Are you ready to overhaul your spending patterns, start funneling more money into your bank account and buy better (and safer) products in 2014? If so, you've come to the right place. We've rounded up our favorite money stories to give you the bite-size nuggets you need to get your financial resolutions in place. Here are 25 ways to improve your finances in the new year:
1. Start feeling good about money.
If you have a "money shame," or something that embarrasses you or makes you feel badly about how you've handled money in the past, then make this the year to move on. Financial therapist Bari Tessler Linde says many people have trouble thriving in their current financial lives because they're still dwelling on past mistakes. "Most people need to understand their money story first," she says, which includes assessing strengths along with relationships to spending, earning and giving.
Simply asking yourself what your goals are can help set you on the path to achieving them, says Bart Astor, author of "AARP Roadmap for the Rest of Your Life," which is aimed at the 50-plus crowd. He recommends thinking big and pursuing your biggest dreams, even ones that seem overly ambitious. To help increase the chances of success, he also suggests sitting down with a spreadsheet to crunch some numbers and make sure you have money saved to fund your adventures.
3. Avoid unexpected costs of driving.
Driving is convenient, but it can also be surprisingly costly. You can get into accidents through no fault of your own (and end up having to pay the deductible if the other person leaves the scene or successfully argues it wasn't his fault). Regular maintenance, including oil changes and repairs, along with registration fees and parking permits, also add up.
Climbing back from bankruptcy or paying off huge amounts of credit card debt are no small feats, and if you're in the midst of that kind of transition, you could probably use some support. Find friends who will help you stay on track with affordable activities and by serving as sounding boards. Keep your big goals at the top of your mind by posting them prominently in a place you look every day (like your desk).
5. Avoid dangerous products.
With more than 400 product recalls a year coming out of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, it's hard to keep track of them all. Signing up for email alerts from the commission or downloading an app that alerts you about recalls can help. If you're buying used baby products, you'll want to be especially careful, since there's a high number of crib, stroller and high chair recalls.
6. Cut your spending in a big way.
When Detroit newspaper columnist Brian J. O'Connor decided to cut his spending by $1,000 a month, he did it by focusing on recurring expenses. Starting with phone, cable and Internet expenses and continuing down to groceries and his mortgage, he managed to squeeze out continuing savings.
7. Take advantage of new shopping tools.
An array of new startups, apps and Web-based tools make it easier than ever to manage your money while you're on the go. A report from Corporate Insight, which performs research for the financial services industry, found more than 100 new startups that aim to help people manage their finances, from learnvest.com to sigfig.com. In addition, new apps, including RedLaser, Shopular and RetailMeNot make it easier to track coupons and discounts while making purchases, so you're always getting the best deal.
8. Get better customer service.
No one likes staying on the phone for hours only to get an unsatisfactory resolution from the company you're calling. To protect yourself, try to stick with companies that are known for their stellar customer service. Top ranked companies - based on research by the Temkin Group, J.D. Power and Associates, Forrester Research and Zogby Analytics in partnership with MSN Money - include Amazon, Lowe's, Trader Joe's and Marriott.
Automatic savings are often the easiest way to put money aside without too much effort; diverting money into pre-tax retirement accounts directly from your paycheck or setting up an after-tax savings account are two popular options. Vanguard founder John Bogle calculates that most people need to save at least 15 percent of their income to be on track for adequate retirement savings.
10. Resolve to earn more.
Underearning is a major problem for many Americans, but it is possible to overcome. Personal finance author Barbara Stanny, who overcame underearning and also wrote a book on the topic, says the first step is to commit to earning more and to say "yes" to opportunities that allow you to do so.
11. Fall in love with money.
According to Kate Northrup, author of "Money: A Love Story," you have to fall in love with your money before you can start managing it well. That's why she encourages people, especially women, to explore their feelings toward finances and where they might be struggling. "The way we interact with something, the energy we have or emotion we have, will determine the results we get. Most people deal with money from a place of fear, anxiety or debt, and that doesn't work as well as dealing with it from a place of love," she says.
12. Keep your financial life off Facebook.
It might be tempting to brag to your friends about your stellar credit score, but it's actually better to keep that information to yourself. That's because Facebook and other forms of social media are public places where fraudsters are also lurking and looking for personal information they can use against you. In general, when it comes to money, the less you share, the better.
13. But go ahead and Tweet at your bank and favorite store.
Banks are increasingly using social media, including Twitter, to communicate with customers, especially when they're having problems. If you need to get the attention of your bank, feel free to do so over Twitter because you're likely to get a quick response. But never share any personal information, such as account details or your address, publicly.
Retailers are also very active on social media, and they often announce their biggest discounts to their followers and fans first. As a result, "liking" your favorite store's Facebook page or following them on Twitter can help you be among the first to know of big sales.
