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here it is again. Another New Year is upon us, and with it the opportunity--make that the need--to do what we promise! Save more, spend less, invest wisely. Maybe next year...
      Trouble is, unless we have a plan, chances are our financial resolutions will come to the inglorious end they've met in the past. Habits are hard to break, and for most of us, the way we handle money is the product of years of practice. Engaging in these repetitive behaviors reinforces them.
      If you're having trouble paying down that monthly credit card balance, or putting some money away each month in the credit union, understand that a change in personal financial habits requires willpower. Here are 10 suggestions from the experts to turn things around:

1. Cultivate total awareness: Be aware of your debt, especially those types that sneak up on you. Credit card debt, for example. "When you realize that you are in credit card trouble, you have to recognize what got you into debt in the first place," says Charles Ross, author of "Your Commonsense Guide to Personal Financial Planning" (ISBN 0-7852-7222-4). "If you don't change your spending habits, you can't expect to change the outcome of those habits."

2. Organize your financial strategy: The first step in creating a positive financial picture is to make a list of your debts--credit cards, closed-end loans, first and second mortgages, auto loans. Include the name of the creditor, the monthly payment, the date of the last payment, and the total amount owed. Then tackle smaller debts first. Once you pay off the smaller debts, use the money to pay larger debts. "It's important to go after smaller debts first because it gives us a reward system," says Ross.

3. Consolidate revolving debt: In general, the interest rate you pay on credit cards is significantly higher than the interest on a closed-end loan. "It makes sense to start the new year with a zero balance on your credit card, and resolve to keep it at zero from month to month," says Chicago financial counselor Susan Comer. "Consolidate your outstanding balance [on a lower rate card], then pay those credit card purchases off each month to avoid having the spiral of debt start all over again." Credit unions offer rates typically five percentage points lower than other issuers, so your credit union credit card can save serious money.

4. Make a spending plan, and stick to it: The National Foundation for Consumer Credit (NFCC), Silver Spring, Md., advises that creating a budget can help you understand exactly where your money goes and where you need to change spending patterns. Following the budget you outline will help your savings swell and your debt level shrink.

5. Reduce expenses: The experts at the NFCC also suggest you look for no- or low-cost entertainment and cut back on other day-to-day spending. For example, consider bringing lunch to work, substituting video rentals for frequent trips to the movie theater, and visiting the library for the latest books and magazines. Small reductions in daily spending add up quickly. Trimming $5 from daily expenses adds up to more than $1,800 over the course of a year.

6. Don't be caught short: Most bills come due on a monthly basis--utilities, rent, mortgage, car payment, and the like. But some bills come up far less frequently--real estate taxes, life insurance, vacations, major household repairs, and holidays, for example. An emergency savings fund--in your credit union share, money market, or certificate account--is a cushion that will help you avoid future financial problems.

7. Automate the saving habit: In her book "Making The Most Of Your Money" (ISBN 0-671-65952-9), Jane Bryant Quinn refers to this as "getting someone else to save for you." Arrange for direct payroll deposit with the credit union, and have a specified portion of that deposit go directly into savings. And by all means, save through your employer's 401(k) plan, if available. Because many of these programs include an automatic matching figure, you get instant returns for every dollar you invest.

8. Keep the heap: Your friends and neighbors won't respect you any less for driving that old car for another year or two. An automobile is the second-largest purchase for most consumers. You're virtually never ahead financially by trading in a late-model car for a new one, because first-year depreciation is far more expensive than maintenance on an older car. By holding on to your car after you complete payments, you put big bucks back into your pockets. The money you save will help you build a larger down payment to assure lower borrowing expenses for your next car.

9. Get help when you need it: Many of us simply are unwilling to admit we're having problems managing money and allow denial to further complicate the problem. The NFCC advises: "If you are having financial trouble or would like help setting financial priorities, seek counseling help. The 1,300 member offices of NFCC offer free or low-cost financial education workshops, budgeting assistance, and credit counseling." To locate a local NFCC member office, call toll-free, 24 hours a day (800) 388-2227, or visit the NFCC Home Page.
      "Many people don't realize how much debt they actually have," says Durant Abernethy, president of NFCC. "They know they are struggling, but they are managing to make minimum payments." However, making minimum payments is a long way from true financial independence. By careful planning and budgeting, smart buying, and personal restraint, anyone can do a better job in the new year of reducing debt load and taking control of the financial future.
      There they are. A set of resolutions guaranteed to make it a bright new financial year. Whoops! We said we'd offer 10 suggestions...

10. Quit one bad habit: Double up on your New Year's resolutions by dropping a bad habit and putting the money you save to more constructive use. Imperfect as most of us are, we probably can identify at least one bad habit that we could do without--smoking, excess drinking, junk food, recreational shopping, grownup toys--and improve not only our health but our financial bottom line as well.
      All of which makes it more important than ever to keep other resolutions. After all, with your finances in order, you're going to want to live a long life to enjoy all that money you've saved.

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