The glow of the holidays has faded and the drabness of January is setting in, which means it’s time to take stock of your new year’s resolutions. So how is that exercise regime going? What about that plan to read the Great Books?
Thought so. Here’s an alternative.
The start of 2014, with the first eruptions of the financial crisis more than five years behind us and the economic recovery under way, is a great time to make resolutions that will put your financial house in better order. Sticking to them will produce results that should be a lot more rewarding than a new diet.
Financial resolutions have become much more common since the financial crisis. When Fidelity Investments began surveying consumers about their new year’s resolutions in 2009, just 35 percent of Americans pledged to be smarter with their finances. For 2014, 54 percent said they made money resolutions, and Ken Hevert, vice president for retirement products, said their goals have evolved.
(Read more: Do this, not that, in 2014)
“When we first started doing this, it was all about long-term savings goals and spending less,” he said. That singular focus indicated a need to batten the hatches financially—not surprising in the depths of the recession. Since then, Hevert said, “what we have seen is a slight shift toward short-term savings goals,” with 39 percent of respondents saying they set those resolutions, up from 29 percent a year earlier. “Individuals have become a little more balanced in how they look at their goals.”
Part of that balance is with rainy-day funds. Many consumers wildly underestimate how much they need to keep on hand in emergency savings, and you would do yourself a solid if you build upon the money you already have. Organizations like the National Foundation for Credit Counseling recommend that you keep the equivalent of three to six months of income available for unpleasant surprises.
That said, it’s still a great idea to resolve to boost your long-term savings, just as a majority of the Fidelity survey respondents do. Various reports suggest that Americans are woefully unprepared for retirement. A case in point: Federal Reserve data released in 2012 showed that about half of all American families owned no retirement savings accounts.
What other goals should consumers set? Hevert suggested a simple one: budgeting.
“Any resolution that rolls up to being more financially literate, having a better grasp of your budget—that’s one that is overlooked by so many people,” he said. In the Fidelity survey, just 12 percent said making or sticking to a budget was a priority. “People will spend a lot more time planning their one vacation a year than they will understanding their budget,” Hevert said. “If you can make a resolution saying, ‘I’m really going to get a handle on my budget,’ that’s going to help you year in and year out, especially as you move into retirement.” Online tools like Mint.com can help, but you can also create a budget the old-fashioned way—with pencil and paper.
(Read more: Budget or bust)
Saving for college is another resolution experts recommend. Nancy Farmer, president of Private 529 College Plan, which lets people prepay tuition at current rates at selected private colleges and universities, has suggestions for how to get started. Thinking year by year in concrete terms will help you take those first steps, she said, and early savings are the most effective, thanks to the magic of compounding.
“Take a deep breath. It’s going to take a little time, but just get started,” she said. “Maybe this year all you can do is put in your tax refund. Maybe next year your 5- year-old goes from preschool to kindergarten and you can put that in savings.”
(Read more: Save me: Coming up with $500,000 for college)
The new year is also a good time to educate yourself and your family about money. A 2012 study by the Securities and Exchange Commission found that “investors have a weak grasp of elementary financial concepts and lack critical knowledge of ways to avoid investment fraud,” and the problem is particularly acute among African Americans, Hispanics, women, those with lower levels of education, and the elderly.
(Read more: Five things teens don’t know about money)
There are many online resources for boosting your financial literacy. Financial institutions offer seminars and online resources, but there are numerous non-commercial sources as well. Just for starters, the National Endowment for Financial Education offers a variety of information for consumers. So does MyMoney.gov, a financial education website offered by the Federal Financial Literacy and Education Commission.
If you are like most people, you finished last year making a flurry of last-minute donations to charities to take advantage of the charity tax deduction. Research from the Center on Philanthropy shows that a quarter of all donations are made between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. You will be a more effective philanthropist if you resolve to make a giving plan this year.
Tuning up your finances takes commitment, no question. But really, if you stick to your guns, you’ll soon find yourself able to buy that gym membership you promised yourself several times over.
—By CNBC’s Kelley Holland. Follow her on Twitter @KKelleyHolland.