New Year’s isn’t just a time for revelry and midnight kissing; it’s also a landmark for new beginnings. Before the confetti from New Year’s Eve is even swept up, folks around the world will be busy making promises to themselves and loved ones about how they plan to change their lives for the better in the coming months. That’s why the gym always seems so crowded in January, while the job market gets flooded with new applicants and fledgling teetotalers lock their liquor cabinets and hide the keys.
New Year’s Resolutions aren’t limited to one’s physical health and career prospects, however. Financial well-being is a common theme as well, with people often pledging to finally pay off their debt and/or do a better job of budgeting.
With that in mind, we at WalletHub came up with 5 Resolutions for Your Finances in 2015. Committing to these changes – some of which might surprise you – will help improve your financial situation in the short-term and keep you out of trouble moving forward. Don’t worry if you’ve had problems adhering to resolutions in the past either; we’ve provided a roadmap of sorts to ensure that you don’t get lost along the path from resolution to end result. Good luck!
Escape Credit Card Debt
Rationale: After displaying relative improvement in years past, U.S. consumers are once again racking up credit card debt at a record pace. Not only are we on pace to incur at least $60 billion in credit card debt during 2014 alone – which would represent an increase of at least 55% relative to 2013 – but WalletHub is also projecting that 2015 will see a $60+ billion build-up.
Given how corrosive credit card interest is to investing and retirement planning as well as how vulnerable the lack of an emergency fund makes us to the vicissitudes of the economy, paying off amounts owed and curtailing future overleveraging should be major priorities in the New Year.
Recommended Approach: Extricating oneself from debt can be a very difficult process. As a result, there is no simple recipe for doing so. There are, however, a few tried-and-true strategies that you’ll want to employ, including:
- Make a Budget: Solving your debt problems necessitates living within your means, thereby preventing your balances from growing and enabling you to focus on paying down what you already owe. To do that, you’ll likely have to rethink your definition of a necessity (hint: a flatscreen TV isn’t one). We recommend ranking your common monthly expenses in order of importance and eliminating those that you care least about until your expenses are significantly less than your monthly take-home.
- Adhere to the Island Approach: You can minimize interest and get the best possible collection of rates and rewards by isolating different types of expenses on individual credit cards, as if they are desert islands. For example, you should carry any debt you have on one card while using a different card to make everyday purchases (which you should always pay for in full within the respective billing period). If you’re charged interest on the card you’ve designated for everyday use, you’ll know that you need to cut back. You can use a credit card calculator to identify the best credit cards for each of your unique needs.
- Focus on High-Interest Debt: If you have a few different balances, attribute the majority of your monthly debt payment to the balance with the highest interest rate while only putting the minimum required to stay current toward your other balances. As you systematically eliminate your most expensive debt, the money you have available for other balances and, eventually, pursuits such as saving for college and retirement will increase like a snowball rolling down a hill.
Ask The Expert: Jason S. Seligman - Assistant Professor, John Glenn School of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University
“The last few months have signaled better prospects for workers in terms of both employment, and more recently wages - so this would reduce concerns a bit more this year than in, say the previous few.
That noted, the best way to stay out of debt is to anticipate and budget for expenses. Two categories of expenses that people miss are gifts and vacation expenses. At this time of year both are resonant. Having a budget for holiday gifts for example, and thinking about it in monthly terms can be useful - even if you go over a bit you'll have saved closer to your target expenditure with less left over as a surprise to finance. Vacations work similarly.
Finally there will always be surprises and these should be saved for ahead of time as well -- as much as possible.”
Build Excellent Credit
Rationale: Anyone who has followed the credit card market in recent years understands the value of excellent credit. In an attempt to bolster their business against future economic turmoil, issuers have been offering eye-catching initial rewards bonuses and 0% financing deals to consumers with above-average credit standing. Such cards have the potential to save users $400 to more than $1,000. The importance of a strong credit track record extends far beyond that, however. From mortgage and insurance savings to one’s ability to land certain jobs or rent an apartment, there are a variety of clear-cut benefits that come with responsible credit management.
Recommended Approach: Exactly how you approach credit building depends on your starting point. If you’re new to credit or trying to recover from past mistakes, opening a secured credit card is likely your best option. Anyone who can place a refundable security deposit of at least $200 can get a secured card because the deposit acts as the account’s spending limit and protects the issuer financially. Secured cards are also indistinguishable from “normal” credit cards on your credit reports, which means that as long as you make on-time payments each month, positive information will flow into your credit reports and you should see credit score gains in a little bit over a year.
Those of you who have already built a bit of credit should certainly follow the same game plan in terms of making on-time payments, but you should also make sure to have 3-4 open credit/loan accounts and minimize debt in order to boost your available credit and expedite the credit building process.
Ask The Expert: Edward C. Lawrence - Professor of Finance, University of Missouri - St. Louis
“Today, credit scores are used for almost everything including borrowing money, renting an apartment, finding a job, and obtaining car or homeowners insurance. Therefore it very important to maintain a reasonable score that confirms you are a responsible person who knows how to manage money. Scores above 720 are ideal and will generally put the person in the prime (favorable) lending market.
