Getting your finances in shape for new year

Steps to take to firm up balance sheet

January 14, 2007|By Gail MarksJarvis | Gail MarksJarvis,Chicago Tribune

Just what you need - a few more New Year's resolutions.

If you've already given up on the promise you made to get into shape, perhaps you can try to make your finances a little healthier. And if you are still at it on your workouts or weight-loss program, keep in mind that getting the basics right on your finances can be a lot like losing weight - the hardest part is getting started.

When you put the financial fundamentals in place and feel more secure about taking care of yourself and your family, you should give yourself the positive reinforcement you need to keep on going.

Try these resolutions:

Start an emergency fund.

You've probably heard this hundreds of times before, kind of like "eat your vegetables."

But think about it: You need an emergency fund if every time a surprise expense comes up, you have to add money to your credit card balance, or if you do it for expenses as predictable as tires for the car or athletic equipment for the kids. You need a regular stash of cash to fall back on so that a $2,000 credit-card balance doesn't turn into $3,000 or $5,000.

Keep in mind that when you let your balance snowball, you are buying the tires or shoes over and over again. That's interfering with paying for your next car repair. Try the "How much do you owe?" financial calculator at to see what your debt is doing to your future. If you have a credit card charging 18.9 percent, and $5,000 in debt, you will end up paying $14,564 if you pay $100 a month.

Meanwhile, if you are living paycheck to paycheck, you are taking chances in an uncertain job environment. Although the job market is currently strong, many economists are expecting it to weaken this year.

The rule of thumb among financial planners is to have at least three months of pay set aside just in case you lose a job.

Don't try to get there all at once, or you could be discouraged and let this resolution go. If you have saved nothing now, start with an amount you think you can manage -- perhaps as little as $10 or $20 a week if you can keep it going.

Put it in one of the high-paying savings accounts you can find at For example, you can earn more than 4.5 percent on savings at or Set up the account so your money flows automatically from each paycheck into a savings account.

To find some quick and easy savings, read 101 Ways to Cut Expenses by Deerfield, Ill., financial planner Sue Stevens on Morningstar Inc.'s Web site. As you review it, you may be surprised to find how easy it is to cut out costs.

Consider expenditures you won't miss, total up your potential savings, and divide that in half. You can use a portion to finance your emergency fund and the rest as extra monthly payments on your credit card debt.

Another simple source of savings can come from adjusting your withholding on your paycheck. Instead of waiting for a large refund on your taxes each year, take home more pay and channel it into savings throughout the year. Why let the government hold your money for you without paying any interest when you can earn 5 percent on your savings immediately?

Keep in mind that when planners say to have three or even six months of pay set aside in an emergency fund, they mean take-home pay -- not gross income. And when calculating the figure, subtract from it any sum you normally save for retirement or anything else. Obviously, if you lose your job, you can give up saving for a while.

Also, if you have a home, but not a home-equity line of credit, open one while you have a steady job. But don't touch it. It's your emergency fallback in case you lose a job and need to draw on money beyond your savings.

Get insurance, but don't overdo it.

No matter what your age, you'll want to have health insurance if at all possible.

If you think you are young and can skip it, consider a muscular 25-year-old Minneapolis garbage collector who ended up in bankruptcy a year ago after a car accident. After being rushed to the hospital and treated for a couple of broken bones, he was left with thousands of dollars in medical expenses he couldn't handle, and a job he couldn't do.

Besides health insurance, consider disability insurance -- especially if a spouse or children are depending on your income. With disability insurance, an insurance company will provide money if you become sick or are injured and can't work.

Employers often provide insurance that covers 60 percent of a worker's pay, and some let you boost the amount of coverage through relatively small extra monthly payments.

Life insurance is also necessary for families, but not the whole life or universal life policies that pay insurance salesmen large commissions. Financial planners who do not depend on commissions from insurance generally encourage parents to hold term life insurance, which is cheaper.

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