Many Americans resolved to make 2019 the year they finally get control of their finances, but as with most new year's resolutions: Easier said than done. But you can boost your chance of successby developing and implementing a clear plan for accomplishing your money goals.
Below, I'll discuss the three top financial resolutions according to a recent survey by Fidelity, and give you practical advice on how to make these goals your reality. I'll also explain some steps to overcome these pressing financial concerns, including rising healthcare costs and surprise expenses.
1. Spend less and save more
Saving more and spending less seem like two separate goals, but they're really two sides of the same coin. If your goal is to save more -- whether for retirement, for your emergency fund or for a large purchase -- you'll need to reduce your spending.
The first step is to create a budget. Track your living expenses for a few months and add up your recurring costs, including your mortgage or rent payment, utilities, phone bill, and other expenses. Look for areas to reduce these expenses. For example, maybe you can switch to a smaller data plan on your cellphone or cancel unused subscriptions. You should also try to limit spending on extras like clothing or dining out. If you struggle to figure out where to cut expenses on your own, using a budgeting app like Mint could help identify places where you can scrounge.
Next, decide on the best place to put your extra savings. If you need the money for a large purchase in the near future, it's best to leave it in a savings account. Investing money you'll need in the next three to five years is rarely wise because the stock market can be volatile over the short term. If your investments lose value and you need money right away, you may not have the time to wait for their value to come up again.
On the other hand, if you don't intend to use the money anytime soon, investing is the smarter option. Start with your 401(k) or an IRA. Any money you contribute to these accounts will not only help you in retirement, it will also reduce your taxable income this year so you pay less in taxes (unless it's a Roth account).
Another way to boost your savings is to increase your income. One of the simplest ways is to work overtime at your current job if your job and schedule allows it. You could also consider starting a side hustle to get some extra cash. This could mean driving for a ridesharing service, babysitting, selling items online or performing household tasks. However, it's up to you to decide if the extra effort is worth the added income.
2. Pay down debt
Debt makes it so hard to save for your financial goals and to enjoy the lifestyle you want, especially if it's high-interest debt. It comes as no surprise that 29% of those surveyed by Fidelity listed paying down debt as their financial resolution in 2019.
The approach will vary depending on the amount and type of debt you have. If you're paying off your mortgage, for example, consider making an extra payment each year or paying half of your monthly payment every two weeks, which amounts to 13 monthly payments each year. The extra annual payment will help you to pay off your home faster and reduce the amount of interest you pay over the loan's lifetime.You could also consider refinancing -- that is, taking out a new loan with a more affordable interest rate to replace your existing loan -- but you must be prepared for new closing costs. However, if your new interest rate is significantly lower, this could save you a lot of money over the long term.
If you have credit card debt, ask the card issuer if your interest rate can be reduced, which makes it easier to pay down the debt over time. Alternatively, you could transfer the balance to a new card with a 0% introductory APR or take out a personal loan to cover the balance if you prefer a flat monthly payment.
If your credit score is low, it may be fruitless to try to find a lower interest option, as it won't be offered to you until you build up your credit. It is also possible to borrow money from your 401(k) or IRA, but this isn't recommended in most cases. For one, you'll have to pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty if you're under 59 1/2 on top of income tax, and for another, you'll hamper the growth of your retirement savings, which could force you to work longer before retiring or to accept a lower standard of living in retirement.
Build your debt repayment plan into your budget. Decide how much you can comfortably put toward your debt and set this aside every month.
3. Prepare for the unexpected
You can go into the new year with a perfect plan for how you will meet your goals, but it could all collapse if you aren't prepared to deal with unexpected expenses and rising healthcare costs. These are Americans' two biggest financial concerns, according to the Fidelity study, and having a plan to deal with them is crucial.
Everyone should have an emergency fund with enough money to cover at least three to six months of living expenses. If you don't, you'd better put your savings there before saving for other goals. This way, if you have an surprise medical expense or home repair, you won't dip into your retirement savings or take on more debt to cover these costs.
As for healthcare, you can use your emergency fund to cover these expenses or try a health savings account (HSA), if you're eligible through your high-deductible health insurance plan -- one with a deductible of at least $1,350 for an individual or $2,700 for a family. Individuals may contribute up to $3,500 to an HSA in 2019, and families may contribute up to $7,000. Any money you contribute reduces your taxable income this year, and if you use the money for a qualified medical expense, you won't pay any taxes on it at all. Saving in this account will help you afford healtcare costs in retirement, too.
Improving your financial situation seems daunting at first, but if you go into it with a clear plan, you'll have a much better chance of success. Decide on your goals and write down how you intend to meet them. Do your best to see them through, and when it comes time to ring in 2020, you'll be grateful you did.
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