The new year brings reflection and reassessment. Although a big list of New Year's resolutions can be difficult to keep, it is worthwhile making and keeping just one solid change each year.
Here are five changes that will move you toward a better future. Had you had acted on even one of these resolutions 10 years ago, you'd probably be in a better place. Make one or all of these moves now, and thank yourself heartily a decade hence!
1. Boost your retirement savings 1 percent a year
Can you picture yourself saving 20 or 30 percent of your salary toward retirement? It sounds radical.
Yet, when you consider our growing lifespans and the potential shrinkage (or even loss) of Social Security in years to come, the only guarantee against old-age poverty might be to save about 30 percent of your earnings and invest it intelligently.
Ten years ago, if you'd started adding a measly 1 percent a year to your retirement savings — just $25 more out of each $2,500 paycheck — today your contribution would be 10 percent higher. If you were saving 10 percent at the beginning of 2007, you'd be at 20 percent now. If you were deducting 15 percent toward retirement, you'd be saving 25 percent by now, solidifying a safe future in retirement or maybe even a chance at early retirement.
Here's how to get started:
Divert money before you see it: Sign up for automatic payroll deductions so the money never reaches your checking account. This will derail any temptation to spend the money. If your employer doesn't offer automatic deductions, your bank will let you automatically divert a set amount into savings monthly. If not, find a new bank.
Automate your increases: Some workplace retirement plans let you choose to automatically bump up your savings each year, which makes the dent in your paycheck scarcely noticeable. If you don't have this feature at work, muster your resolve and do it yourself, raising your retirement contribution by 1 percent each January.
Run the numbers: Say you earn $80,000 a year. At a 10 percent annual savings rate, you put $8,000 before taxes into a 401(k) each year. If a decade ago, you'd bumped your savings rate by a half-percent a year, you'd now be at 15 percent — and putting away $12,000 a year. If you'd pushed your rate up by 1 percent, you'd be saving $16,000 a year now, doubling your contribution in 10 years. Experiment with your own numbers using several online retirement calculators. These are not precision instruments, so try several to get a rough idea.
If you're looking for more ideas, consider the following:
Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson has a simple formula for investing retirement savings.
If you're stressing about having enough to retire, read "6 Ways to Ensure Enough Money For Retirement"
And if you are "Behind on Retirement Savings? Here's What to Do"
2. Drop your defenses
Maybe you needed weapons when you were younger. Life is rough, after all, and many kids get kicked around in families and by peers while they're too young to escape. So, we'll give you that.
But defensiveness – the impulse to meet every challenge with an attack – robs us of the chance to hear information we need. It cheats us of the chance to hear what friends, colleagues and loved ones want from us.
That, in turn, robs us of chances to grow, to succeed, and to make more and deeper connections. In other words, defenses protect us from life. If you'd been listening 10 years ago, your life might be much richer today.
Here's how to do it:
When someone asks you to listen, just do it. No arguing, no counterattacking. You don't have to agree or respond. Just say you'll think it over. You've got your own grievances, no doubt. Save them for later, for when it's your turn to be heard.
RELATED: Here a few other finance New Year's resolutions:
3. Quit smoking
It's not easy to be a smoker today. Scorned and despised, smokers are stuck puffing away in backyards and alleys, in rain and snow, because no one else wants their secondhand smoke.
We know that if quitting was easy, you'd have done it by now. But don't give up trying. Even the most committed addicts can and do drop cigarettes for good. Often it takes many attempts and many failures to succeed at quitting for good.
Smoking harms nearly every organ in your body. It contributes to a catalog of diseases, from atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and blindness to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and diabetes. And of course, it's a prime player in many types of cancer. Quitting is the kindest possible thing you can do for yourself.
If you'd quit smoking in January 2007 and stuck with it, you'd have a smoke-free decade by now, adding years to your life. Your risk of a stroke would be nearly the same as a nonsmoker's. Your chance of getting lung cancer would be nearly half that of a smoker's. The World Health Organization runs down the health benefits of quitting.
If you want to quit, Tobacco-free.org has the tools and help.
4. Ask regularly for raises
Raises are critical for your ability to keep pace in your field and progress financially. Even small increases are better than none as they add up over time and build a larger base from which to negotiate next time.
Consider your request from your manager's point of view; prepare to demonstrate your value to the company, citing numbers and anecdotes. This might require you to put on the steam at work and keep careful track of your results so you're armed with data. The Harvard Business Review has dos and don'ts, including how to gather evidence to support your case, choose the right moment to ask, make the pitch confidently and negotiate.
If your company simply won't part with the money, it might be time to look for a better job.
5. Decide whether to change careers
If you've spent years wondering whether to leave your career or double down and improve it, make a decision. Decisions that drag on sap your energy and make it difficult to commit enthusiastically. If you'd chosen your course in 2007, you'd be established in a new career by now, with training and job hunting behind you.
Here's how to proceed:
Don't just go back to school without researching and shaping a detailed plan. School is expensive and taking on student debt is risky. A certification program or vocational training might pay off better in the long run.
Learn all you can about the field you like, interviewing and job-shadowing people who do the work you want. Here's help with the decision, including learning about employment and earnings after graduation:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics' earnings report gives employment projections and wage data by industry. This tells you if the field you want to enter is in demand and what you're likely to earn.
The BLS' Occupational Outlook Handbook delves even deeper into the likely growth rate of jobs, the number of expected new jobs in a field, the pay and education, and the training required.
How are you planning to change your game in the new year? Share with us in comments or on our Facebook page.