is the season to be harried, exhausted, and more than likely tapped out financially. If getting your financial life in order come January tops your New Year's resolution list, you've come to the right place. And it's not as daunting a job as you might fear. Professional organizers say it's best to break down goals into small, manageable activities.

With that in mind, here are 12 suggestions to help you achieve solid financial footing. You can do one thing every week and be done in three months, or you can do one thing a month and be set by next December. Either way, you'll be in great financial shape to face the new millennium.

1. Set some goals. If you don't know where you want to go, it's pretty hard to figure out how to get there. Sit down by yourself or with your partner and make a list of things you want in the next year (pay off your credit card debt), the next few years (replace your car), and by retirement (golf condo in Palm Springs, Calif.). "Your goals determine how you save money, and how you position your portfolio," says Fred Broihahn, certified public accountant (CPA) and certified financial planner (CFP) with Morton, Nehls & Tierney, S.C., Madison, Wis. Setting goals is the fun part--go out to dinner and write up the list over dessert, or make the list at home then treat yourself to a movie.

2. Get organized. Can you quickly locate your auto insurance policy, your latest 401(k) statement, or your mortgage balance sheet? If not, it's time to get it together. Collect any and all information relating to your financial life and create an "all-in-one-place" filing system that works for you. Check with office supply stores for easy-to-use and inexpensive filing crates or portable file boxes. Once you create your system, keep it current and make sure your partner understands it.

3. Track your spending. Even before you figure out what you owe, take a few weeks to track your spending. If you're already using a financial software program such as Quicken or Microsoft Money, you easily can create a report that shows where your money goes. Otherwise, flip through your share draft/check register and your credit card statements to see where, how much, and how often you're spending your money.

Keep a tablet or piece of paper in your wallet and record how you spend your cash for a few weeks. "The very act of writing it down makes you more aware of what you're spending," says Judith Cohart, director of training and education with the National Foundation for Consumer Credit (NFCC), Silver Spring, Md. Don't worry! You don't have to quit spending--you'll now be able to make more-conscious choices about spending. For example, would you rather have a daily mocha latte or a monthly massage?

4. Downsize your debt. Yes, sometimes you just have to get on the scale. It's time to find out where you stand. Make a list of everything you owe including credit cards, car loans, and student loans. "Your debt, excluding your mortgage, shouldn't be over 20% of your net monthly income," Cohart says. "If it's over 20%, it's time to put on the brakes."

If you need help, there's plenty available. Cohart says the NFCC has more than 1,500 locations around the country; call 800-388-2227 for the office nearest you.

Consider visiting some Web sites. If you type in the search word "debt" at Yahoo, you'll find about 700 site matches. Browse through sites and check out the variety of consumer information available. Be careful, though--avoid resources that charge you to do things you could manage yourself for free, or sources that claim to be able to repair bad credit without requiring any new habits on your part.

    When buying clothes,
    remember the
    80/20 rule--
    you wear 20%
    of your things
    80% of the time.

Setting financial goals
is the fun part--
go out to dinner
and write up the
list over dessert.

5. Pay yourself first. Contact your employer and your credit union for automatic deposit and automatic savings plans. Once you start to build up your savings accounts, keep your money in the type of account that earns the most interest. Make sure you set up an emergency fund with a balance of at least three months' living expenses.

6. Take full advantage of employee benefits. Visit your human resource representative to make sure you're taking advantage of all the benefits your employer offers. Find out the details about such benefits as maximum life and disability insurance, flexible spending plans for child care and medical expenses, retirement plans, and employee assistance programs.

7. Review your insurance. Broihahn recommends reviewing your life, disability, auto, and homeowners insurance, and buying an umbrella liability policy with coverage of at least $1 million. Comparison shop for prices and service, and find out if you qualify for any discounts for multiple policies, safe driving, safety equipment, or your driving child's good grades.

8. Educate yourself about investments. Passbook savings accounts and CDs won't grow fast enough to keep pace with inflation. To reach your goals, you need to learn the basics of investing and get your plan in place. Educate yourself by reading a few books such as "Making the Most of Your Money" (ISBN 0-671-65952-9) by Jane Bryant Quinn, and visiting educational investment Web sites such as the American Association of Individual Investors site. If you don't want to tackle this by yourself, work with a reputable, knowledgeable financial planner.

9. Don't overpay Uncle Sam. If you've gotten tax refunds in the past, it's time to see your payroll department and adjust your withholding for the next year. Broihahn says a new child tax credit of $500 per child ($400 in 1998, $500 in '99) is available to married couples making less than $110,000 and singles making less than $75,000 a year.

10. Make your choices known. Write up a will, a living will, a health care power of attorney, and a financial power of attorney. Make sure all documents are appropriate for your state of residence and keep copies in a safe, accessible place. Give your physician and local hospital a copy of your living will for your medical file. If your assets are worth more than $650,000, consult an estate planning expert for information about a bypass trust, says Broihahn.

11. Get your house in order. How much stuff do you have? And where do you keep it? Being disorganized wastes money and time. Go through your house, room by room, and get rid of stuff you don't use or clothes you don't wear--think garage sales and resale shops that result in money in your pocket. When it comes to buying clothes, remember the 80/20 rule--you wear 20% of your things 80% of the time. Figure out what you like and invest wisely by buying only the 20% you'll wear. If you donate goods to charity, remember to get a receipt for your taxes.

12. Get help with tax planning. According to Broihahn, your investments will determine what taxes you'll pay and what deductions you can take. Consider setting up a meeting with a CPA or a financial adviser to get helpful and up-to-date information about your situation.

   Your debt,
   excluding your
   mortgage, shouldn't be
   more than 20%
   of your net
   monthly income.

©1998 Credit Union National Association, Inc.