Put These 12 Financial Resolutions for 2011 on Your List

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It has taken a credit crisis, the Great Recession, double-digit unemployment and the fear that Social Security and Medicare will end in our lifetime, but it seems more Americans are prepared to commit to making financial resolutions that will change their lives for the better in 2011. So say the results of this year's Fidelity New Year's Resolutions Study: 42% of respondents to the study said they would make a financial resolution in 2011, compared to 35% in 2010.

"Not surprisingly, with the financial crisis and the market meltdown of the last couple of years, it has certainly been a time for people to take a step back and look at the track that they're on to determine whether they are hitting their goals," says Keri Dogan, senior vice president for retirement and college products at Fidelity.

"To save more money" was the No. 1 financial resolution made by Fidelity's survey respondents, and they committed in a big way, pledging to save a median of $1,200 next year. While that amount may not be appropriate for everyone, setting a savings goal of some kind is certainly "the right trend" according to Dogan.

"We would love to see more people committing to saving more for their retirement to make sure that they're going to be ready for retirement when the time comes," she says.

Here's a list of financial resolutions that can help almost anyone save more money, invest smarter and better prepare for life's unforeseen financial challenges:

1. Save More Money. There are any number of ways to save, and experts say your best bet is to pick one and stick to it. Most people responding to the Fidelity survey said they would increase their contributions to an IRA account or their 401(k) plan. Using other savings vehicles, such as traditional savings accounts or saving bonds, can work well too. Charles Schwab offers a complete list of savings fundamentals that individuals can adopt to assist their efforts to save.

2. Spend Less. Sounds simple, but it requires a fair amount of discipline. Consumers have to be willing to do without, and that starts with eliminating impulse purchases and replacing expensive brands with cheaper alternatives. Fewer lattes and more brown-bag lunches, as well as waiting for items to go on sale, can help.

3. Increase 401(k) Contributions (At Least to the Employer Match).
This deserves double emphasis because 401(k) plans have become the major source of retirement savings for most individuals. The more you add to yours, the more money you are likely to have at retirement.

Catherine Golladay, vice president of 401(k) education and advice for Charles Schwab, suggests that employees getting a raise this year should consider using some or all of the increase in salary to boost their 401(k) contributions. Employees over age 50 should consider taking advantage of "catch-up provisions" that allow them to save higher amounts at pretax levels.

Additionally, Golladay notes that a recent Schwab survey found that 73% of companies now offer 401(k) matching programs, so employees should contribute at least enough to get the full match. If they don't contribute up to the match, it's like refusing to accept free money.

4. Get the Free Investment Advice Offered with Your 401(k). Find out if your 401(k) plan comes with free advice -- and if so, take it. A recent Schwab study found that savings rates doubled from 5% to 10% of pay among people who accepted free 401(k) advice.

5. Review and Rebalance Your Investment Selections.
Investments that did well in 2010 may not do as well next year, so it's important to review and rebalance your investments in all accounts. Check to make sure that the investment selections in your 401(k) plan have not changed their proportions significantly, and make sure to rebalance your investments in other accounts that might have appreciated and become a larger percentage of your portfolio than you anticipated. Consider taking some gains and redistributing them to diversify your portfolio and reduce risk.

"We've seen two years now of the stock market increasing, so it would be a good time to take a look and see that your portfolio is in alignment with your goals and objectives," says Golladay. "Year-end rebalancing is always good advice."

6. Pay Down Credit Card Debt. After having their credit card limits slashed by issuers during the financial crisis, consumers in general are paying off balances and using credit cards less. Many consumers have also seen their interest rates increased whether they were delinquent on their payments or not, so eliminating this type of debt really helps save money in the long run. Once consumers totally pay off a credit card, they can commit the money from those monthly payments to saving and investing.

7. Set Up an Automatic Contribution/Payment Program.
Taking this step indicates real commitment to acting on the resolution to save. By creating an automatic debit from your paycheck or checking account, you ensure a level of success toward reaching your financial goals.

"Whether that's paying down debt every month or contributing to an IRA or an emergency fund, just set up an automatic contribution program, so that every month you are putting away the same amount," says Dogan. "Just set it up and forget it."

8. Draw Up a Realistic Budget.
Financial distress may have made many people abandon their budgets, while others may have gotten used to living paycheck to paycheck. It may be time to set up a budget that cuts out unnecessary spending and speaks to your current financial realities.

"If you go through the process of budgeting," says Golladay, "it forces you to think about what are my goals, what's important to me and how am I going to create a plan to get there."

9. Determine If You Have Enough Life Insurance.
This is an extremely important issue that many people neglect, but George R. Barnes, a financial planner for Prudential Financial in West Essex, N.J., reminds people that you don't want to be caught without life insurance when you need it.

"Check to see whether it's enough to take care of your child if you should die, whether it's enough to buy off your business partner so that the business can continue. . .things of that nature," he cautions.

Barnes also reminds people to check to see how much their disability insurance will pay if they get injured and can't work, and if their homeowners insurance covers the full cost of rebuilding their home if it's destroyed.

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10. Update the Beneficiaries on All Financial Documents.
Neglecting to update your financial documents could have catastrophic results for your loved ones. Experts note that divorce, marriage, deaths and births could change who you intended to receive your 401(k), insurance policy payouts and other financial assets.

11. Create a Will.
Commit to this difficult-to-contemplate task so that your assets will go to the people you want them to go to. A will should list all of your most precious assets so that relatives will know how you intended things to be distributed. Your passing will be difficult enough without family members fighting over assets that you intended to make their lives easier.

12. Understand All the Benefits Your Company Offers.
Many people get disability insurance or life insurance from their employers, but they may not understand how those benefits work. "You should know what your disability insurance covers and what exactly is meant by long-term care insurance," says Barnes.

Other medical benefits may be offered as well -- eye care, dental care, health savings accounts or additional programs that offer cash incentives for healthy behaviors. You can't benefit if you don't inquire.

See, once you break it down into manageable steps, getting your financial house in order is a lot easier. It can't hurt to try! A safe, healthy and prosperous 2011 to all.
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