14. Review your insurance policies.
Car insurance policies vary by deductible amount, rental coverage and other key measures, and drivers are often surprised by those details after an accident when they need to rely on the coverage. Make sure you're familiar with your policy; state buyers guides can also help walk you through the various options. Many people are underinsured when it comes to life and disability insurance; check up on the coverage offered through your work and consider supplementing it.
15. Prepare for rising interest rates.
Interest rates have been historically low since the Great Recession hit, but most financial advisors expect them to rise eventually, and possibly soon. To prepare, borrowers can pay off debts and homeowners can consider refinancing if they haven't already. (In fact, it might already be too late to lock in the lowest rates.) First-time buyers looking to make a purchase might want to consider doing so soon in order to take advantage of the still-low rates.
Karl Frank, author of "Go Tax Free" and a certified financial planner, says almost everyone can reduce their tax bill. "Most people pay more than we have to, and that's a shame," he says. Putting more money into pre-tax retirement accounts, investing in municipal bonds and starting your own business are a few of the ways to get started. Gay couples can also explore whether they're entitled to any refunds for the past three years or savings this year, now that the Internal Revenue Service recognizes same-sex marriages for tax purposes.
17. Read children's books with your kids.
Beverly Cleary's "Ramona," first published in the 1950s, is still one of the best ways to explain a parent's layoff and the subsequent belt-tightening to children. Children's editors and librarians also recommend the classic Vera B. Williams' "A Chair for My Mother" and Brock Cole's "The Money We'll Save," as well as other books that explore tough topics with humor and educational plot points.
18. Protect yourself from credit card fraud.
Credit card companies are increasingly using powerful data collection and analysis techniques to spot fraud, but the first line of defense still involves customers themselves. Unexpected charges on your credit card statement or unfamiliar information on a credit report are among the first warning signs that fraud or identity theft has taken place. That's why you should always look over your monthly statements and get your free credit report every year through annualcreditreport.com.
19. Rent (or trade) your next dress.
If you enjoy wearing fancy clothes but don't want to pay for them, two new fashion trends can help you out: Trading and renting high-end clothes online. The website Tradesy makes it easy to buy and sell gently-used fashion items (including designer dresses, suits, bags and accessories) online. A handful of increasingly popular websites, including Bag Borrow or Steal and Lending Luxury, make it easy to rent dresses and accessories for a big night out. You end up spending far less than you would if you had to purchase the items, and you still get to feel like a million dollars.
Most Americans don't have an adequate emergency savings fund, according to bankrate.com, but part of the problem seems to be that banking policies don't make it especially easy to promote savings. A study from the Consumer Federation of America found that many banking customers face hidden fees, restrictions on dormant accounts and very low interest rates. Fortunately, consumers have many options when it comes to bank accounts, and it can pay off to compare different accounts before choosing the one for your money.
21. Start something on Kickstarter.
Celebrities aren't the only ones using Kickstarter to fund creative products. Not-so-famous entrepreneurs are, too, as evidenced by the more than 100,000 projects launched on the site. (About 44 percent have reached their funding goals as of Dec. 9, 2013.) Site users recommend promoting your project to friends and on social media, making a strong video and, above all, promoting an appealing product, such as cake pops or bookmarks for libraries.
22. Give more gift cards.
Gift cards might sound a tad impersonal, but they actually make the ideal gift in many ways. Most people say they like receiving gift cards, and retail-specific cards generally come without fees and penalties for delayed use. Just watch out for the general-purpose cards from credit card companies, which usually come with purchase fees ranging from $4 to $6.95, according to a survey from bankrate.com. Registering the card also offers additional protections if the card is lost or stolen.
23. Avoid online ticket scammers.
Websites like Craigslist offer an easy way to buy and sell items, but you want to make sure to avoid the fraudsters that also lurk on the sites. To stay safe, always meet in person to exchange goods for cash - never wire money in advance, which is how much of the fraud takes place. And of course, meet in a public place and bring a friend along for added protection.
Worrying about money can eat up a lot of time. One survey of more than 1,000 people by the McGraw-Hill Federal Credit Union found that 36 percent of respondents said they spend at least two hours a day either worrying about their finances or handling them. Companies might want to take note, and consider offering employees free resources to help alleviate some of that strain - and help get people back to work.
25. Talk money with your honey.
Finances can cause huge rifts in romantic relationships, but they don't have to, especially if the couple commits to addressing tension as soon it comes up. Financial experts recommend always being honest with the other person, making money dates to review finances and talk through big decisions and reflect on how each person's upbringing affects their financial mindset. Then, you can work together on setting, and reaching, big money goals - from buying a home to traveling.
Now that sounds like the path to a successful, and satisfying, year.
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