11 things you can do in January to get your money on track in 2017

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11 things you can do in January to get your money on track in 2017
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New Year’s resolutions often turn out just like New Year’s Eve — a total flop. Or they just kind of fizzle away after a couple of months.

But if you’re serious about getting a handle on your money in 2017, you can make it happen! 

Start 2017 with a new outlook on money

If you made financial goals last year that you never reached, or just had a bad money year in general, don’t dwell on it! 

We all have bad years (or decades!), so get it over it and start shaping your future.

The best way to start is by changing your mindset. Use the month of January to reevaluate your lifestyle, your priorities and your goals — you need to create a new outlook on your money if you want to make real change in your life.

Financial change is all about discipline — implementing sustainable habits that allow you to take control of your money and maintain control over time. And in order to be successful, you don’t want to feel deprived — which is how most people feel when they all of a sudden decide to ‘budget’ or stop spending money on the first day of the new year. 

When you start making changes to improve your financial life, it doesn’t take long to see results — but creating a financially successful lifestyle, that’s more of a marathon than a sprint. 

The idea is to make real, impactful change in your life. And while reaching financial freedom may not happen overnight, each step you take will motivate you even more to keep going — and each change will help you shape a better future for yourself.

And this is so important to keep in mind: saving money isn’t about taking things away — it’s about adding freedom to your life. This freedom is what will allow you to do the things you want to do, when you want to do them — without having to rely on anyone but yourself.

So if you really want to get a handle on your money in 2017, here are some ways to get started and get yourself on track by the end of January!

11 ways to jumpstart your money resolutions for 2017

1. Get your budget in order

How often do you reach the end of the month and realize you spent the money you had planned to save? If that sounds familiar, there’s one simple solution: budgeting.

Regardless of how much money you make, budgeting is the only way to get control of your financial life. And it doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself or never have fun, it’s just about understanding your money and what’s important to you — both now and in the future.

Once you start paying attention and actually keep track of where your money is going, you can make sure that your spending and saving habits are aligned with your goals. And by putting together a plan now, small changes will seem a lot smaller than if you tried making them all at once in January.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to create and maintain a budget in 5 steps.

Once you get your budget sorted out, start making any necessary changes now. That will help you start to develop better habits and you’ll be able to recognize which spending categories need to be tweaked etc.

2. Check your credit reports & start repairing your credit

The only way to improve your financial life is to know what’s going with it, so you can take steps to get back on track. So if you haven’t checked your credit reports in a while, you should go ahead and do that now. Here’s why:

1. Mistakes

There could be errors on your report that you don’t know about — maybe you paid off a bill but your report shows that you didn’t.

You want to find any mistakes as soon as possible — so you can get them fixed and minimize the damage.

2. Old bills you never knew about or forgot about

Maybe you had a bill from a doctor or a retail store — and you moved, so you never got the bill. Even it’s for a small amount, an old unpaid bill could be damaging your credit without you even realizing it.

If a bill is sent to collections, it stays on your credit report for 7 years — even after you pay it off. It causes less damage to you over time, but it doesn’t go away for 7 years.

So even after you get things together, your credit could still suffer. So the sooner you start paying attention, the sooner you can get your credit on the right track

At AnnualCreditReport.com, you can get a free copy of each of your credit reports once each year. In just a couple minutes, you can see everything that’s going on with your credit. But you can only do this once a year, because doing so more than once per year will ding your credit and cause your score to drop.

You can also monitor your credit for free with a service called Credit Karma, which pulls in your information and gives you a good idea of what’s going on with all your finances and anything that impacts your credit.

This is a good way to keep tabs on everything without pulling your official credit reports.

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to start improving your credit score.

3. Make an extra payment toward a debt

Do you have any credit card debt or student loans hanging over your head? Those debt obligations can be big obstacles keeping you from reaching your financial goals — and they can cause a lot of added stress to your life! 

While you may not be able to pay off the entire balance, every little bit helps. Skip a few splurges this month and use that money to pay extra toward your credit card bill or student loan debt. Put the extra money toward whichever debt has the highest interest rate — as that’s the debt that will end up costing you more money over time (the longer it sits there accruing interest, the more you’ll owe).

Paying an extra $100 (or as much as you can) toward debt, instead of wasting it on something you don’t need, will not only reduce your bills come January, but it will also allow you to see some progress before the new year!

As you get closer to the light at the end of the tunnel, budgeting and saving become a whole lot easier!

4. Make a debt payoff plan

On that note, if you’re facing big credit card debt, you need to make a plan to get it paid off as quickly as you can. The longer that debt sits there, the more it will cost you over time and keep you from reaching your goals. 

