50 Ways to Improve Your Finances in 2013
Conquer the new year with these savvy money management strategies
Along with a fresh start, the new year brings uncertainty about changing tax laws, growing concern over online privacy and security, and challenges for almost every demographic group—even the wealthy, who face steep tax increases. To help you get ready to tackle your own money goals for 2013, we gathered our best advice from the past 12 months and organized it into 50 bite-size steps:
Specific holidays used to loom large in the world of coupon hunters, who expected to see massive discounts on July Fourth, Labor Day, Black Friday, and other big shopping days. But recently, that's been shifting as retailers are offering sales all year long, and often at unexpected times. In 2012, for example, retail experts noted that Christmas sales started in October, and continued all season, partly in response to customer demand. That means shoppers should always be on the lookout for the best deals, regardless of the calendar date.
As the economy recovers, retailers are eager to pick up the biggest share of consumers' spending what they can, and in some cases, that means adopting more flexible pricing policies. Towards the end of 2012, several big-box stores, including Target and Best Buy, launched temporary price-matching policies. That trend could continue into 2013, which means customers can be more assertive about asking stores to match prices they find elsewhere.
Much stress can come from disagreeing with your spouse or partner about how you should be spending shared income. Indeed, in author and yoga teacher JoAnneh Nagler's case, it even contributed to divorce. But she and her husband were able to reconcile (and remarry) when they jointly agreed to a disciplined debt-free lifestyle. By scaling back on restaurant meals and other splurges, they're able to invest in what they really value, including their creative pursuits and romantic weekend getaways.
When you've built up a sizable amount of debt, it's virtually impossible to pay it off overnight, and attempting such a feat can be frustrating. That's why Nagler, who had $80,000 in credit card debt at one point, urges fellow debt-strugglers to go slowly. First, she changed her spending habits and set up individual savings accounts for each of her goals. Once she got those costs under control, she started paying off her debt.
Tax rates are likely to rise for many Americans next year, especially high-earning ones. To lessen the stress from those changes, taxpayers should adjust their spending and saving habits as early as possible to prepare to hand over more cash to Uncle Sam. Taking advantage of any credits and deductions, as well as putting more money into tax-advantaged retirement accounts, can help ease the impact.
Just 1 in 10 Americans have done the math to figure out how much they need to save for retirement, but it's an essential step in making sure there's enough cash for those much-deserved golden years. Financial advisers generally recommend saving enough to replace 80 percent or more of your income; that means someone who earns $80,000 should probably save around $2.1 million. Online retirement calculators can crunch the numbers for you.
Paying high fees, choosing portfolios that are overly conservative (or overly risky), and failing to update or even check on those investments on a regular basis are just a few of the common mistakes people make with their retirement accounts. To avoid missteps, employees can often rely on free services offered through their company's human resources department or retirement services provider. Fidelity, for example, offers free seminars and online information to clients.
Alicia Munnell, director of Boston College's Center for Retirement Research, cautions that putting aside 9 percent of your income into a retirement account is "grossly inadequate." Someone who starts saving at age 35, plans to retire at age 67, and expects a 4 percent return, for example, needs to save double that, even after taking Social Security into account. Other financial experts recommend saving as much as one-quarter of your income, in both retirement and after-tax accounts, to make sure you're fully covered.
If manually shifting money into savings and investment accounts is too time-consuming or too painful, consider setting up automatic deposits. Many banks make it easy for customers to do that, and, in fact, might even offer rewards for doing so. Wells Fargo, for example, waives monthly service fees on some of its accounts when customers set up recurring automatic transfers.
If you pay off your credit card bill each month and earn rewards for your spending, don't forget to cash in on them. The biggest bang-for-buck often comes from purchasing retailer-specific gift cards, which have been pre-negotiated by card companies. Farnoosh Torabi, financial expert and television personality, recently picked up an Apple Macbook Air with her points, which she also uses to buy gift cards for family members.
If your credit card isn't meeting all your needs, it might be time to find one that does. Comparison websites such as nerdwallet.com, indexcreditcards.com, and creditcards.com make it easy to compare the benefits of different cards to figure out which one suits your needs. If you carry any sort of balance, there's only one factor to focus on: finding the lowest interest rate.
