Staying fit and healthy is often the top New Year’s resolution Americans make. This year, you should vow to get your finances in shape, too.
“People who commit to making financial resolutions have better financial wellness,” said Lauren Brouhard, senior vice president of retirement at Fidelity Investments, citing the findings of Fidelity’s annual New Year’s Financial Resolutions Study. “There’s a certain power in actually creating a goal,” she said. “There’s even more power when you discuss that goal with someone else.”
Specific goals can be easier to pursue than goals that are too broad. Here are 13 New Year’s resolutions that Brouhard and other experts suggest that you make — and how to stick to them.
1. Get Educated About Personal Finance
Only 57 percent of adults in major advanced economies like the U.S. are financially literate, according to Standard & Poor’s Rating Services 2015 Global Financial Literacy Survey. That means nearly half are not. “For a lot of people, taking that first step to get educated can be an important financial resolution,” Brouhard said.
You can start with the abundance of expert financial advice online. And Brouhard said that more employers are providing employees access to financial wellness offerings, including free or low-cost investment and saving advice, as part of their workplace retirement plans. Check with your human resources department to see if your employer offers these benefits.
2. Set Up — and Stick to — a Realistic Budget
Sticking to a budget can be tough. In fact, Americans said this was their biggest money challenge, according GOBankingRates’ 2015 Life + Money Survey. If you want to resolve to stick to a budget in 2016, it starts with creating a realistic plan, said Joe Heider, president of Cirrus Wealth Management.
“People make financial resolutions the way they do weight loss,” he said. “They rush out with a plan to work out six days a week instead of making a resolution to lose a reasonable amount of weight. People make such lofty goals that within a month, they’re unachievable.”
You can start by thinking of your budget as a spending plan — list your priorities for spending rather than ways to restrict your spending. Focus first on necessary expenses — such as bills and debt — then include a certain amount for retirement savings in your plan.
With the remaining money that you have coming in each month, make sure you set aside a little for something you enjoy doing. “It’s critical that people have rewards in their budget,” Heider said.
3. Stop Spending Money Recklessly
One of Americans’ top financial resolutions for the past six years has been to spend less, according to Fidelity Investments’ New Year Financial Resolutions Study. There are plenty of reasons to want to get your spending under control — most importantly, to improve your overall financial well-being. And one of the best ways to stop spending recklessly is to track where your money is going each month so you know how much you’re shelling out for unnecessary things.
See if your financial institution has a free mobile app with a budgeting function that shows expenditures by category or download a free app, such as Mint’s app, to monitor your spending.
Another way to get your spending under control is to avoid the urge to keep up with the Joneses. “If you hang out with spendthrifts, you will likely become one yourself,” said Tom Corley, author of “Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Wealthy Individuals.”
If you truly want to fix your bad spending habits for 2016 and beyond, you need to make a conscious effort to associate with other individuals who are trying to do the same thing,” he said.
4. Boost Your Income
You can only cut your spending so much. If you’ve eliminated all the unnecessary expenses that you can, you should resolve in 2016 to find ways to boost your income to improve your financial well-being.
“Making more money means doing something different than you are doing right now,” Corley said. “It means working more or taking more risk or investing more time in yourself through either self-education or formal education.”
He recommended building a side business around something you love because you’ll be passionate about it and will want to find the time to devote to it. On the other hand, you could commit 30 minutes each day to expanding your expertise in your current job so you can get a raise or acquire more clients. Alternatively, you could take a calculated risk by investing in an asset that generates cash, such as real estate.
5. Build an Emergency Fund
A 2015 GOBankingRates survey found that 62 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts. This lack of savings suggests that the majority of people likely don’t have enough money set aside to cover unexpected expenses or emergencies. If you’re among those without cash reserves, you should resolve to build an emergency fund in 2016 — or add to the one you have.
Experts recommend setting aside enough in an interest-bearing savings or money market account to cover six months’ worth of expenses in case of job loss, maternity leave, or a medical or other emergency. You don’t have to save it all at once, though.
Start by looking for leaks in your budget that quickly add up but can be easily eliminated, such as dining out. Or, you can let an online tool such as Digit.co monitor you bank account and automatically move small amounts of money to a savings account for you.
6. Increase Retirement Savings
Overall, Americans are undersaving, Brouhard said, so she was encouraged to see that saving more was the top financial resolution for 2016 among those surveyed by Fidelity. Ideally, people should be setting aside 15 percent of their income to have enough for a comfortable retirement, she said.
