50 ways to improve your finances in 2015

By Kimberly Palmer, U.S. News & World Report
    The new year is the perfect time to hit “refresh” on your finances. Whether you need to update your insurance, revamp your budget or scale back some shopping habits, take some time to consider these 50 action steps. They can help you improve your finances over the next 12 months.

  1. Decide on financial goals.

    For some people, there’s nothing more appealing than saving for a three-bedroom house with a white picket fence. Others dream of taking a trip around the world or a sabbatical from work. Choosing your money goals makes it easier to work toward them.

  2. Create a spending plan.

    Most people spend about two-thirds of their income on three essentials: food, housing and transportation. Then there are debt payments, savings, household costs and optional items such as entertainment to consider. Create an annual budget by allocating spending goals for each category.

  3. Resist retailers’ enticements.

    Stores are in the business of getting us to spend money, but if we know their tricks, we can better resist the temptation. Rewards cards, enticing smells (like cinnamon around the holidays) and short-term flash sales are a few of the techniques retailers use; being aware of them can make it easier to just say “no.”

  4. Track your spending.

    Keeping track of every expenditure over a two-week period can offer insight into unnecessary wastes, from restaurant meals to cab rides. You can use a pen and pencil or take advantage of free online tools, such as Mint.com or those offered by your financial institution.

  5. Don’t accept posted prices.

    Prices are often a lot more negotiable than you think, even in big-box department stores. If you’ve seen a lower price listed elsewhere, don’t hesitate to ask the store clerk if they can match it. The worst-case scenario is they’ll say “no.”

  6. Research products online before visiting stores.

    Product review sites, coupon code sites and online discount warehouses often provide information and insight into how (and where) to find the best deals. With the proliferation of free shipping codes, the lowest price is often online.

  7. Earn money from more than one source.

    The lack of job security in today’s market means anyone could lose their job or face a salary cut. To create a second source of income, consider turning to one of the fast-growing online marketplaces, such as Fiverr or Etsy, for ideas on how to earn more money.

  8. Launch your own business.

    The recession inspired many Americans to explore entrepreneurship, partly as a way to take back control of their financial lives. Even relatively small businesses, such as a blog that earns money through advertisements or a garden that produces marketable flowers, can turn into a source of financial security.

  9. Negotiate your salary.

    While many workers feel lucky to simply have a job, sometimes asking for a raise can be a smart move. If you’ve recently changed jobs, received a promotion or realized you are underpaid compared to your peers, it might be time to sit down with your supervisor and request a raise.

  10. Track any additional income carefully.

    Earning money outside of a full-time job can complicate matters at tax time; be sure to keep a careful record of all income earned, as well as copies of receipts related to expenses. When it comes to writing off the home office as a tax deduction, be sure to study the IRS rules, which specify that the space can’t be used for other purposes.

  11. Don’t shy away from all debt.

    While debt has earned a bad reputation in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, managing credit and even taking on some debt can be useful. Mortgages allow people to buy homes, and student loans enable people to go to school. Evaluate your debt decisions by considering the pros and cons carefully.

  12. Pay off high-interest rate debt quickly.

    Credit cards have among the highest interest rates around, averaging approximately 15 percent. Retail credit cards are even higher, with the average APR at 23 percent, according to CreditCards.com. Paying off credit cards as soon as possible can help reduce fees and interest-rate charges that balloon over time.

  13. Build a solid credit history.

    Lenders base their decisions on whether or not to loan consumers money, and at what rate, partially on their credit histories. That means someone with a limited credit history (because they have few or no financial accounts) can have trouble taking on a mortgage. Pay bills on time, and be sure to have some accounts in your name.

  14. Check your credit report.

    Everyone is entitled to a free credit report once a year; you can get yours at AnnualCreditReport.com. Reviewing it gives you the chance to fix any mistakes that could be dinging your credit score.

  15. Track and review account statements.

    An unfamiliar charge on a credit card is often the first sign of identity theft. Review all mail from financial institutions carefully to make sure your accounts aren’t being misused. If you see an erroneous charge, contact your financial institution immediately.