Making a plan now can help you prioritize your debt in 2017 and also make it easier for you to stay on track. Get started by taking these steps:

Creating a plan:

  • Depending on how much you owe, give yourself a timeline of 3 years or less — any longer can make it really difficult to stay on track.
     
  • Reevaluate your budget so you can put as much money toward your credit card debt as you can — while still setting aside money for savings.
     
  • One general rule of thumb is for every $2 you put toward debt, put $1 into savings — until your high-interest debt is completely paid off.

Which card to pay off first

  • If you have more than one credit card carrying a balance, start with the card that has the highest interest rate.
     
  • That one is costing you the most money.
     
  • Put as much money as you can toward that card each month, while still paying the minimums on the other cards — and saving, too.
     
  • When that card reaches a zero balance, then move on to the card with the next highest interest rate, and so on.

Important note: any time you pay off a card in full, don’t close the account — that will hurt your credit score. Just let it sit at a balance of $0.

Find extra money to put toward debt

Paying off debt, while saving and paying your other bills, can be tough — so finding ways to both reduce your expenses and increase your monthly income can be a huge help.

Start with these 23 easy ways to cut costs and save more each month.

Here’s everything to know about debt and how to start paying it off.

5. Cancel a subscription

If you want to get your money in order — both for the short term and the long term — take a look at all of your monthly subscriptions and figure out which ones you don’t really need. Cut at least one. Then next month, cut another one. After a few months, you’ll start to see the difference in your accounts, allowing you to save more and develop better budgeting habits over time. Little expenses can quickly add up, and once you start cutting some out, you’ll free up a lot of extra cash each month that can go toward debt or straight into savings!

Here are a few examples of subscriptions you may be able to live without:

  • Gym membership: If you go to the gym every day, you may want to keep your membership. Go to the manager and ask about special offers to decrease what you’re paying. You can also shop around for better prices at other gyms — then take a better price offer to your current gym and ask for a decrease in your membership fee. Also check out these 8 ways to save on a gym membership.
  • Cable: Directv Now is a great new alternative that offers a wide variety for only $35 a month. Check it out here.
  • Magazine subscription
  • Other: Are there any monthly/annual subscriptions (like Netflix or Amazon Prime) that you can cut and share with a friend or someone in your family?

Read more: How to increase your income by reducing expenses

6. Lower a recurring monthly bill

A lot of people don’t realize they can lower their existing monthly bills just by doing a little negotiating. Plus, you may be paying for things every month that you don’t even use or need. You may not notice subscriptions and fees that only cost a few bucks, but when you start paying attention, you may realize that those little costs add up to a lot of money each month!

On top of that, you could be paying way too much for things like car insurance, home insurance or your monthly cell phone plan. By re-shopping your rates and looking for better deals and plans, you may be able to save hundreds of dollars each month.

Here’s a look at some bills you may be able to drastically reduce.

7. Increase your 401(k) contributions to save more in 2017

The first of the year is a great time to reassess your retirement accounts, no matter how old you are, to make sure you’re on track. By increasing contributions now, you can start the new year with more money going directly into savings. And while it may require a few budget adjustments, just remember that you’re working toward bigger goals — so cutting out a few extra expenses is worth it.

  • Even a small increase is better than nothing: Log on to your 401(k) or other retirement account online (or call your plan provider) and increase the amount you’re contributing each year. Even if you increase it by only 1%, that’s a good start and the amount is small enough that you probably won’t even notice the money missing from your paycheck. Then each six months, try to increase your contributions by another 1%.

By making small adjustments, you’ll be able to start saving a lot more next year without making a big lifestyle change. And even just an extra 1% can add up to a lot of extra savings over time!

  • Employer match: If your employer offers a match on your 401(k) contributions, then ideally, you want to put in at least enough to get the match. For example, many companies will match 50 cents on the dollar up to 6%.

    So let’s say you’re making $30,000 and you put 6% of your annual salary into your 401(k), which is $1,800, then your company will put in 3%, so another $900 — totaling $2,700 a year. Matching plans vary, so make sure to check with your company to find out exactly how much they will match.

If you can’t afford to contribute enough to get the match yet, make that a goal! Boosting your contributions by 1% every six months is one of the easiest ways to make it happen and save more over time.

Read more: The #1 tip to maximize your 401(k) investments

8. Make your savings automatic

The best way to start saving more money is by making it automatic. By giving every dollar a purpose, you can avoid reaching the end of the month and having no clue where all your money went — including the money you intended to save.

