Here comes the beginning of a new year -- and often accompanying it is our renewed determination to be better at various important things, such as managing our money. A recent survey sheds light on many Americans' fiscal ambitions -- see how well they represent your own New Year's resolutions with money.
The folks at LendEDU recently surveyed Americans about their financial worries and their goals for the coming year. Here are some key findings:
When asked what their most important financial resolution for 2017 is:
- 53% said saving more money.
- 36% said paying off debt.
- 12% said spending less.
Then they were asked which of seven common goals is their top resolution, with the following results:
- 21%: Make and stick to a budget.
- 19%: Save for a large purchase, such as a down payment or a car.
- 19%: Pay down credit card debt.
- 17%: Put money in an emergency fund.
- 14%: Save for retirement.
- 7%: Pay down student loan debt.
- 3%: Save for college.
These responses are heartening, because they make a lot of sense. For example, while saving for college can be quite important, it should not come before getting out of high-interest rate credit card debt, or saving for retirement. Paying down credit card debt, meanwhile, is generally a more urgent task than paying off student loans, as the interest rates tend to be far higher, costing borrowers more. Above all, having a budget and sticking to it is critical for many of us, as that can make all other financial goals possible. If you're not paying much attention to where your money goes and you don't have a master plan for your finances, it can be hard to have or accumulate the funds needed to reach important goals.
The survey also touched on Americans' financial concerns. Here are the results, when respondents were asked which of five common concerns was their top one:
- 53%: Unexpected expenses.
- 24%: Healthcare costs.
- 10%: Higher interest rates.
- 8%: The labor market.
- 5%: Stock market fluctuations.
These, too, make a lot of sense. Unexpected expenses can derail our financial lives and can even leave us out on the street in some cases. The fact that this is by far the top concern explains why so many are vowing to stock an emergency fund -- and why they want to make and stick to a budget, as that can help them fill that fund.
Healthcare expenses, meanwhile, have long been scary. According to Fortune magazine, they're expected to rise by 6.5% in 2017 (remember that the long-term average annual rate of inflation is only about 3%) -- with consumers and employees continuing to shoulder more and more of this economic burden through rising premiums, increased co-pay sums, and high-deductible plans. According to a PwC report, about a quarter of employers already offer only high-deductible plans, leaving employees on the hook for considerable costs -- and nearly 40% are looking into only offering high-deductible plans in the near future.
Higher interest rates can be worrisome if you have an adjustable-rate mortgage or if you're planning to buy a house or borrow other significant funds in the coming years -- as the higher rates will cost you more. The labor market is a concern for those who are looking for work or are worried about how easy it will be to find a new job. It's fitting that stock market fluctuations are a relatively minor worry -- because savvy investors know that they should expect stock market fluctuations, and just ride them out because they're only investing long-term dollars in stocks.
Actions to take
So if you're vowing to manage your money better in 2017, what are some things you can do? Here are some suggestions:
- Create a budget to follow during the year, spelling out how much you can spend on categories such as entertainment and eating out. Determine how much money will go toward savings or debt reduction and take that money out of every paycheck first.
- Pay down any high-interest rate debt as soon as you can, even if you have to take on a part-time job or rent out a room on Airbnb to do so. Such debt can cripple you financially and keep you from achieving other goals, so take it seriously and extinguish it.
- Establish an emergency fund, or add some dollars to an existing one. Aim to have perhaps six to nine months' worth of living expenses in it, covering costs such as housing, utilities, gas, food, transportation, insurance, and so on. Keep it invested in a safe, easy-to-access place, such as a money market account.
- Contribute to a retirement account at work, such as a 401(k) or 403(b). The contribution limit for 2016 and 2017 is a whopping $18,000 -- plus $6,000 for those 50 or older.
- Contribute to an IRA, either traditional (which reduces your taxes up front) or Roth (which gives you tax-free withdrawals in retirement). The contribution limits for 2016 and 2017 are $5,500, plus an extra $1,000 for those 50 or older.
- See how much money you can save during the year. For example, call a few insurers and shop around for better rates on your home insurance, car insurance, etc. You may be surprised to save a few hundred dollars. Raising deductibles on insurance policies can save you a lot, too.
Good news about your financial New Year's resolutions
So given all that, you've probably learned that your financial worries and ambitions are not so different from other people's. You might reasonably be wondering, though, whether it makes any difference to start the year off with resolutions. Well, according to the LendEDU survey, about 4 in 10 Americans made financial resolutions for 2016 -- and among those people, fully 58% met or exceeded their goal. That's pretty good, especially because there are surely lots of others who made some progress toward their goal. The findings suggest that it's worth thinking about what your most pressing financial needs are and coming up with a plan of action to follow through on during 2017.
Most of us have to rely on ourselves for much of our future financial security -- don't leave your retirement and other goals to chance, hoping that, say, Social Security will be enough. A little action now can make a world of difference.