Swap Overwhelming Financial Resolutions for a Smart Money To-Do List

Woman at a laptopA recent online poll by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling found that decreasing debt was the No. 1 New Year's resolution for 2011, with credit score rehab, boosting savings and reducing dependence on credit cards running a distant second, third and fourth. However, at least one money expert, Reuters' Linda Stern, suggests that we ditch the whole concept of these financial resolutions in favor of a flat-out personal finance to-do list. Because a simple task list is less time-consuming and more concrete, Stern says it's more likely to get accomplished than sweeping financial resolutions.

And I have to agree with her; last year, inspired by The New York Times "Your Money" columnist Ron Lieber, I took a whole day off work as a Fiscal Health Day. This was a dedicated day when I devoted a full set of business hours to taking care of those oh-so-easy-to-put-off tasks like calling my insurance agent to review my coverage, reviewing my checking account statements to find those recurring subscription fees I no longer use, and shopping my savings account interest rate against others on the market.This wasn't a New Year's Resolution, per se, but because it was a finite list of things I could check right off when complete, I was able to carve out a finite time for handling them, with the result that I got them all done, in a day - and had none of the guilt of unfulfilled resolutions. To be fair, I also had some larger, more long-term financial resolutions that took me all year to get done, but the confidence and momentum I built (and the coin I saved) during my Fiscal Health Day undoubtedly helped with them, too.

If you decide to go the alternative resolution route and set up a list of financial to-do's, instead of, or in addition to, those larger money missions like killing your debt, here are some items that Stern and Lieber suggest you consider including on your list:

Write a financial mission statement. Stern says that creating a written statement explaining all the reasons why you are saving, investing and giving money to charity will help you chart a clear course and make decisions aligned with your values throughout the rest of the year.

Shop your insurance. Stern also recommends that consumers shop for new insurance policies on their cars and homes every year, switching companies if it's possible to save money and the cheaper insurance carrier has strong financial and consumer ratings (she suggests checking the new company's rating on JDPowers.com and AMBest.com before changing providers).

List credit card debts. Okay, so here Stern fudges a bit on the 'task list vs. resolution' thing, but it's good advice nonetheless. List and rank your credit card accounts in order of decreasing interest rates. That will empower you to wisely prioritize the order in which you pay them off, as the year goes on (i.e., highest interest rate first, and so forth).

Look at your credit reports. The goal is to ensure there are no errors cropping up which might foul up your score when you try to qualify for a credit card or home loan. Stern advises going to AnnualCreditReport.com to pull your report from one bureau in February, one in June and one in October, to stay on top of your report over time, without paying a cent.

Reassess your credit cards. Both Stern and Lieber advise taking another look at your credit cards, comparing them to other cards on the market and making sure that you have the lowest rates or the best rewards you can qualify for -- sites like CreditCards.com make comparing cards and their terms easy-peasy.

Put one investment on auto-pilot. Start a new savings account or mutual fund and auto-deposit $50 or $100 per month, Stern says. You'll not even notice the cash on a monthly basis, and you'll create a new cash cushion or college savings fund, effortlessly.

Rebalance your investments. Take a look at how your traded asset accounts have been doing and rejigger. Stern points out that you might want to buy or sell some things, or you might simply want to take a new direction going forward, in terms of asset allocation for 2011.

Learn one new thing about managing your money. This is my favorite because, well, you know the old saying: Knowledge is power! Stern recommends that you take a look at what you already know about personal finance, and decide what subject to investigate and learn about based on what you don't know. If you're a stock maven, learn about online bill payment services, Stern suggests; if you're all over bill pay, get a better understanding of mutual funds. But learn something new, and keep educating yourself all year long.

My final two cents: Your first to-do should be to pencil in a day or even several half-days to sit in a quiet place and do nothing but bust out these to-do's. It starts like this: Just pick a date.
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