GET IN SHAPE (and lose those 10 -- OK, 15 -- pounds of holiday weight). Volunteer. Quit smoking. Promote world peace. They're all admirable New Year's resolutions, to be sure. But will you still be acting on them come February?
If you're looking for easy resolutions to work into your repertoire, consider your finances. With just a few minor tweaks in January, you'll be off and running faster than you can say, "Gym membership? What gym membership?"
Here are five easy financial resolutions to keep up with through 2007...
1. Sock Away $5,000 for Retirement
Current situation: You're making $50,000 a year. Although your company matches 401(k) contributions of up to 5% of your salary, you're only contributing 3%, investing a total of $3,000 for the year (including your employer's match).
Resolution results: Increase your contributions to 5%, earning the full company match. Each month, you'll put away an extra $167 for retirement -- for only $62.50 more of your take-home pay.
Resolving to dramatically increase the balance in your 401(k) is easier than it sounds. (Hint: There's no need to be an investment guru.) Just boost your contributions enough to snag the full company match, says Scott Kays, president of Kays Financial Advisory Corp. in Atlanta. "That's like giving a guaranteed 50% return on your investment," he says. And because 401(k) contributions are taken out of your pay before taxes, you'll save on taxes while simultaneously reducing the hit on your take-home pay. (Use our calculators to see how increased contributions will affect your retirement savings and your paycheck.)
2. Create a $3,000 Emergency Fund
Current situation: If a pipe bursts, you break an arm or encounter another emergency, you put it on plastic - and cross your fingers that you can scrounge up some cash before the bill comes due.
Resolution results: It takes just $250 per month to accumulate $3,000 in savings by the end of the year. (Stash the cash in a high-yield savings account that pays a rate of, say, 5.05%, and you'll have $3,070.42.)
"If you're not prepared, something as small as a water heater going out can start a downward spiral into debt," says Charles Buck, president of Buck Financial Advisors in Woodbury, Minn. "Life happens. You have got to have an emergency fund." Ideally, you should save at least three months' worth of expenses in an easy-to-access, high-yield savings account. Six months' worth is better. (Below is a list of no-fee accounts yielding 4.5% or more.) It's a daunting amount to save, Buck acknowledges, but starting small is OK. "Just having one month's expenses saved is a start," he says. Put aside whatever you can each month -- and set up an automatic transfer within your accounts to make sure you really do it.
No fees or service charges.
No fees or service charges. You'll also get an ATM card.
No fees or service charges when you open the account in conjunction with an EZ Checking account.
No fees or service charges. You'll also get free checks and an ATM card.
No fees or service charges.
* Rates and details from individual banks
3. Slash Energy Bills by More Than 20%
Current situation: The average U.S. household will pay about $5,000 to power its homes and vehicles in 2006, according to the Alliance to Save Energy.
Resolution results: By sealing up air leaks ($500), making the most of your thermostat ($375) and switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs ($300), you save $1,150.
In the realm of New Year's resolutions, cutting back your energy consumption is far easier than counting calories, says Rozanne Weissman, spokeswoman for the Alliance to Save Energy. "An energy diet is a no-regrets diet," she says -- you don't need extreme behavioral changes (like, say, taking cold showers in the winter) to make a big difference on your bill. Try these simple changes:
Heating (accounts for about 50% of annual costs): Start by dialing back your thermostat, says Harvey Sachs, spokesman for the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Setting it just one degree cooler can save you 1% to 2% on your monthly heating bill. "Imagine if you set it five degrees colder," he says. Save even more by actually programming the thermostat to work less hard while you're asleep, at work or otherwise out of the house (and cut your bill by another 5%).
Another simple cost-saving measure is to seal up air leaks around windows, doorframes and other areas. "Most people have enough leaks in their home that, when you combine them, it's like always having a window open," says Maria Vargas, spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program. Sealing those leaks will improve your home's energy efficiency by about 20%. (Here are more tips on winterizing your home.)
Lighting (about 20% of annual costs): Swap your regular light bulbs for energy-efficient compact fluorescents, advises Weissman. These bulbs give off the same amount of light as traditional ones, but use about one-third as much energy. Although the bulbs are initially more costly ($10 for a pack of six at Home Depot), they last much longer -- about 10 years.
4. Wipe Out $11,000 of Credit-Card Debt
Current situation: You currently have $10,000 in debt on a Discover Platinum card carrying a 15.99% interest rate. You're not putting anymore purchases on the card, and are paying the minimum ($150) each month. Given these circumstances, your balance will be $9,784 by Dec. 31, 2007. It will take you nearly 14 years to eliminate the debt, and you'll pay $15,040 in interest.
Resolution results: By paying just $10 more than your minimum payment, and talking your lender into a lower, 10.99% rate, your year-end balance will be $9,136 - 7% lower. But the real benefits are long term. You'll pay off your debt in eight years, and pay just $4,955 in interest. That's a savings of 67%.
You can make a significant dent in even the heftiest credit-card balance this year with surprisingly little effort, says Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, a credit card information web site. To make this work, two changes are needed:
1) Increase your payments. "Paying just $5 to $10 more than your minimum monthly credit-card payment can shave hundreds off your balance," says Arnold. Have a little more than that to put toward your payment? Expect even bigger savings over the life of your debt. (Use our calculator to see just how much.)
2) Lower your interest rate. Call up your lenders and ask for a better rate, Arnold suggests. "They are open to negotiation," he says. This simple but effective tactic works for 56% of consumers, according to a 2002 study by the Public Interest Research Groups, a network of state-based consumer advocacy organizations. Have on hand your credit score, and a few balance-transfer offers from other lenders. "Be polite and persuasive, and sound like an educated consumer," he says.
While you're at it, make another debt-smart resolution: to be a good borrower. Polishing your credit score can help you earn even better interest rates. Scores range from 300 to 850; the higher the better, and the lower the rates your lender will offer. (Here is more on credit scores, plus tips to boost yours.)
5. Squeeze $100 Out of Monthly Budget
Current situation: You're paying full price for most purchases, from homeowners insurance to your cellphone bill.
Resolution results: You've saved 8% on auto insurance (thanks to Alpha Phi Omega), 12% on your Dell computer purchase (University of Louisiana-Lafayette), among other cost cutters.
No need to give up those $4 grande mochas to eke a little more out of your monthly budget (though that would certainly help). Check in with all the organizations you're affiliated with, from your employer and alma mater to professional groups, credit-card issuers and even retailer loyalty cards. Because these groups bring big business to other companies, they often get - and pass along to you - the discounts they receive, says Bob Nelson, author of "1,001 Ways to Reward Employees."
Some discounts can help with your regular bills. Employees at BNSF Railways, for example, get a 17% discount on their monthly Verizon Wireless bill, and 25% off the purchase price of phones and accessories. Hunter College employees, in New York, avoid ATM fees through participation in the "Citibank at Work" program. Other deals are focused on one-time events or splurges: American Express Gold Card members get free roadside assistance, for example, while consumers in the free Duane Reade drugstore rewards program get 40% off tickets to select Broadway musicals.
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