order. And every December, we face up to the reality that we didn’t quite make it happen.
There are plenty of reasons we fail on our financial resolutions, including the biggie: too little time. So this year, try a new approach. Divide what seems like a monumental job into bite-sized tasks and tackle one of them each day for one month.
Ready to get started? Let’s do it!
Day 1: Schedule time
It’s easy to fall into the habit of skipping one day of financial tasks and thinking you’ll “catch up” the next. Don’t do it. Today, take out your calendar and schedule a set time each day when you’ll work on your plan, but stay flexible. If 10 a.m. works one day then doesn’t work another, shift it. Just make sure you block out 30 minutes each day.
Day 2: Reflect on past missteps
Spend some time to review the past year’s financial missteps so you can avoid repeating them. Did you make an unrealistic budget? Did you spend too much on clothes, travel or other extras? Did you buy a new car or pay a high interest rate? Sit down with your checkbook, bank statements and other financial documents and ask yourself hard questions.
Day 3: Spell out your financial goals
Sit down and think about your short- and long-term financial goals. Write down your goals and prioritize them. Do you want to save enough to make a down payment on a new house? Pay off credit card debt? Shore up your retirement savings? Think big and long-term to begin with, then set short- and medium-term milestones to hit on the way to the goal. If you have a spouse or partner, doing this together is critical so you can work toward the same goals. Set a reminder on your calendar to review your progress regularly — say, every two or three months.
Day 4: Share your goals
If you share your goals with family, friends and others, you are more likely to achieve them. Verbalizing goals helps you fine-tune and visualize. And other people may offer suggestions and encouragement. The concept is similar to ones people use during diets. Check out: “10 Characteristics of Wildly Successful People.”
Day 5: Get to know your paycheck
You likely know the gross amount you earn, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Look at your pay stub. Understand the deductions taken out each month. What are you paying for insurance? Income taxes? 401(k)? Understanding what’s coming out of your gross pay — and why — helps you make decisions and understand what you have to work with.
Day 6: Meet with HR to talk about your benefits and options
Benefits and options offered by employers change over time, but if you’re like many people, you ignore the memos from human resources. Set up an appointment to meet with the HR representative at your company to see what you’re missing. Is there a child-care subsidy you can get? Does your company offer help with tuition? Did it start providing benefits for same-sex partners? If you have a 401(k), are you setting aside at least enough to get the maximum matching funds from the company? (If not, you’re leaving free money on the table.)
Make sure your personal information is current including your beneficiaries for life insurance and other policies. If you can’t make changes in benefits immediately, put your company’s next open enrollment on your schedule so you don’t forget to follow up.
Day 7: Review your credit
A credit score is the number that banks, merchants and other lenders use to determine the risk of lending to you. Unless you check your credit score and review your credit report (to determine whether there are any errors that could damage your credit score) you won’t know your borrowing potential.
The most common score, the FICO score, ranges between 300 and a perfect 850. If yours needs improving, check out “7 Fast Ways to Raise Your Credit Score.”
Day 8: Start tracking your expenses
Now you know your financial goals, how much pay you take home and your creditworthiness. It’s time to take stock of where your money goes. Take all of the expenses you’ve paid in a month — use your bank and credit card statements as starting points. Start using one of the great budget tracking tools — like our partner PowerWallet, or Mint.com. These tools can help you get a clear view of expenses that could be undercutting your financial health.
Day 9: Look for ways to lower monthly utility expenses
Many of us get in the habit of paying expenses each month without considering them. For example, utilities. Can you live in winter with the heating down a degree or two? Does the air conditioner need to be on every day in the summer? Consider this list of “19 Cheap or Free Ways to Cut Your Energy Bills.” Look to the U.S. Department of Energy for more, and decide which ones to put on your to-do list.
Day 10: Review your cellphone plan for savings
Cellphone bills are a monthly expense, but you may be tempted to overlook them when you do your expenses review. That’s a costly mistake. Do you and other family members really need a new phone every year? Are you on the most cost-effective plan, or have you just stayed with the plan you’ve always had? There are lots of ways we overpay — and most of us can cut our monthly cellphone bills in half. One way to do it? Use a “secret plan.”
Day 11: Cut your cable TV expense
There are so many options for entertainment now that cable television service is one area where most of us can cut costs — and still have an amazing number of entertainment and news programs available to us. Consider your online streaming options — Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu, to name a few — and consider cutting the cable (and your TV bill) in 2017.
Day 12: Set up an emergency fund
Many people don’t have readily accessible funds to use in case of emergencies. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority reported that 56 percent of Americans “do not have rainy-day savings to cover three months of unanticipated financial emergencies.” You may not be in a position set aside a lot all at once, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start.
Open a savings account specifically designated for the rainy-day fund and include deposits in your budget. In fact, make that the first “bill” you pay every month.
Day 13: Review your insurance policies
Many people are surprised to find they waste money on insurance. Pull out your policies and review them carefully. There are plenty of places to compare policies, including our Solutions Center.
Day 14: Create a realistic budget
When it comes to creating a spending plan, also known as a budget, the idea is to control your spending but be realistic. Think about a budget as a path to your goals rather than a structure that restricts you. Read: “Budget Your Way to Your Financial Goals This Year.”
Day 15: Review your expenses
It’s been a week since you starting tracking your expenses. Now it’s time to take a look and see where your money is going. You’re going to be surprised by how much you’re actually spending compared with what you thought you were spending.
While it may seem like a pain to periodically review your spending, it’s no big deal. As you’ll see, it only takes a few minutes. And it’s the only way to make sure you’re allocating your money to best accomplishing your goals. Make it a habit.
Day 16: Ditch sale alerts
Sale alerts are designed to push the buttons of impulse shoppers. It’s tough to resist the siren call of a 50 percent off sale, especially when you’ve had a bad day or want to treat yourself. Take this time to go through your email alerts. Unless they’re vitally important — reminders to refill needed medications, for example — unsubscribe.
For more ideas about curtailing unnecessary purchases, read “20 Simple Ways to Slam the Breaks on Impulse Buys” and “7 Signs You’re a Shopaholic and What to Do About It.”
Day 17: Make a plan to tackle debt
Look at your debts — car loans, credit card balances, mortgages — and see how much you are paying in interest on each. Then make a plan to get them paid off. One way is to direct extra money toward the debts with the highest interest rates. Another is called the debt snowball method, which involves clearing out debts with the lowest balances first.
If you routinely invest or save, but carry heavy high-interest debt, think about tapping savings to destroy some of that debt. Also, consider refinancing your mortgage or other debts if lower interest rates are available.
If you are struggling under an unsustainable debt load, get some help. One place you can start looking is our Solutions Center.
Day 18: Shop your credit cards
Review the credit cards you currently use and choose to use the ones with the lowest interest rate or, if you don’t carry a balance, the greatest rewards. (There are plenty of places to compare plastic online, including our Solutions Center).
Day 19: Review and rebalance retirement savings
Many people don’t know where they have retirement accounts or what amount those accounts contain. If that’s you, get organized. Gather information from past and current employers, and put everything in one place for quick review.
In general, your retirement account should contain a greater proportion of stocks, which carry greater earning potential and greater risk, when you are younger and shift the balance gradually toward more lower-risk investments, such as bonds, as you get older. For more ideas on getting your retirement accounts in shape, read “5 Simple Ways to Invest Your Retirement Savings.”
Day 20: Get a grip on your Social Security benefits
It’s never too soon to understand what Social Security payments and benefits you can claim now or in the future. Check the Social Security Administration website to see how much you’ll be eligible for and when.
Although you can claim Social Security at age 62, you can claim a larger monthly benefit if you hold off until your Full Retirement Age, which for most people is now 66. Spend some time understanding your benefits. Especially for those people close to claiming age, it may be worth it to pay a small fee for a one-time professional analysis of your Social Security strategy to maximize your benefits.
Day 21: Review your bank accounts
Do you receive the highest interest and most benefits possible for your checking and savings accounts? Do you routinely research interest rates and roll over your CDs to ensure you earn the highest interest possible? Choosing the bank that best suits your needs is one of the most sensible ways to save and earn extra money.
