Bad money habits are more closely rooted in laziness than a lack of ability. But even those who are "smart" with their money have their lazier tendencies -- they tend to focus on the things that offer the best ratio of effort to reward.
With that in mind, I've created a list of four high-value improvements you could make in less than 60 minutes -- things that take minimal time and effort, and generate big personal finance wins. Here they are.
1. Reassess automatic spending
Assemble your statements from everything from credit and debit cards to your cable and phone bills. Now look through them, item by item.
If you're like most people, you're probably throwing money away on something you rarely use. Believe it or not, Internet giant AOL still makes roughly one-third of its income from its membership division, which includes its dial-up subscribers. Yes, dial-up -- a product that hasn't been relevant for years. AOL's average subscriber has been around for 14 years, so there's good reason to believe that lack of awareness is what's driving this revenue!
While automation ensures you won't make a late payment, it also makes it easier to buy things you wouldn't buy if you had to put in effort to make the purchase. Turn off automated payments, if only for one month this year, to reassess if what you buy is really worth the money spent. Even go one step deeper and compare costs for expenses like cable, cell phone plans, and other routine expenses. You'll be surprised at what you can save.
Estimated time: 15 minutes.
2. Start tracking where your money goes
Thanks to a rise in free online tools, it's almost as easy to track your money as it is to spend it. Sites like Mint.com allow you to plug into your credit or debit card and start tracking or itemizing everything you ever buy.
While tracking your money won't double your bank balance overnight, it tends to have a positive effect: The more you're aware you are of where your money is going, the less likely you are to spend it.
Estimated time: 10 minutes, at the very worst. The Internet is an amazing thing.
3. Check your credit report
Studies by the Federal Trade Commission suggest that one in four credit reports have errors. Unfortunately, most go unnoticed. Some aren't discovered until the damage is done -- an unexpected denial for anything from a car loan to a credit card.
Somewhere out there, you could find someone paying 6% on their mortgage when he or she should be paying something more like 4%, all because of an error on their credit report. It's unfortunate, but it happens.
Being proactive takes the headache out of a last-minute effort to fix errors on your credit report. The U.S. government requires credit bureaus to provide a free report once per year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Take a look.
Estimated time: 20 minutes. Any inaccuracies can be disputed through an online form.
4. Up your retirement contribution
It doesn't seem very glamorous, but a marginal improvement in your retirement savings can go a long way to shoring up your savings. An analysis by Fidelity revealed that a 25-year-old saver could generate $1,000 in monthly retirement income by socking away just $160 per month, or just under 5% of the median income for a person 25 or older.
It may seem trivial to increase your contribution from 5% to 6%, but it's not just about a percentage point. It's a 20% increase in your 401(k) savings, effective immediately. Over time, the additional savings could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars at retirement -- all for a largely unnoticeable increase in your savings rate.
Estimated time: 15 minutes, but even less if you manage your 401(k) online.