  16. Take advantage of rewards cards.

    If you’re among the roughly half of credit card users who pay off their balance each month, you’re well-positioned to enjoy the benefits of credit card use. That includes earning rewards points, automatic fraud protection and, in some cases, certain types of warranties and liability protection.

  17. Choose the best credit card for you.

    Credit card benefits vary widely. If you tend to carry a balance, it pays to find the card with the lowest interest rate possible. If you’re a frequent traveler, you might want an airline card or a card that comes with travel insurance. Comparison websites such as NerdWallet.com or CreditCards.com can help you find the best card for you.

  18. Motivate yourself to pay off debt.

    If you’re trying to unload credit card debt or student loans, remind yourself of your bigger goals with photos of places you want to visit or the home you want to buy one day. Staying focused on those targets can make it easier to say “no” to new purchases.

  19. Adopt a hands-off approach to investing.

    Unless you love studying annual reports and quarterly earnings statements (and even if you do), you’ll probably be better off investing in index funds and other types of securities that reflect the market broadly, instead of one or two companies.

  20. Minimize your investment fees.

    Fees on mutual funds and other investment products can take a big chunk out of your earnings over time. Minimize fees by avoiding expensive products, such as actively managed funds, and opting for index funds instead.

  21. Remember the risk-versus-reward rule.

    Along with the importance of diversity, the risk-versus-reward tradeoff is one of the classic rules of investing: If you want higher rewards, you have to take on greater risk. Assess your risk profile and invest accordingly. If you like to know your money is safe, you probably want to keep it in more conservative investments.

  22. Start early, invest often.

    The power of compounding means saving early will lead to a much bigger nest egg at retirement time than waiting to save until midcareer. If your company offers a matching-contribution program for your retirement plan, taking advantage of it will only add to your saving efforts.

  23. Don’t try to time the market.

    Since it’s impossible to predict the market’s fluctuations, investing at a slow and steady pace, like through automatic deductions from a biweekly paycheck, can be a better strategy than dropping money into the market whenever it looks promising.

  24. Consider your time horizon.

    As retirement gets closer, you’ll want to shift into more conservative accounts. A general rule of thumb is to subtract your age from 100 or 110. Put that percent in stocks and the rest in more conservative investing vehicles, like bonds.

  25. Don’t follow the market every day.

    The market goes up and down, and if you’re investing for the long term, there’s no need to stress over every dip. Instead, check in with your portfolio once a quarter to rebalance it, and make any other necessary adjustments.

  26. Consider working with a professional.

    If handling your own money makes you nervous, there’s nothing wrong with seeking professional advice. Consider a fee-only advisor to avoid conflicts of interest. Your employer might also offer free retirement investing assistance.

  27. Calculate your retirement number.

    Retirement calculators, which are readily available online, make it easy to estimate how much money you should save before retirement. Since $1 million would provide around $50,000 worth of income over 20 years, you probably want to aim for more than that, depending on your lifestyle costs.

  28. Take baby steps.

    Putting 10 percent or more of your income toward retirement can be overwhelming. Savers often have more success by starting small and putting just 2 or 3 percent of their income away, and then slowly increasing that rate over time.

  29. Check your Social Security statement online.

    The Social Security Administration used to mail out statements explaining estimated benefits to workers each year. Now, for most Americans, paper statements come only once every five years. Workers can visit SocialSecurity.gov to create their account and check their estimated future benefits online anytime.

  30. Save even when you’re not earning.

    The plethora of retirement account options make it possible to continue saving even when you’re not employed in a full-time job. Roth IRAs and spousal IRAs are among the options; check your eligibility and then consider contributing.

  31. Live with family members.

    The vast majority of college graduates now move back in with their parents, at least briefly, upon graduation. Doing so can make it easier to find one’s financial footing, especially while job hunting or starting to make student loan payments.

  32. Look for nonfinancial ways to help family members.

    Career advice, networking suggestions and home-cooked meals can be just as helpful to new college graduates as cash. Young adults can also help out their parents with household chores or technology lessons, especially if they’re living at home for free.

  33. Just say no.

    Sometimes you have to look out for your own financial security before helping others. If giving assistance to struggling family members is forcing you to take on debt or tap into savings, consider politely explaining that you can help in other ways, but not by giving cash.

