12/22/2011 4:30 PM ET|
Get financially fit in 2012
A new year should be an incentive to get your finances in order. These 5 steps can help you reduce debt, boost savings, cut out-of-control expenses and more.
Most couch potatoes will never compete in a triathlon. But they don't need to. Just a few minutes of exercise a day can help the formerly inert shed pounds, boost their energy levels and live longer. If you're already getting a little exercise, a little more can get you truly fit.
The same is true with money. You probably won't transform yourself from a train wreck into a billionaire. With some effort, though, you can pay down debt, build up savings and look forward to a more comfortable financial future.
And if you're already in pretty good shape, you can take steps to get even more financially fit in 2012. The following are some of the strategies I recommend in my book "The 10 Commandments of Money: Survive and Thrive in the New Economy."
(A caveat: Just as advice to exercise more assumes that you're in good health, these financial recommendations assume you have a reasonably regular income. If you're unemployed, you probably need to wait until you have a steady job to make real progress toward financial fitness.)
1. Get your priorities straight
Retirement must come first. If you're putting off retirement savings for some other goal -- paying off debt, saving for a child's education, scraping up a down payment -- you need to rejigger your priorities.
Saving for retirement tends to be a use-it-or-lose-it proposition. You can't get back any company matches and tax breaks you forgo. Plus, you want the power of compounding working for you. It will get increasingly harder as you get older to make up for lost time. (I explain this in more detail in "The 5 worst pieces of financial advice.")
You can get an idea of how much you should be saving by using MSN Money's retirement calculator.
If you're falling short, try boosting your current savings rate by 1 or 2 percentage points. Chances are, you won't miss the money that much, and it could make a big difference in the long run. Increase your contribution a little bit each year or whenever you get a raise.
If you're already on track, step up your financial fitness by rebalancing your retirement accounts so your asset allocation -- how you've got your money divided among U.S. stocks, foreign stocks, bonds and cash -- is where you want it to be. If you're not sure how you should be investing your money, your 401k provider may provide guidance, or you can consult with a fee-only financial planner. (You can get referrals to planners who charge by the hour from the Garrett Planning Network.)
2. Implement a plan to deal with your debt
A lot of people in debt are in denial about how deep a hole they've dug for themselves. You're probably in over your head with debt if:
- Your debt payments, including your mortgage, eat up 40% or more of your income.
- The total amount of your consumer debt -- credit cards and medical bills -- equals half or more of your income.
- You're borrowing from one source to pay another.
- You're being sued over your debts.
If any of the above is true for you, consider making two appointments: one with a legitimate credit counselor (you can get referrals from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling) and one with a bankruptcy attorney. If you're close to the financial edge, advice from these two sources may prevent you from falling over it.
If your debt is more manageable, you can start targeting your most troublesome bills first -- typically your credit cards or other so-called toxic debt. Paying the minimums on your other debts while you throw as much money as possible at your highest-rate card can help you speed your way out of debt.
You don't need to be in such a big rush to pay off mortgage debt or federal student loans. These are relatively low-rate loans that are often tax-deductible. Speed up your payments on these only after you've paid off other debt. For more details on exactly how to do this, read "A debt payoff plan that works."
No troublesome debt? Check to see if you can get a better deal on a rewards credit card. People who pay their balances in full every month can get free travel, cash rebates and other goodies, but the deals change frequently. Check out my column "The best rewards cards now" as well as NerdWallet's roundup of the best deals.
3. Review your expenses
The usual advice, when you're struggling to get from paycheck to paycheck, is to trim the relatively small expenses -- the lattes, the dinners out, the cable-TV bills.
But if you've cut those and still can't make ends meet, your problem is probably your big expenses: what you're paying for shelter, transportation, utilities, food, child care and insurance, plus your minimum loan payments.
These costs make up your must-have expenses, and if you want a balanced financial life, they should total 50% or less of your after-tax income. That would leave you 30% to spend on wants (clothes, vacations, gifts, etc.) and 20% to pay down debt and save for your future.
Reducing those big expenses isn't easy, but keeping your overhead in line with your income can give you far more flexibility to handle financial setbacks. Read "The 50/30/20 budget fix" for more.
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