How to Turn Those Financial Resolutions Into Reality

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Whether it's growing it or saving it, you probably have a money-related resolution for 2015. In fact, Fidelity Investments found nearly one in three people do. As one's finances are inextricably tied with efficacy, freedom and -- often -- pride and self-worth, its understandable that a clear financial bill of health will be a goal for many in the coming year.

Saving Money Is the Most Popular Financial Resolution

GOBankingRates (where I work) released its second annual financial resolutions survey today. Conducted in November, it found that saving money was the most popular financial resolution for 2015, at 37.4 percent of responses. Of the other answer options, "pay down debt" received the next-highest response rate of 24.6 percent; "improve spending habits" came in third at 15.1 percent; "invest" received 11.6 percent of responses; and "get a raise" came in last, at 11.3 percent.

In 2013, the answer options were fairly similar and gleaned almost the same response rates. "Save money" was the most popular goal of 2014 at 39.3 percent; next was "pay down debt" at 29.3 percent; 12 percent answered "invest"; and 10.6 percent said "obtain a raise." Building an emergency fund was included as an answer option instead of improve spending habits, and received 9 percent of responses.

Along those same lines, Fidelity Investments ran its fifth annual financial resolutions survey in October, finding that the same three resolutions were the most popular: 55 percent chose "save money"; 20 percent selected "pay down debt"; and 17 percent chose "spend less."

In a time of prosperity, taking up investing might be a more popular move, as growing wealth can be the focus when basic needs are met; however, that's not the case right now for many. A rebounding economy, job market and high consumer confidence are all good signs, but for many still affected by recession-induced bankruptcy, job loss and maimed credit scores, ensuring that they're never again vulnerable to the market will be a priority.

GOBankingRates' survey found that younger millennials (ages 18 to 24) prioritized saving money at a rate of 1.3 times older millennials (ages 25 to 32). Baby boomers were most concerned with improving spending habits, which makes sense given a fixed-income lifestyle. It seems, however, that across the board we're in a new era of conservatism, in which it's more important to safeguard against a market backlash than play into its promise of potential riches. This is why building ample savings is the most popular financial resolution of 2015.

So as Jan. 1 approaches, what should be your first step to ensure you make good on your financial resolution? Here's how you should get started in the new year, whether your resolution is to save money, pay down debt, improve spending habits, invest or get a raise.

Save Money: Get Critical of Your Deposit Accounts

How much return are you getting on your savings and checking accounts? Are you aware of the current average for these deposit products and whether you're fairing better than the going rate? Between all the various tasks and responsibilities that keep us busy, it can be easy enough to not be critical of your interest rates, especially on deposits as they don't affect your costs depending on the rate; unless you considered lost earnings a cost. However, if saving money is your goal in 2015, you have a good reason to be critical.

Go online and do some research. The national average savings account rate in September was 0.08 percent APY at banks and 0.14 percent APY at credit unions. Ever consider online bank accounts? These gleaned returns that were seven times those of traditional banks. In April, the average checking account rate was 0.17 percent APY, but the highest rate GOBankingRates found was 23 times that, at 4.00 percent APY. That's a lot of fluctuation just looking at the two most flexible deposit products. Considering CDs and money market accounts are two other ways you could increase your returns without opening yourself up to the risk of investing.

Pay Down Debt: Consolidate Your Credit Card Debt

If you have multiple credit cards, it's easier to accidentally carry a balance on a few. Even if you automate your bills, there could always be a glitch where your checking account didn't have enough to pay down all your cards, or a processing error occurred on the issuer's end. If you do have credit card debt, varying balances and interest rates could make it difficult to properly prioritize your debt payment plan.

You can simplify this process by consolidating your debt. Apply for a 0 percent APR introductory offer, move your debt to the new card and focus on paying off the balance in the interest-free promotional period. Plus, consolidating credit cards leaves less room for errors that could put you in this position. Looking into expert tips to pay down debt -- like Dave Ramsey's snowball method or the debt avalanche approach -- could also help you devise an effective game plan.

Improve Spending Habits: Create an Iron-Clad Budget

You've likely heard of the 50-30-20 rule of budgeting, or drafted up a framework for your daily spending at some point -- but are you sticking to it? If saving is a priority in 2015, adjust your budget if possible. Perhaps distort it to 50 percent toward necessities, 20 percent for miscellaneous spending and 30 percent to savings or debt management. No rule is perfect for every lifestyle or income, it is simply a guideline.

Once you've outlined your budget, not just to percentages but actual dollars and cents, make it a bi-weekly ritual to look into your accounts and see how you're fairing. Maybe Monday and Friday are good opportunities to review your weekend and workweek spending, respectively. See how well your monthly budget is enduring week after week and adjust as needed. With enough attention, you'll learn more about your relationship with money and be able to better cut costs that are hindering your efforts to save money.

Invest: Read Up on Investing Basics

There are countless books and websites (DailyFinance has an excellent section on investing basics). Start off with a basic book about concepts: What is the goal of investing? What's the difference between short- and long-term investing? What are some tells for a bull market? When should you buy and sell? Even professional investors can struggle with this last question, but you can't go into the market blind.

Get educated, obtain a framework for which industries perform and the range in which stocks can reasonably fluctuate before setting aside some money to invest. Emphasis is on "some." Invest with what you can part with -- especially if it's short-term investing.

Get a Raise: Take on More Responsibilities at Work

It's standard to expect a raise every year or so with a company, but that expectation might not be met simply because you've been loyal. Commit to pushing yourself in 2015 at the workplace. Offer to take on more tasks and greater responsibilities. Get creative and pitch ideas that will increase profits for your company or streamline processes. It's these assets you can then point to convincingly for a raise. Just folding your arms, tapping your feet and clocking in on time won't get you there -- at least, not as quickly as you'd probably like.

If you fear there aren't opportunities at your workplace to grow into a new role or move up in the ranks, consider looking for a new job. Switching companies can be a shortcut to higher wages, and loyalty should only be prioritized over income if the opportunities where you work match your long-term career goals.

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