4 money-smart things you're doing now

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(MoneyWatch) Financial experts are constantly bemoaning all the things Americans do wrong when it comes to their money, from not saving enough to failing to plan for long-term care. But over the past five miserable years, the nation's consumers have started doing many things right. It's time to give a little credit where credit is due.

Indeed, in four key areas, the trend says the nation's consumers are getting smarter. Over the long-run, these savvy moves will make Americans richer and better financially prepared, no matter what comes. Here's what we're doing right:

Driving our clunkers. Auto market research firm R. L. Polk & Co. estimates that the average age of U.S. cars has risen to a geriatric 10.8 years -- the oldest ever. The cars we were driving in 2000 were, on average, two years newer. It may not sound sexy to drive an older car, but with every month that you make that old car last, you save the cost of the car payment and the higher insurance rates that go with a new vehicle. If you put off buying a $25,000 car, that means you've saved roughly $550 a month in car payments (assuming you'd pay off the loan in four years); and probably another $50 a month on insurance. That's $600 in monthly savings for 24 months. You've just made yourself $14,000 richer and far better able to afford that new car when you do decide to buy.

Working longer. All the talk in the 1980s was about retiring early, with workers planning to chuck the work-a-day world at the tender age of 55. Now, the U.S. Labor Department figures that the number of people who are working past the age of 65 is at a record high. More than a third of men between the ages of 65 and 69 are working, as are roughly one quarter of women in that age group. What's so great about that? When it comes to retirement readiness, when you retire is the biggest factor in determining whether you're economically prepared to retire. Working one extra year can gain you three years of retirement readiness. And while there are certainly people who are working longer because they can't afford to quit, many work longer because they don't want to retire. Talk to any group of working seniors and you're likely to find that a good portion of the group is simply too vibrant to consider joining the rocking chair set. A study done by the Center or Retirement Research at Boston College found that working longer also makes you happier.

Paying down debt. Forget using the house as a piggy-bank -- Americans are so over that. (admittedly perhaps because the piggy-bank is empty). But we're also paying down our credit card debts, which is a sign that we might have stopped buying things that we can't afford. According to a new study by credit-score firm CreditKarma, the average consumer reduced his or her credit card debt by 8 percent over the course of the past year. And industry publication CardHub reports that credit card delinquencies are down 20 percent, while charge-offs plunged 37 percent. Sure, we should never have gotten over our collective heads in credit card debt in the first place. It's smartest to use credit cards solely for convenience and pay them off each month. But you can't change the past. You can only try to fix those mistakes going forward, and on that score Americans are making progress.

Attending college in record numbers. The latest data shows that Americans are attending college in record numbers, with nearly 40 percent of the population of 18- to 24-year-olds opting for higher education. Better yet, the biggest part of the surge is in enrollment at community colleges, which provide education for a fraction of the cost of a four-year university. Getting the first two years of undergraduate requirements taken care of at a community college can cut your tuition bills in half and drastically reduce a student's need to take out costly student loans. Meanwhile, getting that college degree is likely to boost your lifetime earnings by some $650,000, according to research by the Pew Research Center.

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