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It's time to improve our money lives

If you're spending every dime you earn, it's hard to adjust when your work hours are cut or your health insurance premiums rise, your car breaks down or your credit card company raises your rate.

I think it's safe to say the events of the past 18 months have led even the most finance-averse among us to think more about improving our money lives.

So it's no surprise to learn that many of us are making financial New Year's resolutions this year. According to a TD Ameritrade survey, 75 percent of us will make at least one New Year's resolution. A Fidelity survey says 88 percent of us believe the events of the past year will help us stick to these resolutions. Common money-themed resolutions include saving or investing more, paying off debt and creating a financial plan.

I'm not a huge fan of resolutions. I figure why wait until Jan. 1 to make an important change? But in 2010 I resolve to finally save six months of living expenses in the McGuire emergency fund. Next year I'm going to cut fewer coupons as well. Yes, fewer. Compelled to find each and every deal, I spend too much time with my disorganized coupon box and my laptop searching for deals at the expense of my free time. Come January, I'm only cutting coupons for things I truly need.

I hope that you'll share your financial resolutions on my blog: If you can't think of your own financial resolution, pick from my list of suggestions below:


Live below your means. I asked the people who follow my Twitter posts (@kablog) for their suggestions and "Live within your means" was by far the most popular piece of advice. I'm going to revise that to "live below your means," because if this recession has taught us anything, it's how quickly things can change. If you're spending every dime you earn, it's hard to adjust when your work hours are cut or your health insurance premiums rise, your car breaks down or your credit card company raises your rate. Yes, it's also hard to live below your means, but in 2010 I hope you'll give it a try.


Stay positive. Things will get better. The job you're in won't be your forever job. You won't have to live with Mom and Dad for good. Until the job market bounces back, network and keep in touch with your college career center. Look into new income-based repayment plans for federal student loans. And with any extra money, consider starting a Roth IRA, a flexible retirement plan, because contributions can be tapped without penalty. (But try not to.)


Think long-term. There is no easy answer for what to do if the stock market's drop took a big bite out of your retirement portfolio and your plans. But experts such as Thrivent's chief investment officer, Russell Swansen, have pointed out that life doesn't end at retirement. Because people are living into their 80s and beyond, he said, you can afford to have some money in stocks, especially in an environment where interest rates are so low that it barely pays to invest in some types of risk-free investments.


Freeze your credit cards and grab a pen and paper. I mean literally stick your credit cards in a big ol' container of water and freeze the darn things. Or at the very least, take them out of your wallet. Most everyone I've ever spoken to who successfully tackled credit card debt removed the plastic from their wallets and vowed to stick with cash, no matter what life threw their way. And without credit to rely on as a backup, tracking each penny you spend is vitally important.

For those of you who would rather ditch pen and paper and track your purchases the 21st-century way, there are iPhone applications for free online programs such as The site, recently purchased by Intuit, maker of Quicken, has plenty of scrappy competitors -, and, to name three in a growing field.


Donate more. It's been a tough year for fundraising. I understand the natural tendency for those of us who have been relatively untouched by the recession to want to shore up our own finances in case we aren't so lucky in 2010. And it's the right thing to do. But remember that people just like us who weren't as lucky are turning to charities to get through this rough patch. Data from the GivingUSA Foundation show that Americans donate about 2 percent of our disposable income to charity each year. Can you match or beat that?


Resolve to make financial education a priority. Most of us would agree the mortgage crisis would have been less severe if only we were a more financially literate nation, better able to sniff out scams and assess risky loans. Our retirement portfolios wouldn't have taken quite as severe a hit if we better understood how to analyze our workplace investment options. Minnesota should require a standalone personal finance course in high school, and students should be tested on their knowledge. And businesses should provide workers with unbiased financial advice to help them pick the right investment mix.


According to an Edward Jones survey about financial resolutions, respondents in the north-central region, which includes Minnesota, shared the following financial goals:


Paying off debt / 36

Increasing savings / 30

Contributing more money to 401(k) or IRA / 10

Paying down mortgage faster / 10

Putting money into child's or grandchild's education     / 8

Starting to work with a financial adviser / 1

Don't know / 5

An Allianz survey asked respondents what the country's financial resolutions should be for 2010:

Creating jobs and reducing unemployment / 53

Fixing the nation's finances / 32

Solving health care issues / 11

Mending strained relations around the world / 4

Kara McGuire is a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Readers may send her e-mail at or follow her on Twitter at

(c) 2009, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.