Your 2014 resolutions have been committed to paper. You are full of confidence that this year will be the year your life really comes together. You vow not to repeat past mistakes. You are ready for 2014.
In case you have any doubt about how the year is going to go, however, you may want to make sure your fiscal house is in order before the new year quickly becomes the same-old-same-old year. After all, many New Year's resolutions revolve around money. The federal government even has a New Year's resolutions site with links to resources to help the public stay on track. Of the 13 resolutions it lists, three are money-focused (getting a job, saving money and managing debt).
So before you get caught up in day-to-day living and forget all those resolutions about watching your bank account, making more money, paying off credit card debt and not buying things you don't need, consider a money checklist for the new year. Do any of the following, and your finances in 2014 should see an improvement over 2013.
Meet with a financial advisor. If you haven't had a discussion with a financial advisor in ages, or ever, this is a suggestion from just about every personal finance expert - especially financial advisors. But that doesn't mean it isn't a good idea.
"It's an invaluable tool, almost like having a Swiss army knife in your pocket," says Andy Smith, a certified investment advisor in Indianapolis and co-host of "The Mutual Fund Show," a national radio show.
If you don't have a financial advisor and don't feel you're in the market for one for a while, you can always talk to your spouse or another family member, a friend or perhaps the manager at your bank, depending on what advice you think you need.
Smith also notes that many employers offer retirement planning advice through their 401(k) plans.
Look at your taxes. If you typically do your taxes hours before the April 15 deadline, this could be your year to change that. You could make sure your receipts are in order or schedule an appointment with a tax preparer and pay early, especially if you know you're getting a refund.
"If you are due for a refund, it's better to have the money back to you as soon as possible," says Joseph Cunningham, assistant professor of accounting at Albright College in Reading, Pa. "Why wait to file your return on April 15 and receive a refund up to eight weeks later?"
Budget. If you haven't created a budget in a year or more or you haven't looked at your budget in eons, update it. Something has probably changed. Perhaps your cable company raised its rates, without you really noticing or thinking about it. Maybe you bought an iPhone over the summer and your monthly phone bill shot up, but you didn't reduce other monthly expenses. Maybe you adopted a dog in the fall and never thought to add the cost of pet supplies to your budget.
This is the time to study how your budget changed in 2013, especially if you were having trouble paying bills at the end of the year. Are there expensive home improvements you want to tackle this year, like buying a new heating or cooling system or putting on a new roof? Plan to take a particularly expensive vacation? If you think it's going to be a rough year, and even if you think it'll be swell, now is a smart time to engage in a fiscal cleansing. Cancel subscriptions you never utilize and contact some of the places you do business with - your cable company, for example - to see if they can offer you a better monthly deal.
Update your will. That is, if something big has happened, such as a new baby in the house, or if the news is less happy, and you're newly divorced. Or this might be a good time to draft a will if you don't have one.
Check your credit report. You've heard all the horror stories about identity theft (especially if you're one of the 40 million people who shopped at Target between Nov. 29 and Dec. 15). At annualcreditreport.com, you can get a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once a year. You could get all three reports, or even better, stagger it so that you request a free report from one of the bureaus every four months. You want to make sure the information is accurate and that no one is buying anything in your name - sticking you with debt and harming your credit score.
Study your retirement situation. Maybe you haven't begun setting money aside for retirement, in which case, this would be a good time to start - or at least resolve to get serious this year. Most financial planners will tell you to put away 10 to 15 percent of your annual income for retirement, and if you can't do that, put away as much as possible.
But assuming you are already putting ample money away, "make sure your assets are strategically invested across all of your retirement accounts. Your investments should be working together instead of duplicating efforts," Smith says.
Ideally, Smith says, every January, savers should increase their retirement contributions by 1 percent "and continue every year for as long as you can until you're saving up to the maximum allowed by the IRS."
Not that you have to do this right now - any month is fine, but "doing this in January, at the beginning of every year, makes it easier to remember and increases the likelihood that it'll become a habit," Smith says.
You may also want to increase your final 401(k) contribution if it's still 2013. "If you have not reached your contribution limit for the year, consider making an extra deposit to get the full benefit on your taxes," says Scott Cramer, president of Cramer & Rauchegger, a retirement and estate planning firm in Winter Park, Fla. "Workers can contribute up to $17,500 in 2013, plus an additional $5,500 if they are 50 or older. The more you put away, the better off you will be in retirement, even if your investment returns wind up being not so great."
If 2014 has already begun and you're kicking yourself for not contributing more to your 401(k), scribble down a note on your calendar so you can get a jump on 2015.
And if you're kicking yourself simply because you wish you had been financially smarter in 2013, not to worry. That's the whole point of a new year financial checklist. It's a particularly useful tool for people who believe they're a financial dunce: Follow your money checklist and do what you need to do now, and a year from now, whatever you're currently feeling will be a distant memory. Your future self will think you're brilliant.
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