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If you resolved to better manage your finances this year, don't delay.
"January is the best time to make changes," said certified financial planner Travis Sollinger, director of financial planning at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. "Everyone's excited about their new year's resolutions and ready to start fresh."
The best way to capitalize on that momentum before it dissipates? Take actions now that will pay dividends over the coming year—and beyond.
Here are 10 steps you can take now to set yourself up financially for 2015.
Get clear on your goals and budget accordingly. There's a reason why you've heard this advice so many times: It's a tried-and-true method to keep you on track. Start by writing down short-term, medium-term and long-term financial goals, said certified financial planner Joe Franklin, president of Franklin Wealth Management in Hixson, Tenn. Then he recommends adding a little twist: Write down what your life will look like in the future if you don't take action. Getting a sense of what falling short could mean can provide extra emotional incentive to stick to your goals.
In addition to setting specific, measurable and achievable goals, Franklin recommends creating a household budget. If you don't already have one, free budgeting websites like Mint.com or Budget Simple can help you see where your money is going each month.
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Increase your 401(k) contribution. You can put even more away in your 401(k) this year. The maximum allowable contribution for 2015 is $18,000, up $500 from last year. And if you're 50 or older you can make an additional "catch-up contribution" of $6,000, up from $5,500 in 2013. Even if you're unable to max out your contributions, consider increasing the amount you contribute now—or setting up automatic increases in the future. A growing number of companies now offer auto-escalation options, meaning you can sign up now to have your contributions increased each year automatically (typically by 1 percent until you reach the 10 percent threshold). A 2013 survey by WorldatWork and the American Benefit Institute found more than one-quarter of nearly 500 companies they surveyed offered it and more were considering it.
Increasing your contribution is particularly important if you make it as a set dollar amount versus a percentage. "Make sure you adjust it upward if you have received cost-of-living adjustments or salary increases," said David Richmond, a certified financial planner and president of retirement planning firm Richmond Brothers, based in Jackson, Mich. "If you're not, you'll be saving less as a percentage and may eventually drop below the minimum contribution to receive a match from your company."
Pay off credit card debt. Yes, it's always a good move to pay down credit card debt, but there's an added incentive this year. The Federal Reserve is expected to increase its federal funds rate sometime in 2015, which will translate into higher interest rates on variable credit card debt. The Fed isn't saying exactly when the rate increase will occur; some forecasters expect it in the summer while others expect it late in the third quarter. But whenever it comes, you'll be more prepared for it if you're working to pay down credit card debt now—or if necessary, have transferred remaining balances to a card with a lower fixed interest rate.
Set up automatic deposits to a rainy-day account. According to a study released Wednesday, more than 60 percent of Americans do not have enough funds set aside to deal with even minor calamities. Now is the time to get prepared for emergencies so you'll no longer need to panic—or turn to credit cards—when your car needs new brakes or your refrigerator calls it quits.
Aim to save at least three months' worth of living expenses, Franklin said. Setting up automatic biweekly or monthly transfers to fund the account is the surest way to get there. "And you will likely never miss the money," he added.
Set up additional savings transfers. If your emergency savings is fully funded, or you feel comfortable diverting some funds to other short-term goals while you continue to shore up your rainy day account, consider setting up additional biweekly or monthly transfers.
If you've got a few specific funding goals this year, dividing your savings into different accounts (one for each goal) can help you track progress and prioritize allocations. Knowing exactly what you're saving for can also help motivate you to keep setting money aside. Look for banks with no minimum balance requirement, low (or no) fees, and high interest rates.
Get more bang for your bank. If you've been saving and investing for a while, you may have accumulated several different accounts at different banks or brokerage firms. This month, review all the savings vehicles you have and determine whether you can consolidate or move some of your funds to higher interest-bearing accounts. (Chances are, you can. Some of the most generous online-only accounts, including Barclays and Ally, are now offering a yield of about 1 percent, which is still low, but significantly higher than what most traditional brick-and-mortar banks are now offering.)
Another benefit? "If you don't have a real need to spread out your money into different accounts, it can be easier to manage everything at one bank or firm," Sollinger said. "Figure out which one gives you the best service and consider moving everything to one place."
Review insurance coverage. Take time to look at all your insurance policies and make sure you're covered with short-term and long-term disability insurance, homeowners, auto and health insurance. In addition, make sure you have the right amount of coverage.
For instance, "you may be over-insuring your home or auto by going with a lower deductible," Franklin said. (The average auto policyholder is overpaying by $368 a year, according to a 2013 NerdWallet.com study.) "If you have cash available to meet the higher deductible, you could be saving money each month by going with a higher deductible insurance plan that carries lower monthly premiums."
Double up on mortgage payments. If you have a mortgage, consider setting up biweekly mortgage payments rather than monthly. This will help you "build equity in your home and pay it off faster," Franklin said. "You can shave several years off a 30-year mortgage and save thousands of dollars in interest payments in the process."
Review important documents. Make sure you know where your mortgage, will, and other important documents are, and that they are up to date. Take a look at the beneficiary designations on your 401(k), IRA and life insurance. Franklin said it's not uncommon to meet with a prospective client and see they have their ex-spouse still listed as a primary beneficiary on their 401(k) or IRA. If you have a will, make sure you're still satisfied with your power of attorney for financial and health-care decisions, as well as guardianship for your children. If you don't have a will, take time to get one. You can do it yourself by downloading an online form from a legal site like NOLO.com.
Check your credit report. Under federal law, you're entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) once every 12 months. If you haven't done so in the past year, visit AnnualCreditReport.com to order your free annual credit reports and check for errors. (A 2013 Federal Trade Commission study found that 1 in 4 consumers identified errors on their credit reports that might affect their credit score.) If you find errors, you can dispute the claims in writing to have them corrected. And if you're not satisfied with your score, you can start taking steps to improve it.