NEW YORK (MainStreet) Making new financial resolutions and promises to pay off debt, spend less and save more money is common among many consumers as they kick off the new year.
The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) said its December poll revealed that more than half of the respondents or 56% predicted they would be in a better place financially at this time next year. This response rate tripled the next highest category where 18% of respondents indicated their situation would remain about the same as it is this year.
"Financial optimism is a healthy sign, but it's going to take more than hope and more than a New Year's Resolution to make financial success a reality," said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. "People need to guard against financial amnesia, the affliction of too quickly forgetting the financial mistakes and pain of the past."
Consumers should focus on establishing or maintaining a realistic and viable financial plan, she said.
"Although the future can't be predicted, consumers can protect themselves from financial unknowns by making smart money decisions today," Cunningham said.
Financial control should start with financial awareness. While New Year's resolutions typically involve getting out of debt; however, many consumers skip the basic step of creating a spending plan.
"It is rarely on anyone's list, as many people don't want to face the financial facts," she said. "Continuing to ignore current spending patterns can prevent a person from identifying and addressing the very reason that debt reduction is not achieved."
NFCC encourages consumers to take the first step toward debt reduction by building a 2014 financial plan, including the following often forgotten or ignored areas. The result will be a comprehensive and realistic budget, moving the goal of debt reduction closer to becoming a reality.
- The unexpected. It's usually not the daily routine expenses that wreck people's budgets, but the emergencies. Prepare for these by socking away 10% of each paycheck into a rainy day fund. At the end of a year, it will total more than one month's income, enough to cover most short-term emergencies.
- Long-term savings. Protect against serious set-backs such as job loss. Even though the unemployment numbers are improving, no one is immune to job loss. If the unthinkable happens, bridge money will be needed to help manage daily expenses and existing debt obligations. Without it, people frequently resort to living off of credit cards, often amassing an unmanageable amount of debt. Experts recommend having a minimum of six months' income as a cushion. Since it takes quite a while to build up this amount of money, now is the time to start saving toward this goal.
- Known periodic expenses. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, vehicle tags and quarterly insurance premiums are examples of expenses that occur at the same time each year. In spite of being able to anticipate these expenses, many people neglect to set aside the money necessary to satisfy such events.
- Household and vehicle maintenance. Things are going to break and usually at the worst possible time. Without a plan to cover the expense, people are left with poor resolution choices: take money from a higher priority such as the rent or mortgage, thus compromising that category; charge the expense and add to an already burdensome debt load; borrow from family or friends which is awkward and potentially puts the relationship at risk.
- Travel. Whether it is a family vacation, an out-of-town funeral or wedding, or sporting events for the kids, traveling costs money. Try to anticipate as many of these events as possible, and work the cost into the budget.
- Major purchases. Buying a home, purchasing a vehicle, remodeling the house or that long-awaited state-of-the-art entertainment, are examples of expenses that need to be considered and planned for.
- Charitable giving. Being generous is a virtue. However, being generous to a fault isn't. Review previous giving patterns to estimate 2014 donations.
- Health insurance choices. Recent changes will potentially have a major impact on a spending plan. In addition to medical insurance, account for anticipated dental and prescription drug needs in the budget.
- Investing. Time is money's best friend, particularly for those with a long time horizon. Regular, disciplined investing is a critical part of long-term wealth building.
- Debt reduction. Instead of allocating minimum monthly payments into the budget, set a date by which all current credit card debt will be eliminated. This step will free up money to go toward satisfying goals such as saving or investing.
"The likelihood of being in a better financial place at this time next year starts with the decisions we make now," continued Cunningham. "Although there are things outside of our control, planning today protects against tomorrow's uncertainties."