WASHINGTON – Those financial resolutions aren't so hard to keep if you approach them with baby steps.
It's okay to start on January 1 with a glass of champagne and some big, sweeping "retire-early-and-be-debt-free" kinds of goals. But you will be more likely to succeed if you break those big dreams down into simple to-do lists by the 2nd or 3rd. Carve out some time every week to devote to the activities on your list, and write them on your calendar.
By this time next year, you may not be retired or debt-free. But you'll be in a much better place, financially, than you are now.
Here are some timely resolutions and baby steps that can help you keep them.
— Be better about credit. If you've got too much credit card debt (by which I mean any credit card debt), here's how to wipe it out: First, make a list of all of your cards, their interest rates and how much you owe on each. Make minimum payments on all but the highest-interest card; pay as much as you can on your highest-rate card. If all of your debt is on one high-rate card, hunt for a zero-interest balance transfer card, and move your debt there.
Jump-start your payoff plan by doing something extra for spare cash — a yard sale, a weekend second job, a six-month no-restaurants pledge — and using all of the proceeds to pay off that debt. Once your highest-rate card is paid off, start sending as much as you can to your next-highest interest card, until all of them are down to zero.
— Be better about saving. The easiest, most painless way to build a nest egg is this: Choose a low-cost, low-minimum mutual fund (find them at the National Mutual Fund Education Alliance (http://www.mfea.com), open an account and authorize the fund to deduct a set amount from your checking account every month. It couldn't be easier. Once you have this on autopilot you will not miss the money, and it will accumulate faster than you expect.
— Be better about handling your mortgage. If you're still sitting on an adjustable rate mortgage, especially one that allows interest-only payments, this is your grand opportunity to lock in rates that remain surprisingly close to historic lows.
The steps: Call a few mortgage banks or brokers and arrange to get quotes from an online mortgage site. Calculate how much a refinance would save you in the long run. Arrange to refinance to a fixed-rate loan.
— Be better about your records. Start using a system to track your money. It absolutely will make you a better manager of money. Try demo versions of Quicken and Microsoft Money and see which one you like best.
Start keeping your checking account records in the program, and use as much time as you need to add in your investment accounts and other financial activities. Even if it takes you all of 2007 to get up to snuff by 2008, you'll have fast, easy reports which show you how you are doing and, more importantly, inspire you to do better.
Get more organized by learning to pay bills online, and put your regular monthly bills on an automatic plan so you never forget them or pay another late fee.
Buy one accordion folder in January, write all of your tax categories on the different pockets and throw all of your receipts and other tax records in there for a year. April 15 will be a breeze.
— Get smarter about investing. Think of it like this: If you know nothing about investing now, and you study a little bit at a time, you could be near expert status in five years.
And, how old will you be then? Probably still young enough to put those skills to work profitably.
So, take those baby steps: Browse educational Web sites, including some full featured ones run by mutual fund companies like http://www.fidelity.com and http://www.vanguard.com. Read one money book a month. Form an investment club. Buy a stock and watch what it does. Build on everything you learn by learning a little more.