New Year: Time to count assets, errors and blessings

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(MoneyWatch) Millions of people around the globe use New Year's Day as a fresh start -- a moment when the book of last year is closed and the empty ledger of 2013 holds the promise of better things to come.

Yet before you lock away 2012, it's wise to review what you did right and wrong. Where you profited, and where you lost -- both economically and emotionally. That process should make you better prepared to profit in the coming year by not only suggesting how to change your ways, but by illuminating how you're already doing, which may be better than you think.

To start, pull out your bank and brokerage statements, as well as any other documents that show what you own and what you owe. You're going to need these documents soon for tax season anyway, so doing it now will also help you get a leg up on filing.

Now take each asset -- your 401(k), IRA and other investment and savings accounts and compare how much you have now to what you had a year ago. You may be pleasantly surprised. Althoughinvestors are focused on the "fiscal cliff" that's caused the markets to tank in recent months, the market as a whole is up about 10 percent in 2012. If you were regularly saving and investing throughout the year, you should be up even more.

What if you're not? Then you're either invested more heavily in bonds and fixed-income than you are in stocks -- or you've picked investments poorly. Ask yourself whether your investment strategy is appropriate given your age and goals. If you're not certain, you might want to check out this primer on simple (and smart) investing at Kiplinger.com. Be sure, too, to check out the sample portfolios that put choosing a wise investment mix on auto-pilot.

If you own a home, also take a look at how much you owe today versus a year ago. If you have been paying down your loan, that additional equity also translates to additional net worth. And, finally, take a look at your credit card balances. Are they higher or lower than last year at this time? If they're lower, you're making progress. If they're higher, consider whether that's a temporary and easily explained blip, or if you've let your spending get out of control.

This tally is going to do one of two things -- allow you to congratulate yourself for making good progress, or highlight that you're slipping behind. Either way, it can serve as a benchmark for the future, whether that future is a continuation of what you've been doing already, or a reform. If you find that you need to reform but don't know how, consider talking to a credit counselor to help you set up a budget plan. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling has a referral service that can help identify counselors in your area.

Yet your wealth is not just measured by finance -- a fact that may make you feel better if you are struggling economically. A study by the Journal of Economic Psychology found that, while unemployment and economics affected perceptions of individual well-being, personal and social issues played equally compelling roles.

And that's just one piece of a growing body of research that indicates that money only takes you so far. Ralph Warner, author of Get a Life: You Don't Need $1 Million to Retire Well, for instance, studied retirees and found that those who were most content didn't necessarily have a lot of money. But they were universally well-connected to their friends, family and communities.

So before you close the book on 2012, look at whether you're feeding your personal relationships as faithfully as you feed your retirement plan. If not, pick up the phone and start putting friends on your calendar. That will make your 2013 richer no matter what happens with your finances.

Happy New Year.

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