As the new year approaches, you may be resolving to take better care of your health -- exercise more, load up on fruits and vegetables, and get more sleep. But will you take steps to improve your financial health as well? Chances are, you'll need to.
Only 29% of Americans consider themselves financially healthy in 2019, reports the Financial Health Network. Meanwhile, 54% are financially coping -- struggling with some aspects of their finances, but getting by. Unfortunately, though, 17% of Americans are financially vulnerable -- struggling with nearly all aspects of their financial lives.
If your financial picture needs improving, the start of a new year is a great time to get on it. And here are a few crucial moves to make in that regard.
1. Build an emergency fund
Without emergency savings, you could get stuck in a seriously dire situation if an unplanned expense, like a major home repair, pops up, or if you lose your job and are forced to go without a paycheck for a number of months. Perhaps the most crucial step on the road to better financial health is building an emergency fund -- one with enough money to cover three to six months of essential bills.
Of course, that money isn't going to just materialize overnight. Building emergency savings will take time, but you can start by getting yourself on a tight budget and cutting back on expenses that technically aren't necessary, like your weekly takeout orders, monthly gym membership, or extra streaming service. At the same time, it pays to consider getting yourself a side job on top of your main one. Since your earnings from it won't be earmarked for pressing bills, you'll have the option to put all of that extra income into savings (minus what you owe the IRS for taxes, of course).
Now if you don't want to skimp on luxuries or take on extra work, you could instead make a couple of drastic lifestyle choices. For example, you could move to a less expensive corner of the country (which works if you're able to maintain the same salary there), or you could downsize your home to one half its size to save a lot of money on housing. But if you'd rather not completely uproot yourself, then making consistent, modest changes in your spending and boosting your income are the way to go.
2. Pay off costly debt
It's easy to feel financially vulnerable when a chunk of your monthly income must go toward paying off debt. The sooner you pay off the loan or credit card balance you're still carrying, the less interest you'll pay, and better you'll feel. To that end, come up with a debt payoff plan, and once you've built your emergency fund, use the savings you eke out by cutting expenses or getting a side job to eliminate your outstanding obligations.
As a general rule, you'll want to tackle your costliest debts first, which will usually be credit card balances. See what your different debts are costing you, order them from highest interest rate to lowest, and pay them off accordingly. Or, see about consolidating your various debts into a single loan to make the repayment process easier.
3. Start saving for your golden years
It's not just your immediate financial health you need to focus on. You also need to make sure you'll have enough money to pay your bills once your career comes to a close, and to that end, retirement savings are the solution. Though Social Security will help you cover your senior living expenses, those benefits won't be nearly enough to sustain you by themselves.
Though your emergency fund should trump retirement savings, once it's complete, and you're in the process of paying down debt, make an effort to sock away small amounts of money in an IRA or 401(k). Contributing as little as $50 a month could go a long way over time. In fact, over a 40-year timeframe, investing $50 a month at an average annual 7% return (which is a bit below the stock market's average) will leave you with $120,000, which is not an insignificant sum.
If you're not among the 29% of Americans who consider themselves financially healthy, you owe it to yourself to change your personal economic picture. As you resolve to consume fewer calories, hit the gym three times a week, and be in bed nightly by 10 p.m. sharp, pledge to turn things around financially so that by the end of 2020, you'll find yourself in a much more secure place.