How to Get Financially Fit in the New Year

The Wall Street Journal

It's time to think about getting in financial shape in 2011. Vague resolutions and good intentions won't do it. You have to have a plan. Stumped for ideas? Here's a 12-month agenda.

No, it's not comprehensive. But it's doable.

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Each month, set one financial target and hit it. Easy, manageable -- and it means this time next year you'll be looking back on 2011 with some satisfaction.

JANUARY: Max those savings! Financial planners argue you should be saving 15% or more of your income each year. Set your 401(k) contributions to the highest level you can handle. At least contribute up to any company match, and ideally push the limits -- $16,500 if you're under 50, $22,000 if you're over. If you are self-employed, or have self-employment income, talk to a broker about special tax-savings vehicles open to you, including Solo 401(k) plans, SEP-IRAs and Keoghs.

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FEBRUARY: Target your cash flow. Get out all your statements and check stubs for 2010 and work out where all your money went. Chances are you spent more than you planned, or maybe realized. Restaurants, shopping, premium cable, car payments -- it all adds up. If you want to get control of it, you have to understand it. Now set a budget, and talk to your family about ways to cut back and save more.

MARCH: Live without plastic for a month. Lock up your credit and ATM/debit cards. Generations lived without the spending ease and convenience of plastic. It is no coincidence they found it much easier to live within their means. Try it. Set a weekly budget, cash a check for that amount at the bank each week, and live on it. Unless you are traveling -- where a card can be invaluable -- you may find it easier than you imagined. Once you get used to it, keep going.

APRIL: Spring clean your investments. Decide on the asset allocation you should have. Then look at what you have right now. There's probably a ton of rubbish in there -- mediocre mutual funds, stocks bought on tips, money left sitting in a low-yielding account. Don't forget the unused car in the garage that's still worth $4,000. Time to stop procrastinating. Clear out the rubbish, and put the money to better use.

MAY: Zap the debt. Pretty much any debt other than a reasonable mortgage is a burden. Credit-card debt is a disaster -- you're basically going backward financially as long as you carry a balance from month to month. To pay the 15% interest rate, you have to earn maybe 20% before tax. Not gonna happen. Cut up the cards, and live like a pauper till you get out of credit-card jail.

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JUNE: Invest in yourself. Kudos to financial planner Dennis Stearns of Greenboro, N.C., for this suggestion: When someone asks him about investments, he writes, "I ask them how much they could improve their lot in life if they invested [some money instead] in a leadership workshop, better communication skills or anything to improve their productivity." After all, your knowledge and skills are your most important asset. This month, explore adult-education opportunities in your area.

JULY: Check your progress on the cash flow. Print out all your statements. Analyze spending by categories. See what you planned to spend, and what you actually spent. This is a constant battle. Still looking for savings ideas? Cancel cable for the next few months. It's summer time -- what are you doing indoors watching TV?

AUGUST: Convert your traditional individual retirement accounts to a Roth IRA. There will be a tax hit upfront, but thereafter money in a Roth grows tax free forever. Even better: There are no required minimum distributions after age 70. Before 2010, Roth conversions were typically limited to those earning below about $100,000, but that limit was abolished: Anyone can now convert to a Roth.

SEPTEMBER: Negotiate a Christmas truce with all the adults you know. That means family, extended family and co-workers. Stop the holiday shopping waste before it starts. This may save you hundreds of dollars. The only thing you will lose will be a bunch of sweaters you won't wear and trinkets you don't want. They'll save the same thing, too.

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OCTOBER: Tackle your insurance. Dull? Chances are you are wasting hundreds of dollars a year on homeowners and car insurance. The insurance industry thrives on your laziness: Studies repeatedly find that identical coverage can sometimes cost half as much. Take this month to shop around aggressively to find cheaper coverage. And find out how much you can cut your premiums if you raise your deductibles. Sometimes that's a no-brainer.

NOVEMBER: Update your will. Do you have one? And if you do, how long ago did you check it? Circumstances change. Maybe you've had children or grandchildren. Or minors have graduated. Your assets have grown (or, alas, shrunk). Too many people avoid dealing with their wills because thinking about death makes them feel yucky. Too bad. You're going to die, like me, like everyone else. Deal with it. Dying with an out-of-date will can cost your family incredible amounts of pain and money and throw away decades of hard work.

DECEMBER: Open 529 plans for your children and grandchildren. These are no-brainers. The money grows tax deferred (and tax free if it's spent on qualified education expenses). It will help discipline college savings. After two years, the money is also sheltered from creditors -- something to keep in mind as you contemplate the financial upheavals and increases in personal bankruptcies of the last few years. Oh, and you keep control of the money, so Missy can't take it and run off to join a cult. (Well, she can, but at least she can't take the college money with her.)

Good luck -- and best wishes for a happy, prosperous and financially fit 2011.

-- Email: brett.arends@wsj.com

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