Love or hate New Year’s resolutions, there probably are a few you could stand to make for your wallet’s sake. They can be short-term, easy fixes to save money throughout the year, while also potentially helping you achieve larger financial goals.
Here are my 10 suggestions to make sure you start off 2017 on the right financial footing:
1. Clean out your wallet. A cluttered wallet isn’t just bulky; it also can be expensive if you’re paying for cards you don’t use. Start lean and mean in 2017. Review the cards and figure out how they benefit you. Many people, myself included, signed up for some cards merely for their cool factor or maybe to pursue a one-time benefit — such as a juicy sign-up bonus that has long since been exhausted. At best, these cards can be a distraction and waste of space. At worst, they can cost you an annual fee without making up for it in benefits. Keep only cards earning high rewards that you’ll actually use or cards that are important to maintain your credit score.
2. Prioritize your purchases. Healthy budgeting may sound about as fun as healthy dieting, but success for both often can start with something as simple as understanding what works best for you. At its heart, a budget helps you recognize trade-offs in your purchases. Movies or dining out? Game console or summer vacation? New clothes or weekend getaway? Until you’re able to identify and plan for these trade-offs in advance, you’re not in charge of your money.
3. Optimize your credit cards. Whether you’re trying to maximize rewards or minimize the cost of credit card debt, you probably have room for improvement. At this point, 1.5% cash back is the new gold standard for rewards, so make sure you’re earning at least that much on every purchase. And if you’re looking to minimize the cost of debt, a 12-month, 0% intro APR offer is a good baseline. If you’re unsure what kind of card you might qualify for, I recommend checking your free credit score or seeing whether you pre-qualify for a card.
4. Upgrade your checking account. As I emphasized a couple of columns ago, bank fees bite. If you’re paying fees for your checking account regularly, that’s a sign you could be doing better — either with your own money management or your choice in banks. A new account might also come with new capabilities such as mobile check deposit or better ATM access. Here’s a handy guide to find the right checking account for you.
5. Upgrade your savings account. There’s a fair chance you could be earning higher interest in the coming new year than you did in 2016. Many online banks are offering annual percentage yields of 1% or higher, which we hope will rise since the Federal Reserve increased its funds rates in December.
6. Open a P2P account. Still writing and receiving physical checks to and from friends and family? What a hassle. It’s nearly 2017, not 1987. If you need to pay someone back quickly and easily — whether for baby-sitting, splitting utility bills or sharing a restaurant tab — open an account on a peer-to-peer (P2P) payment app such as Venmo, PayPal, Zelle or Square Cash. Ask around to see what’s popular among your friends, as they’ll need to use the same app to receive or send money.
7. Boost your savings rate. Saving money can be hard, especially if it’s for a less-immediate goal such as retirement, an emergency fund (see below) or a down payment on a home. Here are tips to boost your savings rate: (1) If your employer matches 401(k) contributions, make sure you’re contributing enough from your paycheck to get the full match. (2) Divert some of your wages automatically into your savings account before you have the chance to spend it. (3) Plan now to save any windfalls, such as tax refunds, gifts or the occasional lottery winnings. (4) Check your credit card and checking account statements to see whether you can cut any charges for recurring services that aren’t needed.
8. Build an emergency fund. A key measure of financial freedom is the ability to cover short-term emergencies with cash instead of by taking on debt. That said, many of us already have plenty of debt, and it’s often difficult to decide between saving cash or paying down that debt. The short story? All things being equal, putting a little money in the bank generally should be prioritized in most cases.
9. Use your rewards card for every purchase. Sure, credit card rewards rates won’t make you rich, but the 1.5% you could earn back on every purchase adds up. It can help boost your savings or make a significant dent in a planned purchase.
10. Use your airline miles. Airlines historically devalue points on their loyalty programs every few years, and you’ll also want to make sure there’s no expiration policy on your points or miles. Saving them for some big future vacation might sound nice, but if they need to be redeemed by a certain point, don’t let them slip through your fingers.