So once you’ve gone through your budget, figure out how much money you can realistically save each month, after covering all your bills and other expenses. Then set up your direct deposit to automatically send that money into savings each month. That way you won’t be tempted to spend it, and if you absolutely need the money, you can access it pretty easily.

If you go ahead and do this now, you’ll be able to start adjusting your spending habits — and then after just a few months, you may be surprised by how much money you will have saved up!

Read more: How to automate your savings

9. Reevaluate your spending habits and identify ways to save

Think about all of the monthly expenses you have — which ones do you have to pay (rent, utilities, debt) and which ones can you cut? Many people don’t even realize all of the little things they’re paying for each month — or how much certain habits really cost. 

So sit down and go through your bank statements from the past six months. It may not be fun, but it’s crucial to understand where exactly all your money is going if you want to get your spending on the right track. You may discover that you’ve been spending a lot more on certain things than you thought!

Here are a few things to look for:

Recurring bills: Things like car insurance, home insurance, cell phone bills — expenses you pay every single month. If you haven’t shopped around for better prices recently, go ahead and do that. You may find that you could be spending a lot less on each of these things each month — which can save you a lot of money over time!

Spending habits: While recurring bills can be reduced by switching companies or plans, there are various spending habits that may be costing you a lot more than you realize. And by making a few simple changes to your routine, you could save a lot more each month! Here are a few examples (each one links to information on how to save):

  • Groceries: Change where you shop. Annoying, right? Well, not after you see your bills start to drop! Here are a few ways to save on groceries without keeping a giant coupon binder (although that can help, too).
    • Switching up your routine can save you a lot each month and over time.
      • Grocery staples: Check out Aldi and Walmart
      • Organic: Try Trader Joe’s instead of Whole Foods
      • Bulk items: Warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam’s Club
      • Party supplies: Dollar stores
    • Buy store brands: Try a few different store brand items to see which ones you like. You may find that you actually like some of them better than the name brand and buying generic can save you on average 25%!
    • Make a list and only buy what’s on it.
    • Stock up during sales: When something you buy frequently goes on sale, stock up on it!
    • Use coupon apps: So no binder necessary, but scrolling through a few apps can save you big bucks on your grocery bills.

Here’s a list of even more ways to save on groceries and specific apps to try.

  • Prescriptions: The costs of prescription medications have been dramatically increasing and it can have a big impact on your monthly budget. The good news is that there are actually some ways to reduce what you pay for your prescriptions!
    • Shop around for the best price: Prices at different pharmacies can vary by huge amounts – even if the pharmacies are next door to each other. So it’s important to look around for the best price – and the easiest way to do that is to use a site called GoodRx, which will locate the lowest prices on prescriptions in your area.
    • Ask your doctor for a generic brand: If the medication is costing you a ton of money, ask your doctor to write you a prescription for the generic brand (as long as there is an equivalent generic).
       
  • Going out to eat: Americans spend on average nearly $3,000 a year going out to eat. That’s a lot of money! So if you eat out a lot, try to cut back and start making some meals at home and take your lunch to work with you. Even reducing the number of times you go out per week could free up a couple hundred bucks each month – and after a few months, you’ve got your emergency savings!
     
  • Shopping: There are so many ways to save these days that you should really never have to pay full price! Here are a few ways to save:

Check out our Deals & Savings section for more tips!

Read more: 11 things you’re paying too much for

10. Cut out extra spending to pay down debt

Challenge yourself during January to cut out as much extra spending as possible. Whether it’s shopping, eating out, ordering take-out — whatever you tend to spend extra money on, try to cut back on whatever you can.

Then at the end of the month, see how much you were able to save by cutting out some of those expenses.

If you have debt that needs to be paid off, use the extra money toward that. If not, then put the money directly into savings.

By challenging yourself to make changes, you’ll be able to see just how powerful saving money can be. And you’ll also probably realize just how much you were spending on things you don’t really need.

11. Use any year-end bonuses wisely

If you get a bonus at the end of the year, you’ve worked hard to earn that money, so spend a little on yourself and then take advantage of the extra cash to improve your financial life.

This is a great opportunity to pay down debt or boost your savings. If you have debt, the quicker you get it paid off, the quicker you’ll be able to reach your goals. 

If you don’t need any or all of that money to go toward debt, put it away toward one of your big savings goals. You’ll thank yourself later!

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Alex Thomas Sadler About the author: Alex Thomas Sadler
Alex Thomas Sadler is the Managing Editor of Clark.com and Clark Howard Digital Products. Alex is also the host of Common Cents, a new Clark.com series that makes money simple, so you can better understand and take control of your own financial life. Alex graduated from the University of Georgia with bachelor's degrees in ...Read more
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