You can increase the amount you’re saving for retirement in several ways. Start by making sure you’re contributing enough to your 401k plan to get the full matching contribution from your employer, Heider said. That’s free money that can get you closer to the 15 percent goal.
You also should aim to increase the amount you set aside each year — even if it’s just by 1 percent, Heider said. If you get a raise in 2016, put that extra money you’re getting in your paycheck automatically into your retirement account. You’re already used to making ends meet on your old salary, so you likely won’t miss the extra cash you’ll get with your raise — but your retirement account will greatly benefit from the boost.
7. Pay Off High-Interest Debt
According to the Fidelity survey, paying down credit card debt is one of the most popular short-term goals. One method you could try is to focus on paying off your high-interest credit card debt before other debts, such as your mortgage and student loans, because it is the most expensive.
If you’re motivated by seeing results, you could start by paying off your card with the lowest balance first so you can feel a sense of accomplishment and gain momentum for tackling the rest of your high-interest debt, said Bruce McClary, spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. If you’re concerned about minimizing the interest you pay and saving the most money in the long term, focus on your highest-rate card first. “The process that is most motivating is the one that you should go with,” he said.
8. Create a Plan to Tackle Other Debt
If you don’t have credit card debt, you can resolve to tackle other debt that might be weighing on you. Even though you can claim a federal tax deduction for your student loan interest if your income falls below a certain level, you might want to pay if off quickly so you can put more of your money toward saving for your future. Shannon Brown of the GrowingSlower.com blog, for example, paid off $22,000 in student loan debt in just nine months by making cuts in spending and finding ways to earn more.
9. Start a College-Savings Fund
Saving for retirement should be one of your highest priorities. But if you’re contributing the maximum to a workplace or individual retirement plan, you should start building an education fund for your kids, Heider said. Your best option for college savings is a 529 plan because you can withdraw the money tax free to pay for qualified education costs, he said.
These education savings plans are operated by states — nearly all of which offer at least one plan. More than half of the states in the U.S. offer residents a tax deduction or credit for 529 plan contributions, according to SavingforCollege.com. Compare plans to find the best one for you.
10. Create an Estate Plan
You should resolve to start the New Year with any financial loose ends tied up, especially your estate plan. Heider said it’s human nature to think nothing bad will happen to you, but it likely will. You need to have the right documents in place so your loved ones aren’t left scrambling to pick up the pieces.
Make sure you have a will or trust to designate who gets your assets; otherwise, the state will decide for you. You also can name a guardian in your will so the court system doesn’t decide who will raise your children. Additionally, you can designate who will make financial and healthcare decisions for you if you can’t with power of attorney and power of attorney for healthcare documents.
11. Make a Career Change
A 2015 University of Phoenix survey found that nearly 60 percent of working adults want to change careers. If you’re ready to move on to something new, vow to do it in 2016. “If you do nothing, in 10 years, you will be 10 years older and probably stuck right where you are now,” Corley said.
You can test the waters of a new career and gain skills in a new industry by seeking out a successful person in the field you’re interested in and offering your services as an apprentice, Corley said. Or, you might have to go back to school at night or take courses online while you’re still at your current job to prepare for a switch.
“Once you get your degree or certification or develop a new expertise, you can then leave your current job or business for a new one that offers increased opportunities and potentially more money,” Corley said.
12. Develop Common Goals With Your Significant Other
Money can be the biggest source of conflict between couples, Heider said. It’s often because they aren’t on the same page. So if you’re married or in a long-term relationship, you should resolve to develop a financial plan as a couple.
“It’s imperative that couples sit down and create a plan and figure out goals,” Heider said. When couples try to manage their finances separately, it usually doesn’t work out, he said.
You can start by uniting your finances with a joint bank account. Then, follow expert tips to eliminate money fights and create common goals.
13. Help Your Kids Use Money Responsibly
Less than half of kids said their parents are doing very or extremely well teaching them about money and finances, according to T. Rowe Price’s 2015 Parents, Kids & Money Survey. But taking the time to help your children learn to be responsible with money can help set them up for financial success in life.
Start by taking advantage of everyday teachable moments, such as trips to the supermarket where you can explain the importance of making smart financial choices and how to compare prices. Teach your kids to manage money on their own and how to avoid making common money mistakes.
Any of these resolutions can help improve your financial well-being in the new year. Writing them down can increase your chances of actually achieving your goals, Brouhard said.
And if you want to make several of these financial resolutions your own, Heider suggested tackling one each month so you don’t get overwhelmed and can achieve your goals. “When people get something done, they usually feel good about [it] and are more ready to take another small step,” he said. “Success seems to breed success.”