Money makes the world go around. And every year we make resolutions to save more of it, invest it more profitably and spend more wisely.
The good news is that the economy truly seems to be on an upswing. The third quarter GDP number hit 4.1 percent, suggesting faster growth than we’ve seen in years. Distressed properties seem to be a much smaller part of home sales, and real estate prices are up. The stock market is on a tear.
Whether it is real or not, we feel better about our money and generally richer. So now’s a perfect time to make some personal finance resolutions that will help you save more, spend less, avoid getting ripped off and invest intentionally in 2014.
In other words, it’s time to focus on you. Mortgage interest rates are at or near a historic low, and housing affordability is near a record high. Let’s start a conversation about how to make your finances real estate-ready and get your credit in home buying shape.
This year, resolve to:
• Put yourself and your family on a budget you can afford. We hate the word budget, and from the studies we’ve seen, so do most of you. But even if the word “budget” turns your stomach, we’d like you to think about being a smart spender.
Here’s how it works (and there’s no real magic here): Spend less than you earn. Buy in bulk (if it’s cheaper), at sales, and in advance of when you’ll actually need something. (If you wait until the last minute, it’ll generally cost you more to get the same item.) Cook at home more often, and use coupons if you can. Avoid takeout foods and save restaurants for special events.
Ilyce’s favorite money-saving game is called “trading down.” Here’s how to play: Each week, try to find a simpler and less expensive way to do the same thing. If you drink a bottle of $25 wine each week, try to find one you like at around $8 to $10 per bottle. If you’re eating out twice a week in restaurants, cut back to once a week or once every other week. If you’re spending $200 per night out (babysitter, dinner, theater, movie, transportation, etc.), cut that to $100 per night.
The savings are enormous. Ilyce had a caller to her radio show who said they liked to eat out but just gave up ordering beverages, alcoholic or other. They saved $10,000 in a single year.
Just cutting back a little in a bunch of areas will give you plenty of ways to set real cash aside for your down payment.
• Pay off your charge card debts. The average American has around $8,000 in credit card debt. And most of those have a mortgage, car loan and some sort of student loans to pay off as well. College graduates leave school with nearly $20,000 in credit card debt on top of federal and private student loans. No wonder the rate of student loan defaults has gone through the roof.
While Americans are paying down more credit card debts, the savings rate has been falling as well. Last year, Americans were saving roughly 4 percent of their income. Now they’re saving 3 percent. That number should be higher.
By paying off your debts, you’ll have more free cash each month to sock away for something more important — like a down payment. It’ll also help you sleep better at night knowing that you don’t have to worry about whether there’s enough cash in your checking account to make good on all your bills.
Finally, while you’re paying off your charge cards, remember to pay them on time. Paying on time, over time, is the surefire way to improve your credit history and your credit score.
• Pay myself first and last. This kind of common-sense advice seems overplayed — everyone hears it, but most don’t follow through.
Again, it’s not hard to do, but take $50 or $100 out of your checking account at the beginning and end of the month and sock it away in a savings account. If the cash isn’t in your account, you won’t spend it. (And if you have trouble keeping cash in your wallet without succumbing to temptation, don’t take cash out of the ATM.)
The higher-tech way to do this, of course, is to have your bank or financial investment company electronically pull the money out of your checking account each month and send it to a different account. And we’re all about using technology to make you a savvier spender and saver.
Open another savings account at your bank and set up a regular automatic transfer of the cash into that account. Then, watch it grow and grow until you’re ready with the 20 percent you’ll need for a cash down payment. Now, that’s a game worth playing.
Ilyce R. Glink’s latest book is “Buy, Close, Move In!” If you have questions, you can call her radio show toll-free (800-972-8255) any Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST. Contact Ilyce through her Web site, www.thinkglink.com.