Bank policies can vary widely, from offering above-average interest rates on savings accounts to making it easy to budget online with extra tools. Consider your own lifestyle and then find the bank that best matches it. If you travel a lot, you probably want a large bank with thousands of ATMs throughout the country (and beyond). If you're trying to save more, then you might want to focus on the savings rates.
Customers are increasingly voting with their feet and switching banks when they're not happy with their current one. That also means customers have more leverage to ask for the changes they want from their current bank, as banks struggle to retain loyal customers. If you want lower fees or a higher interest rate on your savings account, ask your bank what they can do for you—they might be able to offer you a better deal than the one you're currently getting.
Frustration with banks' policies, such as new fees, has motivated thousands of customers to jump ship and join credit unions, according to the Credit Union National Association. It can be a good decision, especially considering that credit unions often offer higher interest rates on savings accounts as well as lower fees and lower rates on auto loans and mortgages. They also prioritize spreading financial literacy to their customers.
15. Get a raise.
Just because the economy's struggling to make its big comeback doesn't mean you have to delay asking for a raise. Certified financial planner Lauren Lyons Cole suggests first checking out salary-comparison sites, such as Payscale.com and Salary.com, to see if your own income is out of whack with that of your peers. If it's lower than it should be, review your accomplishments and present them to your boss, along with a request for a raise.
The lack of job security these days has inspired many Americans to pick up a second stream of income by moonlighting. According to the website Payscale.com, the highest-paid moonlighting gigs are in law, clinical psychology, senior copywriting, and information technology security. Freelance website Elance.com predicts that the trend toward freelancing, especially in the creative-services sector of the economy, will only grow throughout 2013.
When people juggle more than one job, they can quickly feel overwhelmed with responsibilities. Veteran job-jugglers say they survive by staying organized, waking up early, and avoiding time-wastes such as television. Many also work on the weekends and some even take a sabbatical from their day jobs to focus exclusively on their second job for a few months.
When you land a new job, the human resources department can help you sign up for all of the new benefits, from flex spending accounts to health insurance to retirement accounts. Signing up for retirement benefits as soon as possible can pay off later: The earlier you start putting money away, the sooner it can start growing. TD Ameritrade calculates that saving $100 a month between ages 21 and 41 will create a nest egg of $471,358 by age 67, assuming a return of 8 percent per year. Waiting until age 41, however, will generate just under $60,000.
If you want more motivation to ramp up that side income in 2013, here it is: In most professions, income stops rising around age 40. Payscale.com reports that in many professions, you earn quickly in your twenties and thirties as you become more valuable. Then around mid-career, you plateau, and as a result, salary increases slow down. (Certain careers, including those in law and high-tech, are exceptions.) One way to make up for that loss is to earn more money outside your full-time job.
21. Learn to cook.
Replacing take-out and restaurant meals with home-cooked goodness can save you hundreds of dollars throughout the year. If you feel hesitant in the kitchen, a few hours with the Food Network or browsing foodie blogs will help get you in the mood. Investments in certain tools, such as cookbooks, immersion blenders, or quality pots and pans can also make the kitchen more enticing after a long day.
If you're a movie buff, you have a lot of new choices that are cheaper than seeing movies in the theater. Hulu Plus, Apple TV, and Roku are among your relatively affordable options, especially when you consider how much you'll save by skipping weekly trips to the theater.
Leaky windows and attics can drive up heating bills in the winter and cooling bills in the summer. Consider investing in insulation as well as a programmable thermostat, which can cut energy costs by 30 percent over the year. Smart power strips, which cut power to electronics when they're off, can also help reduce electricity costs. LED lights are another smart option.
Do you know what people really want for holidays and their birthdays? Money or gift cards. It might sound impersonal, but a survey by Discover found that such fungible items top wish lists for both men and women. In fact, the National Retail Federation went so far as to name gift cards as the hottest gift of 2012, because they've grown so much in popularity. The fact that fewer cards come with fees and many offer extra loss protection has also contributed to that trend.
