Whip Your Finances Into Shape

By now you’ve abandoned your plan to eat a healthier breakfast and spend an hour at the gym every day. Across the country, self-improvement resolutions have fallen by the wayside. Instead of succumbing to guilt and frustration over what you might not do this year, why not focus your energy on a goal that’s achievable at any time of year – financial fitness?

More Americans are concerned about their financial fitness rather than their personal health, and twice as many resolved to improve their financial health as their physical well-being, according to a recent online poll by American Consumer Credit Counseling. But taking control of your finances doesn’t have to be limited to the first few months of the year – you can get started anytime.

“Many people know they should save more, spend less and cut debt, but they may be unsure of how to go about it,” says Trey Loughran, president of the Personal Solutions unit at Equifax. “Starting out with a detailed strategy is the first step toward improving financial fitness.”

These five steps can help ensure this is the year you finally whip your finances into shape:

Add up all your debt

You know you owe, but do you know how much? Americans tend to underestimate how much debt they really have on credit cards, mortgages and auto loans, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Knowing how much you owe will give you a starting point to begin planning how you will pay it off.

Add up all your monthly expenses

Here, too, many people don’t have a firm grasp on how much they spend in a month. Gather all your monthly bills – utility bills, gas costs, insurance payments, grocery receipts, restaurant and coffee shop receipts, etc. Total them. Does the tally astonish you? Now separate the bills into those you must pay every month and those that are discretionary. You must pay your electricity bill, but do you really need coffee shop joe every morning? The discretionary expenses will give you an idea of where you have room to make changes in your spending habits. Now compare how much you spend in a month against how much income you bring in. If you’re spending less than you make, good for you – you can jump to Step 4. If you’re spending more than you bring in, go directly to Step 3.

Cut expenses.

Overspending can drive you into debt if you rely on credit to make up for a monthly shortfall. You can either try to increase your income by getting a second job or one that pays more, or you can cut unnecessary expenses. Evaluate your list of expenses from Step 2. What can you live without? Are there any “fixed” expenses that are actually flexible, such as your cable bill or cellphone bill? Look for places where you can save money and bring your spending in line with your earning.

Set up a budget.

Now that you know how much you owe, earn and spend each month, it’s time to create a budget. A personal or household budget is the framework for your future financial fitness. A budget helps you anticipate and manage cash flow so that you can meet your monthly obligations, set aside money for your future and work to pay down credit card debt.

Keep an eye on your credit.

Although everyone is entitled to view a copy of their credit report from each credit reporting agency for free at least once every year, not everyone does so.  If you’re working toward a specific financial fitness goal, such as paying down debt, building an emergency fund or saving toward a down payment on a house, it makes sense to monitor your credit regularly. Review your credit report and credit score so you can better understand how your past credit behaviors affected your finances, and how future credit decisions may also impact your life (keep in mind: the credit score provided may differ from the actual credit score used by lenders). You may also want to consider signing up for a credit monitoring product, which can alert you to key changes in your credit file and also help in protecting you from identity theft.

“Financial fitness is an achievable goal, no matter when you start,” Loughran says. “Fortunately, it’s easy to find plenty of resources to help, from financial planners and investment advisors to online resources like the Equifax Finance Blog (www.blog.equifax.com). With some knowledge and perseverance, it’s possible to make 2014 the year you finally get your finances in top shape.”

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