The first of the year always brings with it the promise of new beginnings and the burden of self-improvement. Fueled by the nostalgia of the holidays, armed with a year’s worth of regrets, and unleashed by the ceremonialism and ritual of the calendar’s turn, some 45 percent of Americans decide to make New Year’s resolutions each January, according to research from the University of Scranton.
They are, it seems, taken by the spirit that led Benjamin Franklin to write that one should, “Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbors, and let each New Year find you a better man.”
We all certainly have our fair share of vices, especially as they relate to money. Financially-themed promises for improvement are, unsurprisingly, always among the most popular resolutions made each New Year. Unfortunately, only about 8 percent of resolution-makers are ultimately successful in their endeavors – a statistic that does not fare well for money management improvements.
Neither historically low odds of success nor uncertainty about the best resolutions to make should discourage you from improving your financial habits in 2016, however. We at WalletHub have come up with the following list of the 16 Best Financial Resolutions for 2016, along with some helpful pointers for bringing them to fruition.
1. Get reacquainted with your finances and reassess your priorities:
The first step toward financial improvement is to get the lay of the land. That means carefully reviewing at least one of your major credit reports, in addition to checking the status of all your financial accounts, taking stock of your assets and debts, and evaluating your monthly cash flow.
Going over your finances at the account level will enable you to identify spending trends that need adjustment as well as determine whether a new account would save you money. Not only are your financial needs bound to change from year to year, but there are also a number of interesting market developments that you would do well to take advantage of.
For example, credit card companies are offering extremely lucrative sign-up perks – such as a $625 initial bonus or 0 percent for 21 months – to new customers with above-average credit standing. Online-only bank accounts now offer vastly superior terms to branch-based accounts as well, and you can still save a lot of money by refinancing your mortgage in the current low-rate environment.
2. Sign up for credit monitoring:
It’s quite stressful to be a consumer in this day in age, with our new digital economy spawning unfamiliar financial threats and extending the timeframe for vigilance well beyond traditional banking hours. But new tools have also emerged to ease our transition to this new 24/7 personal finance environment, and credit monitoring is among the most helpful.
Credit monitoring is essentially a surveillance system for your credit report, notifying you anytime key information on your file changes. It therefore increases the odds that you will find out about any administrative errors or suspicious activity before it can cause much damage. The biggest thing to watch out for is the frequency with which the underlying reports that are being monitored get updated.
3. Make a strategic budget:
Only about 40 percent of adults have a budget, according to survey data from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. The fact that we’re on pace to rack up nearly $68.5 billion new credit card debt during 2015 is perhaps a bit less surprising as a result. But those statistics also signal the need for greater urgency on our part.
The $8,071 that the average household with credit card debt is expected to owe when the final data from 2015 comes in is just about $350 below the level that our sister site CardHub previously identified as the tipping point at which existing balances would become unsustainable, defaults would increase and another would recession become more likely. In short, we need to cut back if we want this prolonged economic recovery to continue.
The best way to make a budget is to gather together all of your bills from the past few months and then make a list of your recurring expenses in order of importance – with true necessities like housing, food and health care obviously taking precedence. You can then compare the cost of these expenses against your monthly take-home and eliminate any outlays that would outpace your spending power. After that, just make sure to compare your ensuing monthly spending to your planned budget to make sure you’re abiding by it.
4. Implement the “Island Approach”:
The Island Approach is a personal finance technique based on the theory of compartmentalization that encourages consumers to isolate different financial needs on different financial products – as if they are a chain of related islands. For example, this might entail getting one credit card for everyday purchases that you can pay off in full by the end of the month and another for revolving debt.
Doing so will enable you to get the best possible terms on each card (i.e. a great rewards earning rate on your everyday card and an extended 0 percent term on your debt card) rather than compromising for middling terms on a single card. It will also help you reduce the cost of your debt, since everyday purchases won’t be inflating your average daily balance, and garner valuable perspective on your finances – if you ever incur interest on your everyday card, you’ll know you spent too much that month.
5. Automate as much as possible:
One of the most easily avoidable mistakes that people make in regards to their finances is missing due dates. Often due to pure forgetfulness, tardiness can have serious ramifications on your financial life – such as missed credit card payments fostering credit score damage.
Luckily, avoiding such a negative event is as simple as setting up recurring monthly payments from a checking account. You can do so for your full balance, the minimum amount required or a customized amount, and this applies to a variety of different types of bills – from credit cards to cable. Of course, you’ll have to remember to review your monthly statements in order to avoid being overcharged or missing a sign of fraud, but you’re not on the clock for that like you would be with payment.
6. Build an emergency fund:
Roughly 56 percent of Americans do not have a rainy day fund, according to the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority’s National Financial Capability Study. Like someone without insurance, folks who lack an emergency fund are merely tempting fate and putting themselves at risk of financial catastrophe in the event of prolonged job loss or significant emergency expenses. Building up some monetary reserves should therefore be one of the first orders of business for any financial makeover.
