Tonight, you'll ring in the new year, and the clock will start ticking to get going on all the resolutions you've made for 2011. As tough as it can be to follow through on promises to improve yourself and your finances, breaking it down into manageable steps can mean the difference between wishing for change and actually getting it done.

Money matters
It's never easy to get your finances into shape, but it's also never been more important than it is now. Even though the economy has nominally started to recover, millions of ordinary Americans are still struggling to make ends meet. When money's tight, it forces you to make choices you'd prefer not to have to make, as you try to juggle the competing demands on your money that range from immediate needs like paying bills to long-range goals like buying a home or saving for retirement.

To make it easier to mark that financial resolution off your New Year's list, here's a simple three-step plan for you to follow. You'll need some resolve in order to see it through to the end, but once you get started, you might be surprised at how easy it is to keep going and build on it over the long run.

Step 1: Find the right place to put your savings
Many people never get around to investing because they think they don't have enough money to invest. It's true that you'll often see financial advisors throwing around five-figure sums as if cash grew on trees, oblivious to the idea that you might struggle to save even $100 per month. The small sums that most people can afford aren't profitable for those advisors, so the advice they give is rarely tailored to them.

But lately, competition among financial institutions has given small investors an edge. Many discount brokers have low minimum investment requirements, which they may be willing to waive if you set up regular automatic investments from a bank account.

Step 2: Make smart investing simple
Even those investors who manage to open a brokerage account often end up intimidated by the investing process. The idea of picking from thousands of different stocks and mutual funds is enough to paralyze even fairly experienced investors, and separating the best stocks from the rest of the pack may seem completely undoable.

But at its most basic level, all you really need to create an adequate investing portfolio is a pair of investments: one that gives you exposure to stocks and another that offers fixed-income securities. And recently, several discount brokers have made arrangements with providers of exchange-traded funds that let accountholders make commission-free purchases of select ETFs.

For instance, here are some of the commission-free ETFs you could use to create a simple starter portfolio, broken down by which broker you choose.

  • With Fidelity, a combination of iShares S&P 500 Index (NYSE: IVV) and iShares Barclays Aggregate Bond (NYSE: AGG) lets you tailor a stock and bond portfolio in whatever proportion is appropriate for your risk tolerance.
  • Schwab also has free ETFs; Schwab U.S. Broad Market (NYSE: SCHB) and Schwab Intermediate U.S. Treasury (NYSE: SCHR) offer a similar mix of stocks and bonds.
  • With Vanguard's offerings, you could choose from Vanguard Total Stock Market ETF (NYSE: VTI) and Vanguard Total Bond Market ETF (NYSE: BND) to get broad domestic investment coverage.
  • TD AMERITRADE lets you mix and match more than 100 ETFs from different providers, ranging from the iShares and Vanguard ETFs mentioned above to more specialized funds such as the junk bond tracking SPDR Barclays High Yield Bond (NYSE: JNK) and PowerShares DB Commodity Index Tracking Fund (NYSE: DBC).

Moreover, each of these brokers has other choices for you to consider, giving you room to build a more sophisticated asset allocation strategy as your investing knowledge grows.

Step 3: Keep on track
Once you do all the work to get going with your investments, keeping at it might seem easy by comparison. Even though it takes discipline, adding money slowly but steadily to your brokerage account over time will get you that much closer to your financial goals.

So if you've been slow to get started with investing, make opening a brokerage account your first resolution for 2011. Opening an account is easy, and nothing's more satisfying than getting to cross something off your list in the first days after the new year begins.

Getting on the road to a rich retirement is easier than you think. Learn some helpful tips on getting your finances in better shape by clicking here and reading the Fool's new special report, "The 7 Secrets to Salvage Your Retirement Today."

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger is always looking to make investing simpler. He owns shares of iShares S&P 500, Vanguard Total Stock, and Vanguard Total Bond ETFs. Schwab is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy can lead with either foot.