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Make realistic financial goals your first New Year's resolution for 2020

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Here are realistic financial goals you can take on in 2020

This year has been one of superlatives: The longest bull market in history. Historically low unemployment. S&P 500 returns approaching 30%.

Millions of Americans had a great financial year.

If you'd like 2020 to be another of positive financial steps, don't just rely on the economy and luck. Instead, craft realistic resolutions that can help motivate and propel you toward even greater financial highs.

Know where you stand

How did you do financially in 2019? Knowing where you already stand — what progress you made, and what remains to be done — is essential to making even better progress for 2020. It also helps you set a benchmark for your New Year's resolutions.

So, before you get started on goals, check out your progress in 2019, and then aim higher: If you saved 10% of your income this year, congrats! Shoot for at least 1% to 2% more in 2020.

If you're already investing, then it's time to explore asset classes or investing techniques you're not already using.
Janet Alvarez
consumer advocate and financial journalist

If you paid off some debt, good job! It shows what you're capable of achieving, and allows you to set your sights higher in the year to come.

Choose goals that seek to exceed the progress you made this year; otherwise, you run the risk of not growing your finances as quickly as you might.

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Cover all your bases

You can't climb the highest peaks without first ensuring you've got solid footing, so cover all your financial bases. Sadly, many Americans don't even have $1,000 to pay an unexpected expense — and in many cases, unexpected emergencies cost well beyond that.

If you don't have an emergency fund, today is the absolute best time to start creating it. This should be your No. 1, top resolution for 2020, because an emergency fund is indispensable. It protects you in the face of unexpected events such as job loss, car breakdowns or hospitalization.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / Getty Images

You should have a minimum of at least three months' worth of basic expenses saved in an easy-to-access account for this purpose. (For example, if your basic monthly expenses are about $3,000, you should aim to have at least $9,000 saved for an emergency. )

The key is to start saving whatever you can, and to save constantly — so don't be afraid of contributing small amounts.

Still, that's easier said than done, so consider a resolution to automate your savings, whenever possible. Most major banks allow you to set auto-transfer options from your checking into savings accounts. Apps such as Digit and Acorns help you manage savings automatically. Whatever method you choose, ensure you're paying yourself first, by making saving for emergencies your top priority.

If you're automating your savings, don't stop there — apply the concept of automation to your 401(k) retirement fund, by signing up for auto-increases to boost your monthly contributions every time you get a raise. Or, consider tools such as Blooom, or robo-advisors such as Betterment to apply an extra level of sophistication to your 401(k) plan contributions.

More from Invest in You:
Last-minute financial moves for 2019
How to get your finances in order for the new year
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And, automation also applies to your overall budget. So, for this resolution, we recommend downloading a budgeting app, such as Mint or YouNeedaBudget, to not only help you build a spending plan, but to also keep you compliant.

Creating a realistic budget based on your actual income and verified expenses is easier with the use of tools, because they help you track your spending habits more closely, and remove the guesswork.

Lastly, don't forget to include two very important spending categories: debt payments and what you save, since these two figures influence your budget and economic outlook in a significant way.

Kick it up a notch

If you've already got an employer-sponsored retirement account that you're managing well, we recommend you take the next step toward investing independently — and that means educating yourself. This resolution calls for you to choose an investing book, podcast or online resource to help you start learning the basics of investing.

The MoneyTree Investing Podcast, MorningBrew newsletter, the educational websites of big financial services companies or classic investing books such as "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" or "Think & Grow Rich" are all decent places to start. The key is to choose something you'll enjoy, which will help you learn the basics and ease into investing.

If you're already investing, then it's time to explore asset classes or investing techniques you're not already using. Fidelity Investments, for example, has an excellent primer on options trading.

The new year is fast approaching. May it be a fruitful one, full of new opportunities and resolutions you've fulfilled.

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CHECK OUT: Americans are saving at the highest rate in years — here's how you can save more money, too via Grow with Acorns+CNBC.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.