Nearly three-quarters of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck and don't have emergency savings, according to a bankrate.com survey last year.
But you don't have to become part of that statistic. If you want to stay on top of your finances this year, make a commitment to review your budget regularly and take an honest look at your financial standing -- otherwise you could dig yourself deep into financial problems that may not be easy to recover from.
Here are seven warning signs it's time for a financial check-up:
1. You keep missing bill due dates. Late payment fees for services like Internet or cable can seriously add up, and you could get in even deeper financial trouble if you don't pay off your credit card bill on time and in full each month. If you're consistently missing due dates on those credit card bills, utilities or even housing payments, it's time to restructure your budget. Take a closer look at your cash flow, and make sure you are accounting for all forms of revenue and expenses in your budget.
2. You're opening more lines of credit. If you're having a hard time breaking your credit card spending habit or find yourself depending on credit, it's time to focus on your financial health. Opening more lines of credit when you are already carrying a heavy debt load can hurt your credit score. If you find yourself exploring more credit offers or loan options just to get by, stop and re-evaluate your finances.
3. You're making credit card payments ... with other credit cards. While making credit card payments with another card is a convenient payment option, you will set yourself back financially by doing so. Paying off one debt by accumulating more debt -- even if it's lower-interest debt -- will keep you stuck in a vicious debt cycle. Instead, look for opportunities to cut your expenses and earn more money to help pay down your credit card debt.
4. You're not contributing to a savings account each month. Saving at least 10 percent of your monthly income is a healthy goal. However, that's not always possible when you haven't taken the reins on your cash flow or don't have an accurate idea of your monthly expenses. When there's just no room to save money each month, it may be time to review your budget and set some new goals. Even a modest contribution toward a savings account each month will help you develop the self-discipline to save on a regular basis.
5. You have no idea the state of your credit. Even if you don't plan on buying a home or car in the near future, you will want to make sure you have an accurate idea of your creditworthiness. Use annualcreditreport.com to order a free copy of your credit report you are entitled to at least once a year. Checking your credit report can also make it easier to catch signs of identity theft.
6. You have nothing in reserves. If you've been dipping into your savings regularly or have just stopped contributing to your savings and investment accounts, it's time to take a closer look at your spending habits and determine whether you are working with a realistic budget. Having no reserves could set you up for financial ruin in the event of a medical emergency, job loss or other financial crisis.
7. You're paying bills with your 401(k). If you find yourself dipping into your 401(k) just to take care of monthly expenses, it's like you're robbing from your future self -- plus you'll probably have to pay taxes and fees on early withdrawals. Instead of taking money from your retirement account, consider supplementing your income with a second job or scaling back expenses to better manage your money.
Plenty of Americans live beyond their means but don percentt even realize it. A 2012 Country Financial survey found that more than one-half of respondents (52 percent) said their monthly spending exceeded their income at least a few months a year. Yet only 9 percent of respondents said their lifestyle was more than they could afford. Of the 52 percent who routinely overspend, 36 percent finance the shortfall by dipping into savings; 22 percent use credit cards.
Blowing your entire paycheck (and then some) each month isn percent an ingredient in the recipe for financial success. Neither is draining your savings or running up card balances. To rein in spending, start by tracking where the money goes every month. Try to zero in on nonessential areas where you can cut back. Then create a realistic budget that ensures you have enough to pay the bills as well as enough for contributions to such things as a retirement account and a rainy-day fund. Our household budget worksheet or an online budgeting site can help.
If you're like most folks, your savings habits could use some improvement. The personal savings rate in the U.S. is just 4.9 percent of disposable income, down from a high of 14.6 percent in 1975. Only about one-half of Americans (54 percent) say they have a savings plan in place to meet specific goals, according to a 2013 survey commissioned by America Saves, a group that advocates for better saving habits.
Saving needs to be a priority in order to build wealth. Begin with an emergency fund that can be tapped in the event of an illness, job loss or other unexpected calamity. A 2012 survey by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority found that 56 percent of individuals say they have not set aside even three months' worth of income to handle financial emergencies. Once your emergency fund is well under way, you can divert small amounts toward other goals, such as buying a home or paying for college. These six strategies can help you save more, no matter your income.
Americans have $846.9 billion in credit card debt alone. That's $7,050 per household, according to NerdWallet.com, a Web site that analyzes financial products and data. If you're only making minimum monthly payments on $7,050, it'll take 28 years and cost you $10,663 in interest before you're debt-free, assuming a 15 percent interest rate. And that only holds true if you don't make any additional charges.
Some debts can lead to financial success -- a mortgage to purchase real estate, a credit line to start a business or a student loan to fund a college education -- but a high-interest credit card balance usually doesn't. Pay down credit cards with the steepest rates as quickly as possible. Putting $250 a month toward that same $7,050 debt will retire it in three years and save you about $9,000 in interest versus making minimum payments. See Escape the Debt Trap for more strategies to chip away at what you owe.
