By Linda Stern
WASHINGTON | Fri Dec 30, 2011 12:24pm EST
(Reuters) - Ask any behaviorist: Resolutions rarely work. They are too big and sweeping. The minute you fall off the bandwagon, you abandon attempts to climb back on, mostly because you're too busy hating yourself.
So forget about the I'm going to lose 20 pounds AND track every penny that I spend fervor. Instead just do what does work - actionable small steps. Here's a list of ways you can improve your finances in 2012, usually in just a few minutes at a time, and without any self-loathing.
- Set up at least one automatic investment besides your 401(k) account. You can open up a regular taxable mutual fund account with a company that offers low-cost index funds, or start a Roth IRA. Either way, authorize the new account to sweep a fixed amount out of your checking account every month. Even if you start with just $50 a month, you'll begin to accumulate an extra savings account you'll be happy to have. And the regular investments will serve you during volatile markets.
- Put your credit cards in order. Make two lists: One should include any cards that you currently have a balance on, listed in order of interest rates, highest to lowest. You can use that list to pay extra to the top card on the list until the balance is zero, and then work your way down. If you have rewards cards with zero balances, make a separate list of them, with their rewards specifics; for example 3 percent on groceries, 1 percent on everything else. Use this list to determine which card you use when.
- Do a balance transfer if you think you can't pay your balance down within two months. Comparison site LowCards.com is currently listing an offer for the Slate Visa card from Chase that has no balance transfer fee and a 0 percent interest rate for six months to a year, depending on how good your credit score is. If you are carrying a credit card balance that you can't pay off in a month or two, switch it to a card like this, and then make sure you pay it off before the introductory rate falls away.
- Comparison shop for your insurance. It's true that Geico has made a national advertising campaign out of the 15 minute insurance-shopping phone call, but you really can get quotes in about that amount of time, on auto and home policies. In addition to the lizard, try Progressive, another company that sells direct to the public and offers quotes on its web site. And, if you're currently working with an agent, ask the agent if she can find you lower cost policies for 2012.
You really may be able to save hundreds of dollars every year, but don't be so premium-focused that you choose a company that doesn't have a solid rating from A.M. Best and top reviews from consumers who have had to deal with claims. If you want to know about how other consumers feel about the company you're considering, check out the reports on ConsumerAffairs.com.
- Get a solid mortgage quote and see if it's worth your while to refinance. Rates edged up a bit this week, but are still ridiculously low: Under 4 percent for a 30-year fixed-rate loan, according to Bankrate.com. If you have home equity and expect to stay in your house for several years, those kind of rates can allow you to either: switch down to a 15 year or 10 year loan and burn your mortgage early; or stretch out another 30 years and use the extra money left over every month to pay down other debts, build an emergency fund or invest for the future. One place to check rates is mortgagemarvel.com, which lists several companies and will give you a quote even without you supplying your contact information.
- Organize some papers. If you don't already have a safe deposit box for important documents, get one. Most banks charge little or nothing for them. On the way there, stop at a copy shop and photocopy all of the papers you're about to put in the box. While you're at the copy shop, also photograph these items: your passport and all of the cards you carry around in your wallet, front and back. If you lose it, or one of your cards, you'll be happy to have this info. File all of your copies at home in place convenient to you.
- Review all of your investments. Do you even know what you hold in your 401(k) and your other investment accounts? Do this a little bit at a time if you must, but look at each investment you hold and justify it to yourself for 2012. For stocks, think about whether you'd buy it again now, or whether selling it would leave you with a large taxable gain. For funds, consider the management fees within the funds. You can find a fund expense comparison tool at the web site of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (www.finra.org), a self-regulating arm of the securities industry.
- Set your 401(k) up to automatically rebalance, at least once a year. That way, if your funds get out of whack, with some markets rising and others falling, you'll be somewhat protected. You'll lock in some gains and buy in at lower prices, and you'll keep your initial asset allocation goal. And once you've set it, you can forget it.
- Choose a money management program. Mint.com is the current category killer, but there are several other programs that work on phone, tablet and computer to automatically track your spending. Some to check are Mvelopes.com, Moneystrands.com, and Bundle.com. Your bank may offer a program through its website. The bottom line? Use a program that will track all of your spending and saving in one place without too much effort. It will improve the way you manage your money, even if you aren't the most disciplined person in the world.
(The Personal Finance column appears weekly, and at additional times as warranted. Linda Stern can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; Linda Stern tweets atwww.twitter.com/lindastern.;
Read more of her work at blogs.reuters.com/linda-stern;
(Editing by Tim Dobbyn)