2013 is winding down, and it's time to start thinking about becoming financially fit in 2014. Thirty-four percent of Americans set financial resolutions goals, but only 8 percent are successful in achieving them, according to a 2012 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.
Don't want to be a part of that statistic? Here are eight ways to stay on track:
1. Set realistic financial goals. You're more likely to reach your financial goals if you define them. Whether you're paying off a credit card or trying to buy a house, figure out where you can do some fine-tuning, and then create a plan of action that you can stick with throughout the year.
2. Use credit responsibly. It's easy to get carried away with credit card spending, but you'll likely accrue debt if you're not careful. There are ways to use credit cards to your advantage. Sign up for a credit card with a strong rewards program so you accrue points toward your next trip or splurge purchase every time you use the card. Keep an eye out for cardholder discounts some credit card issuers set up with retailers. Whenever possible, pay off your balance in full and on time each month.
3. Create an emergency fund. Regularly putting money aside in a savings account is crucial in case of an unexpected bill, car repair or loss of income. This is easier said than done, so start with a small amount and get into the habit of putting money away. Cash on hand can spare you from having to use more expensive options such as short-term loans or high-interest credit cards. Automate the process by setting up weekly transfers from your checking account so you don't have to think about it.
4. Use it, don't lose it. If there's cash left in your 2013 health care flexible spending account, don't assume you'll lose it come the new year. Some plans allow you to spend your contributions until March 2014, so check with your plan administrator. If you don't have a flexible spending account, sign up for one when your employer next offers open enrollment. These accounts save you money by allowing you to set aside pre-tax dollars for medical expenses ranging from office visit co-pays to contact lenses and glasses.
5. Tackle your taxes. Don't wait until April to start working on your income taxes. Start now by setting aside all year-end documents, including W-2s, 1099s and bank statements. Collect all your charitable receipts, and organize any business expenses that you plan to write off. Preparing in advance is one of the best ways to maximize your return.
6. Lower your energy usage. This is an easy solution. Turning off the lights when you leave a room, using dimmer switches and keeping the thermostat set at a reasonable temperature are all easy ways to lighten your utility bill. Lowering the thermostat by 10 degrees for 16 hours a day while away at work and sleeping can save you 14 percent off your total heating costs. For example: A $50 bill will drop to $43, which is $7 in savings. Get in the habit of doing a nightly check of the electronic devices in your home before going to bed to ensure everything is turned off. Your wallet (and the Earth) will thank you.
7. Share the road. If possible, try biking to work, carpooling or using public transportation. Beyond saving on fuel costs, automobile wear and tear, and parking, you also might accomplish your New Year's resolution to exercise more!
8. Skip the latte. While a $4 morning coffee can satisfy the soul, it can also hurt the budget. Consider buying the equipment needed to make your beverage of choice at home. It's a larger out-of-pocket expense, but it will easily pay for itself over time.
Having a financial goal in mind for the New Year doesn't mean you have to deprive yourself of life's little luxuries, especially as the holidays come to an end. If you know where to cut your budget, set money aside for savings and always have your long-term goals in mind, you'll likely see your short-term holiday wishes come true as well as your future ones!
Hitha Prabhakar is a consumer spending and retail analyst and Mint.com spokeswoman, the leading web and mobile money management tool that helps people understand and do more with their money.