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50 Ways to Improve Your Finances

June 8, 2012

U.S. News- Money Article By Kimberly Palmer

Whether you’re ready to ramp up your earning power, start saving more money, or manage what you have more effectively, this 50-step guide is designed to help you improve every aspect of your financial life, from overall security to specific saving and spending strategies.

1. Focus on the “why” of your goals instead of the “how.” Planning exactly how you will reach a goal, such as saving more money, can actually make it harder to reach that goal, according to research by Julia Belyavsky Bayuk, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. She found that focusing more on the motivation behind a goal instead of the specifics of how it will be achieved can increase the likelihood of success. That’s partly because having a more “abstract” mindset can help people deal with unexpected challenges along the way.

2. Rethink your relationship with money. For those struggling to make better money decisions, life coach Christine Hassler suggests thinking about money as if it’s a person. “How’s your relationship with George?” she asks, referring to President George Washington’s face on the $1 bill. In her book 20 Something, 20 Everything, she encourages readers to first examine their history with money. “If they don’t excavate what they believe and their sense of worth, they are unable to progress,” she explains. That history includes one’s financial situation growing up and patterns of spending. The first step to fixing a dysfunctional relationship with money is to acknowledge its existence.

3. Protect your privacy. Whenever someone asks for your Social Security number, question if it’s necessary to share it. Never give it to a solicitor on the telephone or in an email, and if you ever notice a suspicious charge on your credit card, follow up with your card company—it could be the first sign of identity theft.

4. Plan a comeback. A lot of people have struggled over the past few years, but that downswing doesn’t have to be permanent. Jude Boudreaux, who now works as a certified financial planner in New Orleans, turned his life around after running up $5,000 in credit card debt in college. He did it by ruthlessly cutting out “extras” in his budget so he could focus on his bigger financial goals, including getting out of debt. Today, Boudreaux says his past struggles are an asset, since he’s living proof to clients that it is possible to make a complete comeback.

5. Visualize your future self. People who feel connected to their future identities are more likely to delay gratification, according to research from the Columbia Business School and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. The researchers offer a relatively simple way to do this: Take a moment or two to meditate on your future self, and just how similar it is to your current self.

6. Get organized. Financial accounts often come with monstrous amounts of paperwork. You’ll probably need to hang on to important documents (some states require taxpayers to keep up to 10 years of filings on hand), but much of your old paperwork belongs in the trash or the shredder if it has valuable information on it, such as bank account numbers. Store your most important documents, such as birth and marriage certificates, in an archival box or a locked metal file cabinet that’s separate from your day-to-day files.

7. Create a paperwork system. Keeping all of your paperwork in one place can be step one to a better financial life. Brooke West, a private financial adviser and vice president at SunTrust, suggests a three ring-binder, which she calls her “financial bible.” She uses a new one every year to hold all of her paperwork. She has tabs for bank statements, Social Security benefits, estate planning, pension and retirement benefits, investments, and credit reports. For a few paper-heavy categories, such as flex-spending receipts, she has separate files.

8. Live below your means. Danny Kofke, a teacher and father of two, manages to live well on his $40,000-a-year salary. In his book, A Simple Book of Financial Wisdom, he explains that he does it by following a pretty simple strategy: Living below his means. He doesn’t buy what he cannot afford, even when he wants to, and avoids debt at all costs.

9. Coordinate with your partner. Not talking about money is one of the biggest money mistakes couples make. Couples considering moving in together or marriage can save themselves a lot of trouble by talking about hot-button topics such as how to share household expenses, credit card debt, and anticipated future expenses. Don’t forget to bring up your long-term goals, too, which can make the discussion a little more romantic. Do you want to swim with dolphins in the Bahamas? Backpack around Europe together? Agreeing on common goals makes it easier to save.

10. Pick a better bank. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to banks anymore, which means consumers have to do their own research to pick the best fit for them. In general, says Today Show financial editor Jean Chatzky, larger banks offer more ATMs and lower interest rates on savings accounts, while smaller banks might be less convenient but offer lower fees. Meanwhile, online-only banks might be able to offer higher interest rates, but lack the bricks-and-mortar presence. She recommends the comparison tool FindABetterBank.com, which makes it easy to search by ZIP code. Other websites, including Bankrate.com and Google Advisor, also offer free customized searches.

11. Automate savings. Online banking makes this technique easy: Sign up for monthly transfers into a brokerage or savings account. You can also transfer funds directly from your paycheck so you never even see the money, which means you won’t miss it. Check in with your human resources department—you might be able to set up an automatic savings account through your paycheck in addition to your automatic retirement savings.

12. Take advantage of online tools. Mint.com lets users upload account information and get immediate insight into where their money is going. It’s free and user-friendly, and comes with a smartphone app that lets you track your budget wherever you are.

13. Create stronger passwords. Scam artists prey on those with easy-to-guess passwords. Avoid becoming a victim by never using the same password on multiple sites, avoiding common words or names, and using a long password that only you know, such as a sentence.

14. Bank safely online. With more customers managing their money through online accounts, mistakes that lead to vulnerability are also more common. Don’t “friend” strangers online, and beware of sharing any personal information publicly that could be used to guess your passwords. Take care when entering passwords on smartphones, too, because such devices generally lack the anti-virus software that’s more common on computers. If you do notice anything suspicious, contact your bank right away.

15. Watch television for free. From the network news to serialized primetime shows to cable programming, the show you want can almost always be found online. In most cases, all the viewer has to do to access a show is watch a short 30-second advertisement before the opening scenes, or a longer two-minute ad where a commercial break would normally be. Not a bad price, considering that most of us watch ads anyway when we tune into our expensive cable channels. Check out Hulu.com, iTunes, and network websites.

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