The worst time to discover that your homeowners' insurance policy doesn't include reimbursement for water damage is right after a flood. Yet many homeowners don't understand the ins and outs of their policies, which can lead to nasty surprises. In fact, most standard policies don't cover earthquake damage, flood damage, or water damage from sump pump backups. (Homeowners have the option of adding supplemental coverage to handle these scenarios.)
The past 12 months have seen a series of high-profile security breaches, including at Zappos and Barnes & Noble. To make sure you're as protected as possible, consider changing your passwords regularly, reviewing bank account statements each month to check for errors, and being especially wary of hyperlinks to deals promoted over social networking sites. Hyperlinks embedded within emails should also be treated with suspicion.
When you're surrounded by advertisements and material temptations, it's easy to buy without thinking. But one organization, Jews United for Justice, urges people to first ask themselves a series of questions about the purchase. The questions include: "Is this something I need?" "Can I borrow, find one used, or make one instead of buying new?" and "Will this purchase enhance the meaning and joy in my life?" The group distributes credit card sleeves with the questions to encourage more thoughtful spending habits.
It's one of the most common scams around: A company poses as an official government agency in order to solicit your attention (and funds). It might send out mail that's covered in intimidating warnings, such as "$2,000 fine, 5 years imprisonment, or both for any personal interfering or obstructing with delivery of this letter." But they're really just trying to sell you something you probably don't need. The Federal Trade Commission calls the practice outrageous and says it's illegal to falsely suggest something bad will happen unless the recipient asks quickly. The bottom line: Ignore such solicitations.
29. Donate for free.
You don't have to be rich to be charitable. Consider donating your blood, gently used books and CDs, and your time this year. For extra power, get together with friends to form a giving circle, so you can leverage your dollars and give to causes together.
Parents are famously awkward when it comes to talking about money. A T. Rowe Price survey found that just half of parents talk to their kids about savings goals and spending and savings trade-offs, and even fewer discuss higher-level concepts such as inflation and investing. But research routinely suggests that parents play a powerful role in how kids handle money as adults, so if you have children, try to get over your awkwardness to share some important life lessons this year.
Baby boomers have been generous toward their adult children, inviting them to move back home and offering them direct financial support. But often, that kind of generosity hurts parents' own retirement nest egg. In fact, even the parents of two Olympic gold medalists, Gabby Douglas and Ryan Lochte, revealed major financial troubles of their own. Before putting their own financial security at risk, parents should consider whether they can really afford the help they're offering.
If you're struggling to explain the concept of limits to your children, there's an app that can help: "Can I Buy?" designed by the husband-and-wife team behind the Massachusetts-based developer Sqube. After crunching some numbers for you, the app tells you whether or not you can afford that purchase that you're considering. The creators themselves got the idea when they were trying to explain to their young daughter why she could not buy a new toy.
A new website, SmartAsset.com, hit the Web this year, and it's a useful one: It helps users make complicated personal-finance decisions, such as whether they should buy or rent, or which mortgage to take out. If you're looking for some help with number-crunching, the site could be the one for you. Mint.com is another useful site for budgeting and getting organized.
Since the Social Security Administration stopped sending out paper statements via snail mail each year, you might be missing your annual estimate of just how much Social Security income you're likely to receive in retirement. But there's an easy way to get that information: Visit socialsecurity.gov/mystatement to see your earnings history and projected future benefits. More than one million people have already done so.
Jon Yates, the official problem-solver at the Chicago Tribune and author of What's Your Problem? Cut Through Red Tape, Challenge the System, and Get Your Money Back, says persistence is often the most important factor when seeking a response from a company. That might include threatening to take your business elsewhere, or asking to speak to a manager or executive until you get the answer you want.
Airing grievances about specific companies on a blog, Facebook, or Twitter can also be an effective way of getting their attention. Just be sure you don't sacrifice your own privacy and security in the process. Many banks, for example, run active Twitter accounts, but they caution customers to take specific questions off the public venue and onto a phone line or email account. Talking over social media, after all, means talking in front of an audience.
In addition to seeking out the lowest-priced gas station in town, you can also stretch your gas dollars through more creative means. Those include lightening your car by unloading any heavy items stored in the trunk, carpooling, making sure tires are properly inflated, and replacing clogged air filters. An even safer bet is replacing some of your car time with public transportation or biking.
[See: 50 Smart Money Moves.]
