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New Year, New Me: How to Start 2018 on the Right Foot Financially

Come the New Year, many folks focus on losing weight, getting in shape or eating better. But with few Americans prepared for retirement — for those over 65, the median value of a 401(k) account is about $60,000 — and scores facing thousands in assorted debt, many would be better off resolving to take a good look at the state of their finances instead.

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As with many new goals, change doesn’t occur overnight, but, with a few smart money moves and a little bit of grit, you can change your finances for the better. If you’ve ever thought it was time for a “New Year, new me,” now is the best time to start.

Prioritize Your Debts

When added up, your debts — whether in the form of credit cards, a mortgage or student loans — can seem daunting. In reality, there is a priority to paying them down if your goal is to minimize the interest you’ll pay. While your various debts may feel the same, in terms of the pressure you’re under to repay them, your debts that carry the highest interest rate are costing you more than the others.

To reduce the interest you’ll pay over time, any extra money that you have to address your debts — after being sure you’re paying as required toward your mortgage, student loan or car loan — should be applied to your highest interest rate debt. For most people, this would be credit card debt, which can carry interest rates upwards of 20%.

In terms of improving your financial life, it’s hard to make real progress if your savings account earns you 1% a year while you’re also carrying higher interest debt.

Enroll in an Automatic Savings Plan

If, at the end of the month, you are scraping by to make ends meet, you may need an automatic savings plan. This allows you to contribute to either your savings account or retirement plan by having a portion of your paycheck directed to one of these accounts by your employer, if this service is offered, or by setting up a monthly transfer from your checking account.

A major benefit, besides growing your nest egg or cash savings, is that, because the money is invested automatically, you won’t miss it.

Improve Your Credit Score

While this move may not result in immediate cash benefits, the long-term gains are invaluable. A higher credit score can put you in the running for lower insurance rates, a higher credit limit and a better mortgage rate than those with worse credit. A good credit score also means you may have an easier time renting an apartment, or starting a business, should you have the desire.

So, how to go about this? Avoid making late payments, keep your debt level as low as possible in relation to your available credit, avoid opening new credit lines (which could signal that you are financially overextended) and, if necessary, open a secured credit card that you can use to show lenders you are creditworthy.

Create and Stick to a Budget

Major money moves like these are moot if you can’t stick to a realistic budget that will allow you to cover expenses like rent, utilities and essentials like groceries; pay down your monthly debt load; stash cash in an emergency fund; contribute to your IRA or 401(k) and have a little left over at the end of the month.

To create a budget, determine your monthly income and expenses. Taking a look at your financial statements is a good start, but you should also sit down with a pen and paper or spreadsheet to make sure you don’t miss anything, such as cash payments from your side hustle or cash expenditures for that weekly manicure.

Then, divide your expenses into those that are fixed — student and car loans, rent and mortgage, commuting costs and utilities, for example — and variable. Variable expenses may include groceries and entertainment.

Finally, review both fixed and variable expenses to make sure your spending is in line with your income and your goals. Do you want to invest $100 more into your 401(k)? Then you need to slide $100 from your variable costs.

Finally, review your budget each month to make sure you are on track and make any necessary changes.

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Legal Disclaimer: This site is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for professional advice. The material on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice and does not indicate the availability of any Discover product or service. It does not guarantee that Discover offers or endorses a product or service. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.

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