Late fees, banking fees, credit-card fees -- the amounts might seem insignificant when taken individually. After all, an overdue library book or Redbox DVD might only run you a dollar. But if you're regularly paying penalties and fees, these charges can quickly eat a hole in your budget. Consider this: The average bank overdraft fee is $32.20, according to Bankrate.com, and the average charge for going outside your ATM network is $4.13. Late-payment penalties for credit cards can climb as high as $35.
So how do you avoid pesky fees? Read the fine print so you understand fee rules, and stay organized so you avoid breaching those rules. Here are 33 common fees you can avoid -- or at least reduce -- with just a bit of effort. With the extra cash, you can pay down debt or boost your savings.
Would you ignore a hundred-dollar bill on the sidewalk? Of course not. You'd bend over and pick it up. So why are you passing up other opportunities to get free money? If your employer matches employee contributions to a 401(k) but you're not participating in the retirement plan, then you're passing up free money. If you let rewards points from loyalty programs or credit cards expire, then you're passing up free money. If you claim the standard deduction on your tax return when you qualify for itemized deductions that could lower your tax bill even more, then you're passing up free money.
Believe it or not, there might even be free money out there that you forgot about -- or never knew of in the first place. There are more than $41 billion worth of unclaimed assets ranging from old tax refunds and paychecks to forgotten stocks and certificates of deposit being held by state agencies, according to the National Association of Unclaimed Property Administrators. Do a search on MissingMoney.com to find out if there are unclaimed assets that belong to you.
It's easy to focus on the present -- the bills you have to pay, the things you want to buy -- and assume you'll have time in the future to start saving for retirement. But the longer you wait, the tougher it will be to amass a sufficiently large nest egg. For example, if you wait until you are 35 to start saving for retirement, you'll have to set aside $671 a month to reach $1 million by age 65 (assuming an 8 percent annual return). But if you start at age 25, you'll need to save just $286 a month to hit $1 million by the time you're 65.
Even if you're creeping closer to retirement, it's not too late to start putting away money. In fact, Uncle Sam makes it easier for procrastinators to catch up on retirement savings. If you're 50 or over, you can contribute up to $23,000 annually to a 401(k) (versus $17,500 for those younger than 50). The contribution limit for older savers to traditional and Roth IRAs is $6,500 a year (versus $5,500 for everyone else). Use our Retirement Savings Calculator to figure out how much you need to save.
Does this sound like your investing strategy? You hear about a stock that is soaring, and you want to get in on the action, so you impulsively buy. But soon after, the stock starts tanking. You can't bear the pain of watching your shares decline further in value, so you immediately sell at a loss. As a result, you're wasting money rather than building wealth.
Unfortunately, many investors buy high and sell low because they follow the herd blindly into the latest hot stock. You can resist the urge to go with the crowd if you adhere to smart investing techniques. One such technique is dollar-cost averaging, a simple system of investing at regular intervals no matter what the market is doing. While it doesn't guarantee success, it does eliminate the likelihood that you're always buying at the top -- plus, it takes the guesswork and emotion out of investing. See the 7 Deadly Sins of Investing to learn how to overcome common missteps.
New stuff is nice, but it's often not the best investment. Take cars. Estimates vary, but some experts say a new vehicle loses 30 percent of its value within the first two years -- including an immediate drop as soon as you drive off the dealer's lot. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average vehicle is worth 44 percent less after five years.
If you're not comfortable buying something that someone else has owned, get over your hang-up because you're missing a big money-saving opportunity. Many pre-owned items can cost up to 50 percent to 75 percent less than the price you'd pay if you purchased them new. From designer jeans to college textbooks, here are 11 things that you should consider buying used because you often can find them in good or almost-new condition at a fraction of the price.
An early retirement is a dream for many, but calling it quits if you're too young has several potential drawbacks. For starters, you could incur a 10 percent early-withdrawal penalty if you tap certain retirement accounts, including 401(k)s and IRAs, before age 59½. (There are exceptions.) You can claim Social Security as early as age 62, but your benefit will be reduced by as much as 30 percent from what it would be if you wait until your full retirement age, which falls between 66 and 67 depending on your year of birth.
Health care is another big issue. You must be 65 to qualify for Medicare. In the meantime, without access to an employer-sponsored plan, you might have to pay a lot more out of pocket for individual coverage until you're eligible for Medicare.
And speaking of health, the longer you live in retirement, the more likely you are to outlive your nest egg. Let's say you make it to the age of 90. A $1 million portfolio evenly split between stocks, bonds and cash has a 92 percent likelihood of lasting until you turn 90 if you retire at 65, according to Vanguard. But retire at age 55 and the likelihood drops to 66 percent. Use our Retirement Savings Calculator to determine when you can really afford to retire.
This might be the single biggest obstacle on your path to riches. If you're not investing in continuing education, training and personal development, you're limiting your ability to make more money in the future. "Your own earning power -- rooted in your education and job skills -- is the most valuable asset you'll ever own, and it can't be wiped out in a market crash," writes Kiplinger's Personal Finance Editor in Chief Knight Kiplinger in 8 Keys to Financial Security.