‘Tis the time of year to make resolutions. For many people, finances are near the top of the to-be-improved list, especially after the holidays. Wherever you are in your personal finance journey, we’re here to help with a comprehensive list of financial resolutions and tips for making them work.
1. Create a budget.
Do you know where your money goes each month? If you already have a budget, you can check off this resolution and move on to the next one. If you don’t, now is the time to start. Thoughtful budgeting doesn’t have to be painful. Instead, it’s about setting goals for your life (pay off credit card or student loan debt, travel more, save for a down payment to buy a house) so you can align your spending with your priorities. A good budgeting habit should actually inspire more positive feelings by eliminating the confusion and guilt many people feel around spending.
Not sure how to get started? Try this simple budgeting worksheet from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Then, use our Savings Goals Calculator to make a plan with the income you have leftover each month.
2. Resolve to stick to your budget.
Whether you’re new to budgeting or have had an on-off relationship with it in the past, make 2020 the year you stick to your spending and saving goals. The best way to set yourself up for success is to create a realistic budget that won’t be too difficult to stick to, even if that means cutting discretionary spending or picking up a second job/side hustle to add income.
Action step: take The Four Tendencies Quiz from bestselling author Gretchen Rubin to see if you need external accountability to stick with a personal goal like budgeting. If you do, ask a friend or family member to help you stick to your goal with weekly check-ins, a scheduled reward for a month of successful budgeting, and so on. You’ll probably find that a lot of people are making this same resolution and would love to talk about it with you.
3. Build an emergency fund.
As with budgeting, you may already have 3-6 months of living expenses socked away in case of a job loss, expensive car repair, health problem, and other unexpected life events. If you don’t, use our Emergency Savings Calculator to set a goal and monthly contribution.
Remember that it’s always okay to start small. If saving three months of living expenses seems overwhelming, start with a goal of $500 or $1,000. You can aim higher once you reach your initial goal.
4. Review your debt (short-term and long-term).
It’s easy to lose track of our credit accounts and what we owe on them, especially in the aftermath of holiday spending. Now is the time to list out all of your loans and revolving credit accounts, both short-term like a credit card or auto loan, as well as long-term like a mortgage or student loan.
If you’re not happy with your current debt situation, make it one of your financial goals (number 11) to pay off x amount of debt or x number of accounts this year. Use our credit and debt management calculators to guide your goal-setting.
5. Calculate your debt-to-income ratio.
This percentage is often used by lenders to assess your credit-worthiness, so it’s always good to have a grasp on your current DTI. Simply add up all the monthly debt payments you make and divide by your total monthly gross income. If the total is higher than 43 percent, look for ways to pay off more of your debt in 2020.
6. Check your credit report.
Americans are entitled to a free annual credit report from each of the 3 major reporting companies. Visit annualcreditreport.com to request yours today. Reviewing your credit report helps you detect any signs of identity theft, as well as giving you a comprehensive list of your open credit accounts and loans.
7. Identify your bad spending habits.
As you build a budget habit into your life, you’ll begin to notice certain spending patterns. Objectively, no category of spending is bad if it’s aligned with your goals. But, for example, if you’ve gotten into the habit of buying lunch out, which doesn’t really enhance your day or enjoyment of life, and meanwhile you’re not meeting your monthly savings goal for travel, you probably want to make a change.
8. Cut back on unnecessary expenses.
Once you’ve identified the things you spend money on that aren’t getting you closer to what you really want out of life, look for ways to cut back on those categories and reallocate that money to your priorities.
9. Update your will.
Everyone should have a will, however small your net worth. Take stock of any recent changes in your life, such as a new marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child. Then, create a will if you don’t have one already, or update it accordingly. This U.S. News article with 10 Steps to Writing a Will can help you start.