Day 22: Incorporate money savers and freebies
If you’re not routinely using some of the money-saving tools made available by the digital world, you’re paying too much. For starters, sign up for cash-back sites like Ebates, Swagbucks, Mr. Rebates and TopCashBack. Then sign up for Raise.com, Coupons.com and Restaurant.com to snag discounts on everything from laundry detergent to caviar.
For more on how these tools work, read “13 Ways to Get a Discount on Every Online Purchase.”
Day 23: Search for missing money
Everyone thinks they know how much money they have, but that’s not always true. Forgotten bank accounts, unclaimed wages and forgotten utility deposits are just some of the funds people aren’t aware they can easily claim. Start with Missing Money, a database of unclaimed government money, to identify cash you may claim. There are a number of other legitimate places to check for lost treasure, including the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the U.S. Department of the Treasury and USA.Gov.
Day 24: Sell gently used items
We all eventually grow tired of our appliances, furniture and clothes — and either toss or donate them. Spend this day’s 30 minutes to consider which of your things can be sold, either online or in consignment shops. For clothes, check out sites including Postmark. Want to sell Apple computers and gadgets? Check Gazelle. Talk to your cellphone provider (AT&T, Verizon and others) to determine if they have a buyback program.
Schedule a day you’ll gather unused stuff to sell, another day to search out the best places to do it, then use a third to actually get it done.
Day 25: Buy gently used items
Lovers of designer duds know that there are a host of online sites and consignment shops offering gently used items for a fraction of the original cost.
Bag, Borrow or Steal has such great bargains on hand bags, shoes and other high-end items that it was mentioned in the TV series “Sex and the City.” But don’t stop with luxury items. Think big. Do you need new dining room chairs? Go to Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, search yard sales and look online to find the items you need at a fraction of new-item prices.
Day 26: Consider a second job
Are you struggling to see how you will meet your financial goals? Consider seeking a second job or turning a hobby into a semi-professional paying opportunity.
Many fine artists also photograph weddings and other events. Nurses and other medical professionals often accept shifts at doctor’s offices and other facilities. It might be fun to walk dogs, drive for Uber or Lyft or offer tours of your hometown.
Need more ideas? Check out one of our most popular posts, “50 Ways to Make a Fast $50.”
Day 27: Gather tax documents
Get yourself ready for tax time by gathering all the documentation you need and putting it in one place. Do you have receipts from charitable donations? If you have an income that is not on your pay stub — like rental income or money from a side job — put it in the file. Put what you have in one place, and then keep an eye out for tax documents that come from your employer and your investments so that the task of filing can be managed with minimum pain. This step will also help lay the groundwork for last-minute moves to lower your tax burden.
Day 28: Identify tax-lowering moves
In the first few months of the year, there is still time to take to lower your tax burden. If you have a 401(k), make sure you have contributed the maximum amount that be deducted from your taxable income. If not, catch up. These retirement savings contributions — as well as charitable gifts and many business expenses for self-employment — can still be used as tax deductions for last year even when made in the first months of this year. Check out this article on commonly overlooked tax deductions.
Day 29: Create or update estate documents
If you’re putting this off, you’re in good company. But getting your will and other end-of-life documents together is a gift to your loved ones, and it should bring you peace of mind. It will also help prevent the kind of costs that are incurred if you leave your affairs to be negotiated among survivors. There are eight essential documents to complete that will provide instruction on your property and who will manage it, your care should you be incapacitated and your final wishes. Get started with your Last Will and Testament and go from there. If you have these documents in place, this is the moment to review them to make sure they are up to date — accounting for things like marriage and divorce that may have occurred since they were drawn up.
Day 30: Ask for help
There’s no shame in seeking financial planning help from a financial counselor, banker or financial planner. If you can’t follow your budget, don’t understand your taxes, are not sure what savings you have or don’t have a plan to meet your financial goals, seek financial help. Click here for ways to choose the perfect financial professional.
What is your strategy for financial fitness in the coming year? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.
Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.