Shedding unwanted pounds, recharging a golf score that's stuck in neutral, nurturing a better relationship with your teenager — these resolutions and many more will appear on lists this coming January. Of course, some good intentions will fade before the flowers arrive on Valentine's Day. But other decisions, if allowed to harden into habit, have the potential to greatly affect your financial future. For most people, incremental choices and a lifestyle of discipline are the key to attaining financial independence. Here are five suggestions for the coming year to help you achieve that goal.
Review your expenses. The start of a new year is a great time to take inventory of your finances. Track your expenses for six months or so. You may be surprised at the result. Do I really spend that much on coffee? Are my utility bills really that high? For many people, getting a handle on how cash actually flows through their checkbook can be a great motivator.
Build an emergency fund. Unless you plan to finance your "rainy days" with expensive credit card debt, setting aside cash in an easy-to-access emergency fund should be a priority. Many companies will allow you to allocate paycheck deposits into more than one bank account. Pick a savings account, designate it as your emergency fund, and start socking money away. Strive to accumulate a large enough balance to cover three to six months of living expenses.
Save — automatically. Retirement savings can be set up along similar lines. By making deposits directly into a retirement account, the money won't show up in your checking account where it's likely to be spent. Of course, if your employer offers to match contributions to a 401(k) plan, be sure to take full advantage of the matching amount.
Pay down debts. If you're saddled with debt, you're beholden to others. As the old saying goes, "The borrower is slave to the lender." True, it's often more fun to buy stuff on credit — you don't have to wait. But by whittling away at debt, you can expect to cut your overall interest costs and enjoy more financial flexibility in the future.
Treat yourself. Most of us can't live like monks. To stay motivated, budget some "fun money" into the mix. Make that meal at a nice restaurant or a weekend get-away your reward for the financial sacrifices you make the rest of the year.