The best way to improve one’s score is to always pay your bills by the deadline and do not over-extend yourself by borrowing too much money from a multitude of creditors. If you have to use credit cards to pay for basic living expenses, then you are likely spending more than you can afford. One excellent goal is to be able to pay off the full balance of your credit cards each month. It is also important to maintain an emergency fund to be able to draw on when a special need arises.”
Improve Your Child’s Financial Literacy
Rationale: We essentially have a financial illiteracy epidemic on our hands right now. The events of the past few years have proven how little most of us know about responsible money management, and it seems that our children know even less. I mean, more than 70% of parents say their kids don’t know the basics of personal finance. Some changes to the education system are obviously needed, but education always starts at home, and parents need to give their kids practical experience managing their own money when they reach high school.
We recommend giving your child an allowance on a prepaid card and requiring that they pay for some of their own discretionary expenses. Once your child masters the prepaid card, you can progress to cash, a checking account, and ultimately a student credit card. Such a program will give your child experience budgeting and making transactions with the major financial products used during financial independence.
Recommended Approach: The best way to impart financial lessons is through practical experience. We recommend starting by giving your child his or her allowance on a prepaid card and requiring that they foot some of their own bills (e.g. trips to the movies to start). A prepaid card makes for a great starter financial product because parents can closely monitor their kids’ spending habits through online account management and kids can’t incur any debt or ruin their credit standing. After your child masters prepaid card use, we suggest increasing their responsibilities while decreasing the frequency with which you provide their allowance and gradually progressing from providing it in cash to using a checking account and, finally, a student credit card.
Ask The Expert: Nicholas Prewett – Director of Financial Aid, University of Missouri
“Having an open dialogue about money early and often can lay the groundwork for financial planning. Individuals who know the value of a dollar and what it takes to earn those dollars are more likely to respect the idea of financial planning. Parents sharing experiences (good or bad) on taking out loans, paying those off and the sacrifices made to get what they want is also important.
Also, starting a college savings plan or other savings account in a child’s name and teaching them how to save is another way to establish good habits when it comes to managing finances. It doesn’t have to be a lot, it just needs to become a habit for students to manage their money properly.”
Start a Rainy Day Fund
Rationale: If there’s one lesson we learned from the Great Recession it’s that an emergency fund is extremely important. After all, we’ve defaulted on more than a quarter of a trillion dollars since the beginning of 2009, and that staggering number would be a lot lower if more of us had emergency funds. That’s why when people ask me, ‘which should I do first: pay off my debt or build my emergency fund,’ I always say that establishing an emergency fund should actually be the higher priority.
Say, for example, you pay off what you owe and immediately lose your job. If you don’t have an emergency fund, you’ll just fall right back into debt, incur significant credit score damage, and have creditors ranging from your doctor to the cable guy showing up at your door. With that being said, the goal should be to have a nest egg equal to roughly a year’s salary so that you can stay afloat while handling any financial emergency that may pop up.
Recommended Approach: Ideally, you want a cash reserve equal to about one-year’s salary. This will obviously take some time to build, which means you should attribute a certain amount of each month’s take-home to building your fund until it reaches the requisite value.
Interestingly, having a solid emergency fund should be a higher priority than paying off amounts owed. Think about it: If you focus on paying off your debt instead of building an emergency fund, unforeseen circumstances such as job loss will cause you to immediately start falling behind on all of your payments. You’ll therefore not only find yourself back where you started in terms of debt, but you’ll also incur significant credit score damage and have creditors ranging from your phone company to your landlord coming after you.
Ask The Expert: Scott C. Hammond - Clinical Professor of Management, Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University
“Spend for the worse, not the best. Just as you might dress for success, spend for failure. Assume you will go 6 to 12 months every ten years without a pay check. Save accordingly. Live on a budget. Store a little food. Have a solid savings account with liquid assets.”
Improve Your Health
Rationale: There’s actually a strong correlation between your personal health and that of your wallet. Studies show that being overweight or smoking translates to thousands of dollars in additional medical costs over the course of your lifetime, and that doesn’t even speak to lost productivity due to a lack of energy, the added insurance burden, or money wasted on quick-fix health improvement schemes.
Mental health is just as important because being happy and in a sound state of mind has positive ramifications throughout your life, particularly in terms of being more efficient at the workplace. We’re obviously not experts in physical or mental health, but we can point out their importance and recommend addressing them in the coming year.
Recommended Approach: Don’t look for any wisdom in this recommendation, as we have no more expertise in this area than any of you. So make sure your weight is proportional to your height, eat healthy and balanced meals, exercise regularly, and eliminate bad habits like smoking or excessive drinking.
Ask The Expert: William Mahnic - Associate Professor of Banking & Finance, Case Western Reserve University
“Improved health should lead to improved productivity and performance on the job, which will eventually lead to a higher income and greater personal wealth.
‘Seeing more of the gym and less of your doctor’ should be one of your resolutions for 2015.”
There you have it: your roadmap to financial well-being in 2015. Set your goals, focus on remaining disciplined, and remind yourself of the proverbial pot of gold at the end of their rainbow. That way, your wallet is the only thing that’ll be fat when next year rolls around!