10. Change beneficiaries as needed.
When you enroll in a work-sponsored retirement plan, open a bank account, or have any type of life insurance policy, you must assign a beneficiary to inherit the asset after your death. Every year, it’s useful to review these designations and make changes as needed. For example, you may have a beneficiary who is no longer living or need to add a new spouse as the beneficiary.
11. Identify financial goals.
You’ve probably come up with some financial goals just from moving through the other steps. From starting an emergency fund to paying down debt, buying a home, saving for retirement, and so on, make a list of your big-picture financial goals. Then, use the other steps on this list to implement your goals.
12. Plan for future expenses (a car, laptop, college, etc.).
The concept of impermanence teaches us that life is always changing and everything is transient. The financial translation is that today you have a working car, but in the not-distant future that car will reach the end of its working lifespan and you’ll need to purchase a new one. The same logic applies to personal electronics such as smartphones, laptops, TVs, and more. Set yourself up to take this impermanence in stride by planning for it now. Beyond your emergency fund, start saving for future expenses. If you have kids, this may also include things like college, orthodontics, and so on.
13. Give your tax refund a job.
Are you anticipating a check from Uncle Sam this year? The first thing to remember is that your tax return is money you earned, not a gift. So treat it like you would the rest of your paycheck, by deciding in advance how to spend it instead of making an impulse purchase. Align your tax refund with your bigger financial goals by using it to make an extra debt payment, putting it in savings, or using it to travel.
14. Everyone retires.
When you’re young and earning entry-level money, retirement seems too far off to worry about. However, everyone will retire someday, whether by choice or because illness or job loss forces them out of the labor market. The sooner you start saving in earnest, the further your money will go, thanks to the principle of compound interest.
Action step: open an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) if you don’t already have one or increase the contribution you make to your work-sponsored 401(k).
15. Educate yourself about personal finance.
If you feel like other people are better with money than you are, take comfort in knowing that personal finance isn’t just an ingrained personality trait. Anyone can learn to manage their money better. Continuing education is the best approach. There are plenty of personal finance websites and books out there. Consider subscribing to a money blog or checking out one personal finance book from the library each month. Classic titles include:
- Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence
- I Will Teach You to Be Rich: No Guilt. No Excuses. No B.S. Just a 6-Week Program That Works
- Get a Financial Life: Personal Finance in Your Twenties and Thirties
16. Evaluate your financial security.
Are you stuck in the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle? It’s a frustrating experience, but the sooner you break the cycle, the better off you’ll be. Living on every cent you earn with no backup savings leaves you vulnerable to the unexpected and restricts your ability to move.
Using the tips above, work on reducing your spending or increasing your income until you no longer run out of money before your next paycheck and can start saving.
17. Review your employee benefits.
Are you taking advantage of all the benefits your employer offers? Make a resolution to carefully review the options during your next open enrollment period. For example, you may want to switch your health insurance plan to a lower premium option if you don’t use it that much. You may also want to sign up for supplementary insurance policies for life, accident, disability, etc. Make the most of your employee benefits to increase your financial security.
18. Calculate your net worth.
This is the amount of money you’d be left with if you sold the assets you own (such as your car or house) and paid off all of your debt. Checking in annually with your net worth can give you a big picture sense of where your finances are moving. Ideally, your net worth will increase over time, though not necessarily dramatically. To compare yours with the median in your age group, check out the table in this article.
19. Use credit cards wisely.
Using one or more credit cards can be good or bad, depending on the decisions you make. This year, resolve to only engage in wise credit card usage. For some people, this may mean forgoing the plastic altogether. Others simply follow the 3 golden rules:
- Only charge purchases you can afford to repay immediately.
- Don’t use more than 30 percent of your credit limit.
- Use rewards cards to earn points or cashback on the things you already buy (groceries, gas, etc.)
20. Sync your cash flow with your bills.
Are your bills front-loaded to the first half of the month? Sometimes a billing schedule that doesn’t match with your pay schedule can throw a wrench in your budgeting and contribute to the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle.