It's that time of year when millions of Americans vow to change their habits to make the rest of their lives a little better. If your resolution for the New Year is to fix your financial life, these six steps should help.
Write down goals: Many New Year's resolutions are barely made before broken, but you're far more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. And if you tell someone about your goals, create an action plan and track your progress, the chance of success soars, according to research done by Gail Matthews, a clinical psychologist and career coach who teaches at Dominican University in San Raphael, California.
To be specific, people who wrote down their goals were 50 percent more likely to get what they wanted than those who set goals, but didn't write them down. Those who wrote down their goals, set an action plan to achieve them and provided weekly progress reports to a supportive friend boosted the chance of success by 78 percent.
Track your spending: You probably have friends who lost weight by using a fitness tracker and who now lament how many calories they once consumed unconsciously. If you want to get your finances in shape, consider tracking your spending. Like tracking what you eat, putting an app on your phone that records every dollar paid from your pocket can uncover a lot of niggling purchases that, when taken together, can sabotage your budget. Better yet, many spending trackers are free.
Get a quote: You may not want or need to shop around for cable or phone service every year, but it does make sense to spend 10 minutes checking to see if you can get a better rate for your home and auto insurance. Not only are these major expenses, many insurers actually penalize customers for loyalty by raising their rates each year. A few minutes of shopping can literally save a few hundred dollars a year in premium costs.
Pay off revolving debt: If you need a reminder about why paying off revolving debt is important, just take a close look at your most recent credit card statement. Since the CARD Act became law in 2009, lenders need to provide a box titled "minimum payment warning" that spells out just how much it will cost you to leave a revolving debt on your credit card. The short version: If you make only minimum payments, it will take decades to pay off a few thousand dollars, and it will cost roughly twice the amount you borrowed.
If you're suffering with a large bill from your holiday spending and feel repayment is a long-shot, check out our recent primer "6 cures for a debt hangover."
Don't miss the match: Most big companies will match worker contributions to 401(k) retirement savings plans to set amounts, say 6% of pay. But about 23% of workers don't contribute enough to get the full match, according to research by TIAA-CREF, a New York financial services company. Failing to contribute enough to get the full matching contribution is tantamount to throwing money away.
Make savings automatic: Whether you're contributing to a 401(k) plan at work or just moving money from your checking account to a savings account, making that happen automatically forces you to include saving in your budget. And that can make you rich while you're not even looking, even if you aren't saving huge amounts.
Consider a person who contributes just $50 a week, or $200 a month, to his 401(k) account, which is invested in a stock market index fund. In the beginning, his savings appear to be growing painfully slowly. He has just $2,700 at the end of a year and just over $41,000 at the end of 10 years. But in 20 years, he has more than $150,000, and in 30 years, he's got $450,000. By the 40th year of doing nothing more than saving $200 a month, he has accumulated $1.27 million.
If he happens to get an employer match of, say, 50% of his contributions, he becomes a millionaire even faster. It's also worth mentioning that over 40 years, all he has saved of his own money is $96,000. The rest is compound investment returns, based on an average annual return of 10% -- the long-term market average.
Taken together, these six steps can get you headed in the direction of financial health, in 2015 and for a long time afterward.