While we recommend ultimately building a fund with about 12-18 months’ take-home income, it’s important to understand that won’t happen overnight. As a result, you needn’t put the rest of your financial life on hold until your emergency fund is complete, but rather chip away at it over time. That is key because we actually recommend creating a 6-month safety net before beginning to even pay down your debts in earnest. Doing so will help ensure that you do not end up right back where you started upon finally reaching debt freedom.
“Just as you might dress for success, spend for failure,” said Scott C. Hammond, a clinical professor of management at Utah State University. “Assume you will go 6 to 12 months every ten years without a pay check. Save accordingly. Live on a budget. Store a little food. Have a solid savings account with liquid assets.”
7. Get out of debt:
We clearly have a problematic, sordid love affair with debt. After curbing our enthusiasm for overleveraging during the struggles of the Great Recession, we have reaffirmed our affinity for it as the economic skies have cleared. We racked up an average of $41.1 billion in new credit card debt – a useful indicator of consumer spending habits – each year from 2011 through 2013, in addition to $57.4 billion in 2014 and a projected $68.5 billion in 2015. Something must change.
Some of the steps mentioned above – including budgeting, automation and the Island Approach – will obviously help in terms of reducing your future reliance on debt, but the problem of what to do about existing balances still remains. The combination of a 0 percent balance transfer credit card and a credit card calculator can help the average household save more than $1,000 in finance charges and get out of debt months sooner than they would otherwise. Taking aim at your highest-interest balances first, while attributing only minimum payments to the rest, is also a strategic way to pay off what you owe at the lowest possible cost in terms of both money and time.
“I think credit card debt is one of the most difficult obstacles that people face,” says Deena B. Katz, associate professor in the Department of Personal Financial Planning at Texas Tech University. “It’s very easy to pull out a card and buy, particularly online or during the holiday season when you want to do special things for your family and it doesn’t need to come out of your pocket today. I believe that if you were buried in debt that a priority resolution would be to pay off your debt as quickly as possible to avoid overpaying for the things you bought on credit.”
8. Improve your credit score:
In case you weren’t aware, the annual difference in cost between good and bad credit is roughly $650 in credit card payments, $1,400 on your auto loan and $2,300 on a mortgage. The savings inherent to good credit extend well beyond that as well, considering that your credit standing impacts your insurance premiums, your ability to buy a car or rent an apartment and the types of jobs you can get – in addition to the loans you’re eligible for.
The best way to improve your credit is to maintain an open credit card account that is in good standing. The card will then report positive information to the major credit bureaus each month, either building out your thin credit profile or helping to devalue mistakes from the past. You don’t have to get into debt to benefit from the credit building capabilities of a credit card, unlike with a loan, and you don’t even need to make purchases with your card. If you don’t have the credit standing necessary to qualify for a normal credit card, you can always place a refundable deposit on a secured credit card and benefit from what’s tantamount to guaranteed approval.
9. Save 16 percent more than you would normally:
Most people are pretty good at wasting money. Many of us don’t have budgets or emergency funds; we rack up expensive credit card debt by the billion; and we prioritize short-term desires over long-term needs. After all, 1 in 4 people nearing retirement age have absolutely no money saved up, according to the Federal Reserve. Well, why don’t we take some steps to change that in 2016?
Retirement obviously isn’t your only savings need. You also need to save for college, weddings, vacations, etc. The best approach to meeting all of these savings needs is to establish separate accounts for each, which you fill with automatic monthly contributions from a bank account. This gives you some useful perspective on each of your goals and enables you to better track progress. Your goal for the year should be to boost the value of each of your accounts by 15 percent. This will obviously take hard work and sacrifice, but figure out how much you’ll need to put away each month in order to meet that goal and get cracking.
10. Give back to charity:
Charitable giving is beneficial in terms of self-perception, tax liability and basic humanity. Perhaps that is why monetary donations totaled more than $358 billion in 2014, according to data from Giving USA and Indiana University. Even though that represents a 60-year record, we should make it our mission to be even more benevolent in 2016, with a special emphasis on donations involving money rather than time.
Why? Well, most people can actually make a bigger impact on charities by spending extra time at work and donating cash than by volunteering, according to WalletHub’s Charity Calculator. More specifically, the average American – who earns $30,176 annually and volunteers one hour per week – would be able to donate more than 8,350 meals to hungry children, provide roughly 2,040 measles vaccinations or give nearly 170 refugees a year of clean water just by working an extra hour instead of volunteering, and then donating the proceeds. Unless you’re the Iron Chef, you’re probably not going to cook over 8,350 meals in 52 hours!
11. Do your taxes early:
Up to 25 percent of Americans wait until April to file their taxes each year, according to the IRS. As with anything else, procrastination breeds mistakes and 2.6 million people made math mistakes on their taxes in 2013 – the most-recent statistics available.
Many people also end up filing late and underpaying, incurring expensive penalties along the way. Starting your tax prep early is the best way to avoid these unfortunate events, not to mention lowering your stress levels. Not only can getting organized take a considerable amount of time, but foresight will also enable you to adjust your withholdings in order to avoid a tax deficiency as well as ensure that you are not over- or underpaying.
