Whether you make New Year’s resolutions or not, it’s never a bad idea to do a financial check-up or set financial goals for the new year.
What’s important with anything, such as physical fitness or other goals, is the idea of changing behavior.
So call them what you want — here are some financial tips, compiled from a variety of sources, including Apprisen (formerly the Consumer Credit Counseling Service) and the Summit County Office of Consumer Affairs. I’ve thrown in a few ideas of my own, too.
In no particular order:
• If you make resolutions, write them down. At the prodding of a friend, I make and write down my resolutions yearly. There’s something about the act of putting it in writing that helps cement the deal to try to make good on the resolutions. Keep them where you can see them. I’ve typed them into the “to-do” or “tasks” bar of my online Google calendar so I see them — or at least they’re visible — daily.
• Develop a strong money management plan (from Apprisen):
1. Get organized. It doesn’t matter if it’s a home office or a shoebox; put all financial papers in one place.
2. Set a goal. It is important to have financial goals that are short term and long term. Goals, with a timeline to reach them, provide motivation to stay focused on priorities.
3. Create a spending plan or budget. Contrary to what most consumers think, a budget isn’t restrictive. A good plan allows consumers to spend hard-earned money more efficiently, often stretching it even further. Most important, it gives control over financial decisions.
• Build savings (from Apprisen):
1. Save 10 percent of your take-home pay. Put it into an interest bearing account each month and forget it’s there. Promise to not pull any money out unless it is for an emergency.
2. Contribute to company retirement plans. The maximum commitment is the goal, but short of that, contribute at least the amount the company matches. It’s free money.
• Be a smart consumer (from Apprisen):
1. Protect against identity theft. Do not give out credit-card numbers or Social Security numbers to sources you don’t trust. Be aware of fraudulent scams.
2. Have an insurance check-up. Don’t be over-insured or under-insured. Schedule an annual visit with an insurance provider and make sure policies are in line with needs.
• Manage your debt (from Apprisen): Pay down debt. Credit-card debt can stand in the way of achieving goals. Make purchases with cash or a debit card. When the money is gone, the spending stops.
• Understand credit reports and scores: Know what’s on your credit report. It is important to make payments on time to keep your credit report in excellent condition. Consumers are allowed one free credit report from each of the major bureaus every 12 months. Go online to www.annualcreditreport.com or call 877-322-8228. If you are not planning any major purchases soon, space out your free reports every four months from each of the three bureaus. Check for both spouses, if married. Do not get confused by sites offering you a “free” report. Usually, you will be signing up for a fee-based service, often from the credit bureaus.
If you will not be seeking new credit soon, consider placing a security freeze for $5 per bureau per report to block out all unwanted credit or ID thieves. You can pay $5 per bureau to temporarily lift the freeze when you need credit. Do this by going directly to the credit bureaus.
• Learn to handle bank accounts well:
1. Consider automatic online bill paying. This is particularly useful for people who are forgetful or tend to put things off. It’s ideal for routine payments, such as car and mortgage payments.
2. Keep an accurate check register. Enter all deposits and checks immediately. This goes a long way toward preventing overdrafts and unnecessary fees.
3. Reconcile bank statements immediately or use online resources or smartphone apps to reconcile with your online balance. It’s easier to tackle one statement monthly than spending hours chasing down problems from several months of statements.
• General lifestyle/financial tips (from Apprisen and Summit County Office of Consumer Affairs):
Put your next pay raise toward your 401(k) account.
Look in your refrigerator and cupboards for items you can use for meals before you go grocery shopping. Then plan your weekly food menu and shop with a list accordingly.
Be a savvy shopper. Find coupons and sales before you leave the house. Subscribe to multiple coupon sites, but unsubscribe if you can’t turn down a good deal.
Look for phone apps that can assist you in tracking expenses, coupons, financial tips, etc.
Track every penny you spend for two weeks, then see if you can make some changes.
Save your change.
Change one spending behavior a week, and put that money you would have spent in your savings account.
Pay more than the minimum payment on your credit cards.
Take care of your own financial responsibilities before taking on those of others.
Give yourself a weekly cash allowance for food and entertainment.
Teach your children the difference between wants and needs.
Refuse to pay bank fees. Go only to network ATMs, and use a check register to record your account balance.
Make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation with a certified counselor at Apprisen if you don’t know where to start getting your finances on track by calling 800-355-2227 or go online to www.apprisen.com.
If you received any gift cards, certificates, social or group discount coupons over the holidays, set a date for dinner, movie or shopping with plans to use them. Check expiration dates on the discount coupons.
Shred documents that contain personal identifying information.
Update firewalls and anti-virus software on your computer or if you have none, install them.
Smartphone users should log out of apps (banking, social networking), clear their browser history, password protect the home screen and update operating software. Never share data over public Wi-Fi networks.
Talk about safety online with children.
Use a credit card when shopping by phone, television or online, not a debit card, so you can dispute the charge if there are problems within 60 days from receipt of the bill.
Do not respond to emails, text messages, mail or phone calls claiming you won a prize, gift card, lottery, grant or other unexpected surprise.
Read monthly statements on accounts and bills to ensure all charges are yours and no hidden fees appear. Dispute any errors immediately.
Before agreeing to services with a company, check out their complaint history. Also, ask about refund policies, and make sure to read the contact.
Call the Summit County Office of Consumer Affairs at 330-643-2879 for clarification if you have consumer questions.