Four ways to take your New Year's resolutions from daydream to reality

  • Goals. Everyone’s got them at this time of year.
  • The new year is when you can shake off the burden of the financial things that went wrong this past year. You can change nearly anything if you take these easy steps, starting by writing that bracing list.

Every financial New Year's resolution is the same: Manage your money better.

Yet different situations or goals call for different tweaks.

Are you a millennial paying off college loans and making it work on an entry-level salary? Are you a Gen Xer wondering how to save for retirement as well as your kids' college tuition?

Here's how to take your financial goal, whatever it is, and turn it into reality.

Break it down

Don't get overwhelmed by the size of the goal. The idea of saving $200,000 for college sounds terrifying.

Instead, break it down into small steps, says Amanda Priebe, a certified financial planner at PNC Wealth Management.

Write a list of tasks. Talk with the financial aid office of schools your children are considering. Perhaps visit your own alma mater for info on tuition assistance.

"There are professionals who specialize in counseling around FAFSA [the federal form used for applying for financial aid], and most financial planners are versed in education planning," Priebe said.

A planner or other professional can help your family identify how much you can comfortably contribute – not to mention helping you understand how borrowing or changing your cash flow fits with your own retirement planning.

Similarly, the snowball method lets you attack debts, one at a time. Concentrating on just one debt lets you focus on something that is much more attainable.

Put some brakes on

Ever heard of zero dollar days? These are days when you don't spend a single dollar, digital or otherwise, says Priya Malani, a founding partner at financial planning firm Stash Wealth.

"The goal is to bring awareness to your spending because most of us incur expenses without really thinking about it," Malani said.

Before setting off on a zero dollar day, mentally walk yourself through a typical day. Do you stop for coffee and a breakfast sandwich? Order out lunch? Go out for drinks after work? Each time you reach for your wallet during the day means a mini plan you have to make so you don't experience this as a day of miserable deprivation.

If there's free coffee in the office, that can take care of your coffee shop stop. Make a plan for lunch. Decide you'll take a walk after work or hang out in a bookstore.

Father teaching daughter counting allowance money in living room
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Doing this too frequently can send a person into a binge/purge cycle. The point is not to curtail overall spending, but to be more mindful about how you treat money.

Get your paperwork in order

Whether you want to boost your retirement savings or be smarter about taxes, it all starts with paperwork.

Gather everything you have, whether it's statements about your IRA or 401(k), or receipts having to do with taxes.

Look at your retirement contribution levels for the previous year and the end result. If you'd like to save more, consider turning up the amount by a percentage or two. If you got a raise, you can contribute a bit more and not even feel it.

You have a good chance of being in a new tax bracket from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Priebe suggests getting your most recent paystub and anything that would show long-term and short-term gains. Ask an accountant to do a forecast to find out if you'll owe tax. If you do this relatively soon, you'll have time to develop a strategy to pay the tax bill.

The mind-body-money connection

Lots of people have goals to lose weight or work out more, and that's more related to your finances than you might think.

"As you get older, life can take a toll on you, and you forget to put yourself first," said Zaneilia Harris, a CFP and president of Harris and Harris Wealth Management. This is especially true for women. Your health and your wealth are intertwined, and losing one can mean losing the other.

Revisit your exercise habits, become food conscious, monitor your health numbers and seek expertise from your doctors, Harris says.

Malani admits it might be a little woo-woo, but millennials in particular might find it relatable to consciously make only positive statements about their money situation, such as "Saving is fun and easy for me," "Paying down debt will give me a solid financial foundation" or "I'm going to cook at home this month so I can save up for a vacation."

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