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Americans are enjoying a robust economy featuring a booming stock market, brimming with strong consumer sentiment, record job growth, and growing household incomes.
In fact, the current U.S. economic expansion is now officially the longest in U.S. history, according to federal government data.
That said, there’s always room for improvement on the personal front, especially as a new year and a new decade opens for business. So let’s start 2020 on the right financial foot with these 10 personal finance resolutions that can stabilize and grow your financial health — throughout the 2020s.
Get in front of 2020 retirement contributions. Make your contributions to tax-advantaged accounts, such as IRAs, 529s, and workplace retirement plans, as early in the year as possible, financial experts say.
“By making these contributions earlier rather than later, you will benefit from additional tax-free compounding growth, which can be substantial over time,” says Robert Westley, a certified public accountant and a member of the AICPA Financial Literacy Commission. “Time is an asset for financial growth — investors should take advantage of it by making their contributions to any tax-advantaged accounts as early in the year as possible.”
Curb and even eliminate credit card interest. The miracle of compound interest can work against you in the same powerful way it works for you, says Neal Stern, a CPA and also a member of the AICPA Financial Literacy Commission.
“Sharpen your budget to designate an amount each month to attack those high-interest-rate credit card balances,” Stern says. “Pick the strategy that works best for you — pay off the small balances first to build momentum or set your sights on balances with the highest rates to magnify your interest-reduction power. You’ll see the impact compound over the year as the amount you owe decreases and you keep more of your earnings, allowing you to pick up the pace toward a debt-free future.”
Get a free debt analysis. The best financial New Year’s resolution you can make may also be the easiest — make one phone call. “A nonprofit credit counseling agency can give you a free debt analysis,” says Howard Dvorkin, CPA and chairman of Debt.com.
There are zero strings attached, so why don’t more people do this? Because it sounds too good to be true, Dvorkin says. “To be honest, not every nonprofit does a bang-up job,” he says. “But the best of these agencies have helped millions of Americans figure out a budget and find tactics for paying down their debts.”
How do you find a good credit counselor? Here are three quick ways, Dvorkin says:
— Check out the Better Business Bureau and make sure the agency has an A+ rating.
— Review the agency’s “About” page to make sure it’s been around for at least a decade (preferably two decades).
— Scan online reviews to make sure clients are happy. “Then all you need to do is pick up the phone,” Dvorkin adds. “By the time the call is over, you’ll at least know how much you really owe, and what that’s really costing you.”
Conquer debt by building a household budget that works. U.S. households are now sitting on a record $14 trillion in mortgages, credit cards, student loans, and other forms of debt, according to Heidi Mertlich, a licensed life insurance agent and owner of the website NoPhysicalTermLife.com.
“Until you understand your spending habits and where your money goes on a monthly basis, you won’t be able to have complete control of your finances,” Mertlich says. “It’s about more than just money. Budgeting is about taking ownership and responsibility — character traits that will carry over into all aspects of your life.”
Here’s how Mertlich advises building an “A-based” sustainable and effective household budget:
— App. Manually tracking money in a spreadsheet usually creates more stress; instead, utilize budgeting technology through your bank or a mobile app like Mint or Credit Karma.
— Allocate. Assign each dollar a job and start with your basic requirements — food, shelter, utilities, transportation.
— Analyze. Track your spending habits and make healthy changes where necessary.
— Autopilot. Place your monthly bills on automatic payment because it will be one less thing to worry about each month.
— Assess. Regularly revisit your financial goals and income fluctuations to make changes to your budget accordingly.
Build an emergency fund that is there when you really need one. It’s not a question of if — but when — you will need to pay for an unforeseen expense, Mertlich says. That’s exactly why you need an emergency fund.
“Be careful to only use your fund for true emergencies,” Mertlich advises. “For example, a vacation is not an emergency, but a trip to the emergency room, by its very name, is an emergency.”
Here’s how to create an emergency fund that will be there when you really need it:
— Savings account. Place funds aside in an easily accessible, preferably high-yield, savings account.
— Start with $1,000. Everyone’s needs are different, but $1,000 is a reasonable starting point for an emergency fund.
— Grow the fund. Eventually, you’ll want up to a half-year of your monthly expenses saved up.
— Meet and make monthly goals. Within your budget, include a monthly amount you put toward your emergency savings until it’s properly funded.
Take the auto route. “Harness the power of consistency by opening one investment account and one retirement account at a robo-advisor,” says Miguel A. Suro, a Miami attorney and personal finance writer at The Rich Miser. “Then, set up a monthly auto-transfer to each account from your checking account, so you can ‘set it and forget it.’”
“Throughout the year, adjust your budget as necessary so you never have to cancel that transfer.”
Get creative with your finances. Goals are better than resolutions when it comes to your money — using them wisely can vastly improve your financial picture.
“For instance, set a small goal to save more next month than you did the previous month, all year long,” says Josh Hastings, chief blogger at MoneyLifeWax.com, a financial platform for Millennials. “For instance, if you saved $100 in January, make sure you save at least $101 in February. Each month increase your liquid savings to the point where you’re saving 10% of your gross income this year.”
Look at money in percentages, not the dollar amount. Using percentages enables you to gain a more realistic view of your household bills and your income.
“For example, if you bring home $3,000 per month, instead of looking at the $300 car payment as just $300, recognize your car payment is actually 10% of your take-home of $3,000,” Hastings says. “When you view your money as percentages, you will be more honest with your finances in 2020.”
Pay off one bill and get momentum. Set a goal to pay off one thing — a car, a credit card, a student loan, 10% of your mortgage — so that you notch some wins on your belt, Hastings adds.
“Get some early success for your finances and continue to reset your goals as you accomplish them,” he notes.
Reject impulse spending. “My favorite financial resolution is to stop impulse spending,” says Jen Smith, a personal finance expert and writer at Modern Frugality who recently paid off $78,000 in debt over a two-year period.
“So much of the spending we do is habitual or on impulse,” Smith says. “We make these perfect budgets then look at our bank statements at the end of the month and still wonder where all our money went. By focusing specifically on spending decisions you’re making in the moment you can actually stay in the budget you’ve made and make better budgets in the future.”
To cut impulse spending, issue yourself a no-spend challenge. “A no-spend challenge, whether for a month or a weekend, allows you take a step back and think about purchases before you make them,” Smith notes. “By not spending things on goods and services you don’t need, you’re breaking the cycle of living paycheck to paycheck, breaking addictions, and building better financial and emotional habits.”
A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:
Get even more tips on how to set yourself up for a financially successful new year!
Financial resolutions are great, but there are other ways you can improve your life, too. Read more here!