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Personal Finance > Five Tips
Financial resolutions
5 Tips: Getting your financial house in order for the New Year.
December 10, 2004: 11:21 AM EST
By Gerri Willis, CNN/Money contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - If you're like many Americans, getting into shape is at the top of your New Year's resolution list.

For others, the New Year is a chance start over and do things differently financially.

While we can't help you tone your abs, we can help you get financially fit. Here are five tips to help you get your finances in order.

1. Get rid of holiday debt.

U.S. consumers will spend $219 billion on gifts this holiday season, according to the National Retail Federation. 30 percent of these purchases will be made on credit cards.

Debt hangovers from the holidays can be extremely painful. Not paying off your holiday debt can mean high interest payments; plus your credit is tied up while you pay down your debt.

If you're in this boat, you'll want to do some planning. First, if your holiday debt is largely on credit cards, add up the debt on each and figure out just how much you can afford to set aside monthly to pay the cards down. Don't be overly aggressive in your estimate -- you need a workable plan.

To be sure you'll pay off something on each card each month, but put the most down on the card with the highest interest rate.

Keep in mind, too, that this is a good time to contact your credit card issuer and ask for a lower interest rate. They will often oblige, particularly if you have a card offer with a lower rate on hand to mention.

Pay more than the minimum payments. Try not to take on additional credit card debt while you work off your existing holiday bills.

2. Move your finances online.

If the online banking thing is new to you, you want to slowly venture in taking baby steps. Start by paying just one bill online. As you begin to feel more comfortable, graduate to another bill and so on and so on.

There are several benefits to banking online -- first, banking on the Web may help you deter identity thieves. Paying your bills online could cut down the threat of suspicious activity since people have a tendency to look at their accounts more often when they bank online. For that reason, they're able to spot suspicious activity more quickly.

Among other benefits of going online is cutting down on postage and unlike a bank, online banking sites are never closed. Also, sometimes your bank or credit card company will inform you online when your next statement is available and when it has been posted to your account.

3. Boost retirement savings to the max.

One smart step to take now to ensure your future is to boost your retirement savings.

The good news is that the limits on how much you can set aside go up next year. In 2005, you can put up to $14,000 into a 401(k) (that's up from $13,000 in 2004). You can contribute even more if you are 50 or older, up to an additional $4,000.

Also, if you haven't already made your maximum contribution to your Roth IRA, do it now. For 2005, the max is $4,000 per person or $4,500 if you'll be 50 or older by the end of the year.

4. Interest rates are still low...for now.

As we head into the New Year interest rates are expected to keep creeping up. For that reason, you'll want to pay off any high interest rate debt (as we said before).

Because rates are moving higher, you may want to snag a low fixed interest rate credit card. Check out or for info.

The good news is that savers tend to benefit from rising rates. According to certified financial planner Doug Flynn, if you're planning on buying a certificate of deposit (CD) this year, you may want to look into CDs with shorter-term maturities. You'll want to kick yourself if you're locked into a longer-term CD and yields become more attractive later on.

5. Buy yourself peace of mind.

Many people think "it won't happen to me." However, you never know when an emergency can strike. For that reason, consider setting up an emergency fund for you and your family to cover a financial emergency. Financial emergencies can include life-changing illnesses or a loss of job.

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So, how much should you sock away? Three to six months of your living expenses. The amount you save depends on your personal financial circumstances and obligations. For example, a household making $50,000 a year, should sock away at least $12,500 (3 months salary) in an emergency fund.

Treat the emergency fund as a monthly bill you must pay. You will be able to discipline yourself to put the money away consistently.

You'll also want to make sure to put the money in a fairly liquid vehicle, such as a savings account, which will allow you to withdraw the money when you need it.

Also, an emergency fund is a smart alternative to using a credit card to help cover a major expense. Using a credit card will just add interest to debt you already can't pay.

Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News. Willis also hosts CNNfn's Open House, weekdays from Noon to 12:30 p.m. (ET). E-mail comments to  Top of page

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