Rekindle a love affair with your money in 2010

2010Experts say the stroke of midnight that will usher out 2009 (and hopefully the lingering effects of the recession) is the perfect time to reignite your love affair with your budget and your money and get your personal finances in order.

In order to kick that debt to the curb -- or keep it from creeping into your 2010 -- and not live paycheck to paycheck, WalletPop gathered the hottest tips from financial experts that are sure to help you get -- and stay -- on track. Here's what you need to know for 2010 and beyond.

Monetize your month
Neal Ringquist, president and COO of Advisor Software Inc. in Lafayette, California, says monthly utility packages -- electric/gas, phone (land and mobile), cable, internet connection, satellite radio, water, etc. -- could be bogging down your budget. "Do a review to make sure you're on an arrangement that reflects the best deal offered to new customers," Ringquist says. And ask yourself, do I really need my current cable package? Can I lower my overall monthly expenses by bundling services with the same provider (i.e. phone, cable, internet)?

Be prepared
Have sufficient cash reserves on hand. Most experts recommend having at least six months worth of income set aside for emergencies. In order to save money, reduce your spending in unnecessary areas. This will also reduce your reliance on credit and ease the burden on your investment assets, Scott Mitic, CEO of TrustedID, says.

Surf for coupons
There's a lot of "free" money hanging out in the ether. Ringquist suggests checking for retailers' discount codes before you plunk down cash for any significant purchases. And if you're shopping online, he says, "Always apply the discount before you apply the gift card."

Understand the "real" cost
Financial advisor Jerry Lynch, CLU, ChFC and a certified financial planner with JFL Consulting in Fairfield, New Jersey, suggests taking a long look at the "real" cost of items. "See the cost of things in pretax dollars rather than after-tax dollars," he says. For instance, a $500 car payment generally means you'll need about $714 in earnings. Planning a vacation that runs around $2,000? Lynch says you'll need to make about $3,000 in pretax dollars.

Size up Uncle Sam
Tim Rupert, a professor of accounting at Northeastern University, says if you were unemployed in 2009, it's smart to know these unemployment-related tax tips:
  • The first $2,400 of unemployment compensation received in 2009 is tax free, so don't claim all your unemployment payments as income.
  • Those making less than $75,000 (single) or $150,000 (married filing jointly) can take a credit of up to $400 for an individual and $800 for a working couple in 2009 and 2010.
  • Sales tax paid on an automobile purchase is deductible as an itemized deduction for 2009, subject to phase out for taxpayers with an adjusted income starting at $125,000.
  • Cash-for-clunker payments are not federally taxable.
  • If you received COBRA continuation premiums for involuntary terminations between September 1, 2008, and December 31, 2009, 65% of the subsidy is excluded from your income.
Protect what's yours
Make sure you don't get stuck footing the bill for someone else's good time. Identity theft can drastically lower your credit score, resulting in you paying hundreds more per month in interest. "Avoid giving out your Social Security number if it's not absolutely necessary and shred mail that contains account information or new credit card offers before throwing it in the garbage," Mitic advises. And don't keep your Social Security card (or number) in your purse or wallet, especially if you're traveling. "If you bank online or store personal information on your laptop, it would be wise to change your password at least once a month." Mitic adds, "and try to select passwords that won't be obvious to potential hackers, such as your birthday, anniversary, pet name, etc."

It's a good idea to always use firewall, virus and spyware protection software that you can update regularly to protect your computer from spyware that collects personal information, including passwords and credit card numbers. And Mitic cautions, "Only download free software from sites you know and trust."

Assess your advisor
To make the most of your retirement portfolio or employer's 401(k) plan, Jim Wright, a chief investment officer at Harvest Financial Partners in Paoli, Pennsylvania, suggests having a heart-to-heart with your financial advisor. "Ask how your advisor gets paid as many aren't very transparent in how they charge," Wrights says. No one expects advisors to work for free, but it's helpful to know how they're compensated because it can help you evaluate their recommendations.

Quality not quantity
To balance your investments, Wright recommends focusing on "quality stocks." "Focus on companies with good balance sheets and cash-flow characteristics as they should be able to ride out and take advantage of tough times," says Wright. "Also look for dividend-paying companies with low yields. You can find attractively valued stocks with 3% plus yields."

Additionally, it's wise to rely on time-honored tips like freezing out your credit cards and shopping with a buddy to stick to your debt diet. Your budget will thank you.

Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance journalist specializing in health, celebrity and consumer issues.
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