  34. Prepare to help aging parents.

    Many 20-, 30- and 40-somethings will need to help with their parents as they get older; that might mean providing money, sharing homes or helping with money management. Also increasingly common is sharing a roof with multiple generations, which can help both parents and adult children save.

  35. Avoid sharing credit accounts.

    While family members often co-sign for loans or credit cards to help each other out, doing so can have complicated financial ramifications. If one person runs up debt on the account, the other person’s credit can be ruined as well. That’s why it’s best to avoid sharing credit accounts.

  36. Talk about it.

    If you’re not sure whether parents, adult children or other family members are expecting assistance from you, consider broaching the topic. An honest discussion about needs, expectations and limits can prevent misunderstandings later.

  37. Live more simply.

    The last recession brought frugality back into vogue; do-it-yourself crafts, home-cooking and even at-home haircuts are all cool again. Small lifestyle changes, like biking to work instead of driving, can significantly reduce monthly expenditures.

  38. Find cheaper hobbies.

    Visiting public gardens and museums, attending community events or going on hikes are among the free or inexpensive activities that can replace more costly ones. Meetup.com groups and local blogs and websites make it easy to explore options.

  39. Plan weekly meals.

    Food is one of those categories that can suddenly balloon with take-out meals or restaurant costs. To avoid that trap, try planning meals a week in advance, which also makes it easier to repurpose ingredients. One night’s roast chicken can turn into the next night’s pizza topping.

  40. Set joint money goals.

    If you’re married or living with a significant other, financial planning can’t be done in a vacuum. Setting joint spending goals can help minimize conflicts over daily or weekly spending, even if you decide to maintain separate bank accounts.

  41. Insure yourself.

    Most young adults lack renters insurance, and even many older Americans are underinsured when it comes to protecting their homes and properties. Renters and home insurance can be lifesavers in the case of weather disasters, theft and other unexpected events.

  42. Make sure you’re ready for baby.

    Children cost their parents close to a quarter of a million dollars before age 18, and that figure excludes college tuition. Soon-to-be parents can prepare for some of those costs by saving up in advance, skipping unnecessary nursery purchases and looking for creative child care solutions that allow them to blend work and family.

  43. Buy life insurance.

    No one likes discussing death, but once you’re responsible for children or other dependents, taking out life insurance (as well as writing a will), becomes necessary. Young, healthy adults can usually find affordable term policies with little trouble; a $1 million policy for a healthy 30-year-old might cost around $800 a year.

  44. Use fewer products.

    Cutting back on pricey cleaning products as well as personal care products such as perfumes and lotions can keep your money in the bank while also benefiting the environment. If you’re crafty, you might even consider making your own body scrubs and lotions with do-it-yourself recipes online.

  45. Cancel catalog subscriptions.

    Not only do catalogs tempt us into buying things we don’t need, but they also use up a lot of paper, much of which goes straight into the trash (or recycling bin). Tell retailers you no longer want to receive their mail, or use a website like 41pounds.org to do the job for you.

  46. Make your toilet more efficient.

    Dropping a soda bottle filled with water or sand into the back of your toilet can automatically transform it into a low-flow commode. You’ll lower your water bill while also feeling good about using less water each month.

  47. Give companies public feedback.

    As consumers increasingly turn to blogging and social media to lodge complaints, companies are paying attention. If you’ve tried going through traditional customer service routes to no avail, consider using your online voice on Twitter or Facebook to get the company’s attention.

  48. Unplug devices.

    Many electronic devices, such as cable boxes and television sets, suck power even when they’re turned off. To reduce your electricity bill, unplug them or consider using a smart power strip that automatically cuts power when devices aren’t in use.

  49. Create a giving circle.

    If you want to donate to charity, but feel like your budget is too small to make a difference, a giving circle might be for you. Similar to a book club, it involves a group of friends getting together to jointly donate to a single charity, and often volunteer their time together as well.

  50. Consider nonfinancial donations, too.

    Giving away used clothes, toys, DVDs or even blood can be as useful to charities as cash donations. You can also use the opportunity to clear clutter out of your home.