When interest rates are low, refinancing to lock in a lower rate on your mortgage is tempting. But doing so also comes with costs, including closing costs and your own time. (Completing the paperwork can take hours.) Before jumping on the refinancing bandwagon, crunch some numbers with an online refinance calculator to help you figure out if it will really save you money.
Credit scores can hold a lot of power over your life; they influence your loan rates and the ability to rent apartments, and they can even play a role on job applications. According to money expert Liz Weston, author of Your Credit Score, the most important steps you can take to improve your score include removing any errors and making regular, on-time payments to all revolving accounts, including credit cards. Paying down debt helps, too.
You're entitled to a free credit report every year, which you can access through annualcreditreport.com. Reviewing it regularly makes it possible to check for (and correct) any mistakes, as well as catch potential problems, such as identity theft, before they escalate. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also announced this year that it will start supervising the credit bureaus as part of an attempt to make the world of credit scores and credit reports more transparent to consumers.
41. Learn patience.
Research co-authored by Columbia Business School professor Stephan Meier found that impatient people tend to have lower credit scores, which means they pay more for loans. Study participants who were most willing to wait for their cash rewards had, on average, scores that were 30 points higher than those who were the least patient. The suggestion? Learning to wait for rewards can pay off in the form of lower loan rates.
According to MetLife, just 3 in 4 married couples with young children have life insurance. That means 1 in 4 do not. Given the high cost of raising children (the Agriculture Department estimates $234,900 per child before age 18), that leaves families in a vulnerable position if one or both parents were to die. While there's some hassle involved, the cost of taking out life insurance is relatively low (a half-million dollar policy on a healthy 35-year-old might be one dollar a day, says MetLife), so consider signing up if you haven't already.
When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, thousands of people on the East Coast had to quickly leave their homes. If your paperwork is in order, it will be easy to know what to grab if you suddenly have to do the same thing. Essential papers to carry with you include identification, insurance information, and family documents, such as birth and marriage certificates and wills.
Just in case you ever have to file an insurance claim, take photos of your most valuable possessions, including furniture, jewelry, and televisions. Creating a paper trail of those goods, any damage they sustained, and subsequent claim filings can make it easier to follow up with the insurance company and collect reimbursements.
In the spirit of always being ready, consider coming up with a plan for an alternative place for your family to stay in an evacuation scenario. When the power goes out, it's harder to find the closest available hotel, or to talk to friends about staying with them. It's also a good idea to get an emergency kit together, so if you have to hunker down in your basement for a few days without power or running water, you know you could survive. The kit should include batteries, flashlights, water, changes of clothes, cash, non-perishable food, and a first-aid kit.
No matter how prepared you are, emergencies can end up costing a lot of money. Consider funding an emergency savings account that could cover you in the event of weather disasters, car breakdowns, and other unexpected calamities. Financial advisers generally recommend putting away three to six months' worth of expenses.
Older Americans are increasingly working into their 70s, for financial as well as psychological reasons. In other words, many of them enjoy their work. A Charles Schwab survey found that one in three 60-something middle-income workers don't want to retire. To prepare for a long career beyond age 65, career experts recommend making sure you're doing work you love. That might mean launching a second career, unrelated to your primary one.
48. Change your habits.
In his book The Power of Habit, New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg explains how we can change our habits by focusing on the cue and reward. If you want to start exercising every day, for example, "cue" it up by putting on your running shoes before breakfast, and then reward yourself afterward with a piece of chocolate. Eventually, the new habit will become a natural part of your day.
Here's an easy way to motivate yourself to commit to big changes in 2013: Focus on your future self. Research by Hal Hershfield, assistant professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business, has found that showing people aged photos of themselves makes them more likely to put money away for later. You can get in touch with your future self by writing a letter or even downloading an aging app, such as AgingBooth, for a sense of what you'll look like in 30 years. Spending more time with your grandparents can also help.
When you're brainstorming for your big money goals for the year, try to focus on specific steps, instead of big, overwhelming dreams. For example, if you want to build financial security, goals might include spending less on food or developing a second stream of income. BJ Fogg, director of Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab, suggests breaking big goals into small baby steps.
Here's to a prosperous 2013!