12. Make financial literacy a family priority:
While gradually improving in many ways, financial literacy levels in this country are still rather anemic. In fact, the U.S. ranked 14th globally for financial literacy in a 2015 survey by Standard & Poor’s, behind the likes of Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany – just to name a few. What’s more, roughly 41 percent of Americans grade their financial know-how at a C-level or below, according to the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.
This is important not only as it relates to our own finances, but also in terms of how our children will manage money once they mature. Children tend to learn by example, which means yours are likely continuously internalizing how you handle money – information that will serve as the foundation for their future relationships with finance. You therefore need to do your best to improve your own financial performance in order to impart beneficial lessons upon your children.
You should also take steps to give your kids hands-on monetary experience while they’re young. This should begin with games – like Financial Football or Savings Spree – that are designed to teach kids about the value of money and encourage positive habits like saving regularly. Then, as your children age, you can provide them an allowance on a series of financial vehicles – starting with a prepaid card, progressing to cash and a checking account, and ending with a student credit card – while requiring them to pay some of their own discretionary expenses.
This will confer a range of practical benefits, from building account management skills to encouraging budgeting – especially if you actively participate and make the process fun.
“Having an open dialogue about money early and often can lay the groundwork for financial planning,” said Nicholas Prewett, director of financial aid at the University of Missouri. “Individuals who know the value of a dollar and what it takes to earn those dollars are more likely to respect the idea of financial planning. Parents sharing experiences (good or bad) on taking out loans, paying those off and the sacrifices made to get what they want is also important.”
13. Change your email password every 3 months:
Cybercrime has become a major theme for both the modern consumer and corporate America, with a number of notable banks, retailers and entertainment companies getting hacked in recent years. In fact, there were roughly 750 data breaches in 2015 through mid-December, resulting in the exposure of nearly 188 million personal records, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. And while there is only so much you can do if your credit card information get pilfered from a store – all credit cards offer $0 fraud liability guarantees anyway – there are a number of steps that you can take to otherwise make yourself a much harder target for fraudsters.
Perhaps the most important, yet underrated measure you can employ in defense of identity theft is a strong password for your primary email account that you change on a regular basis. You can also add your cell phone number to your account contact information and enable two-factor authentication to take things to the next level. Protecting your email is essential because it is likely what you will use to reset passwords for other accounts, and thus serves as a gateway to your finances.
Robust email security does not, however, represent the extent of the simple changes you can make to improve your anti-identity theft protections. For instance, shredding sensitive financial documents before throwing them away and putting a lock on your mailbox when you’re out of town will shield you from opportunistic criminals targeting your trash or correspondence.
Making a credit card your primary spending vehicle and only signing for debit card purchases (rather than entering your PIN) will confer the most robust fraud liability benefits on you as well. Checking your credit report every few months will also enable you to spot fraudulently opened accounts before they do too much damage.
14. Shoot for top physical and financial fitness:
There is a clear connection between physical, emotional and financial health. Not only are health care expenses the leading cause of bankruptcy in the U.S., but they also comprise a great deal of our annual spending between insurance premiums, out-of-pocket costs, gym memberships and more. Money, work, the economy and family responsibilities – all financial concerns in one way or another – are also the most commonly reported causes of stress, according to the American Psychological Association.
This all serves to underscore the importance of getting our financial houses in order as well as getting regular exercise and engaging in other healthy practices aimed at keeping our health care costs low. It won’t be easy, but this is one resolution that will certainly pay dividends across the scope of your life.
“If you begin to make small healthy changes to your diet, increase exercise in small increments, and practice yoga and meditation, you will feel better,” says Deborah Bauer, the Powell Distinguished Senior Instructor of Finance with the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business. “Feeling better will lead to wiser financial decisions that focus on the long term.”
15. Help other consumers:
We consumers need to stick together. After all, it’s hard enough trying to lead a financially responsible lifestyle in this era of economic turmoil, political obstinacy and unbridled spending without some support. One of the best ways to aid others in the pursuit of financial responsibility is to share your experiences with different financial products, companies and professionals.
Reviews have the power to drastically improve transparency in the personal finance space – as has been the case with the hospitality industry – enabling people to avoid the bad apples, gravitate to the best deals and ultimately save money. That is especially true now that the Securities and Exchange Commission is allowing financial advisors to interact with consumer reviews for the first time. The financial industry is ripe for disruption in this regard, as there are likely more reviews for dog walkers than for the professionals managing our retirement plans.
16. Stress test your finances:
People are generally optimistic in nature, which means it can be difficult to imagine and prepare for worst-case scenarios. Responsible financial management is all about preparation, though, which means it is very important that you put your personal finances through the paces – much like banks and other financial institutions are required to do in order to verify their stability.
For example, you may wish to determine if your finances are equipped to handle job loss or the death of the family’s breadwinner. This clearly isn’t an uplifting exercise, but it will enable you to determine if you have the savings, insurance policies and contingency plans necessary to overcome potential hardship.
“Recessions and economic downturns are no longer global or regional, but they are local to the point of being personal,” Hammond said. “Your work, your career, your employer is booming. You get raises and bonuses. Your neighbor is downsizing and hoping that unemployment is extended. With one or two changes, you could be your neighbor. In fact, you will be your neighbor. Eventually we will all be hit. So get ready to recover in advance.”