The holidays, with all their accompanying indulgences, are over. It's the New Year and a time for fresh starts and new beginnings. Your pants may be tight, but your wallet could be depressingly light.
Our economy is in a bit of a slump and there are many things to worry about — from losing your job to paying student loans — and most concerns involve money. Brooding is not going to fill your bank account. Taking action will.
It's time to step up and get your finances in shape. The prospect of changing the way you understand your finances may seem daunting, but some minor adjustments in both spending and attitude can produce significant results.
You can't control the stock market, but just a few simple steps can help you can take control over your own personal finances.
First, know your financial situation. It's very easy to close your eyes and hand over the credit card without checking how deeply in debt you already are. Eventually you'll have to open your eyes again and you may not like what you see.
Make it a New Year's resolution to at least look over your "portfolio" (or the closest thing you have to one), even if you're not quite ready to make any changes.
Check out your savings and checking account balances, the value of your 401(k) or Roth IRA, and your total debt load, including credit cards and other loans. Use the New Year to dump excess baggage. This means debt. You don't have to be losing all that money to interest payments.
Once you've acknowledged your financial state, you may immediately recognize the areas you need to target for improvement. Perhaps you want to save more for retirement, bulk up your emergency fund or invest in some stocks. Even if you have no changes to make, at least you know where you stand.
Now set a goal for yourself. Where do you imagine your finances being in one month, six months or even a year from now? An end goal will help you focus your financial behavior and think more about where your money is going now.
Lay out a game plan
Next, lay out a game plan. Break down the steps you need to take to reach your goal. When you have smaller goals to work with they seem more doable and the experience is less overwhelming.
Part of your game plan is being realistic about your goal. It sounds boring and tedious, but track what you spend now. You can use this information to lay out a budget for yourself. Once you see clearly what you're spending you may find areas to shift things around.
Be prepared to make changes, too. When you want to lose weight you need to make certain lifestyle adjustments — from cutting out cocktail hours to an entire diet makeover. The same applies to spending habits. For some of us these modifications may be extreme, such as downgrading our apartment to meet our financial goals. For others, tweaking small behaviors, like upgrading to first class, may make a big difference.
If you don't already use online resources such as the budgeting Web site Wesabe.com or Mint.com, you should start exploring these options. There are endless amounts of financial education tools online that can teach you more about money and help you husband your greenbacks.
If the idea of completely restructuring your spending habits seems like too much to handle, start small. Make small tweaks here and there. Bring your lunch three days a week or get your manicure once every two weeks rather than weekly. These $10 savings will add up.
No matter how rigorous your savings goals are, every diet needs a little wiggle room. You worked hard for your money and you should enjoy it now and again. Give yourself a set amount of money you can use to "splurge" on things you might not need but really want.
If you remind yourself that you can buy that special something if you save a certain amount, you may be less tempted to waste money on items you don't really want.
Getting your finances in shape will take some time and effort. If you're serious about your financial goals, it's worth a bit of sacrifice now to gain more in the future.