It's time to make New Year's financial resolutions
With Europe trying to resolve its debt worries and the U.S. attempting to whittle down high unemployment, prudent moves are in order.
Whatever the health of the economy, average investors face the prospects of extremely low interest yields and high market volatility. Everyone's already had some experience with this queasy scenario, so it should be manageable if not invigorating.
Keeping collective blood pressure high, presidential campaigns will constantly remind us of all the economic problems that are in need of timely solutions.
So, as we bid the past year goodbye, here are New Year's financial resolutions for 2012:
I will pay off as much credit card debt as I can.
The mismatch between credit card rates and savings yields remains overwhelming. Carry only one credit card when shopping, pay off bills each month and work down your outstanding balances. Identify your debt with the highest interest rate and pay it down first. Pay off whatever debt has the smallest balance in order to provide some motivation through progress. Then take on one loan at a time.
The average credit card rate was recently 16.75 percent, according to IndexCreditCards.com. Federal Reserve rules say that a consumer making one late payment will be assessed a $25 penalty, and a second late payment will incur $35. You can't afford any of these costs in the current low-interest-rate environment, so avoid them altogether.
-- I will have an investment strategy for banking and investment.
The average six-month certificate of deposit rate is less than a half-percent, while average money-market account rates are less than that and money-market fund yields are barely visible. Miniscule rates on savings and bonds mean stocks could make sense, especially those unfairly hammered in the past year that still retain good earnings and dividend strength. The primary problem with stock mutual funds, exchange traded funds or individual stocks is that average investors pull their money out or put it in at all the wrong times. Sustained growth requires some patience.
While there are many reasons to choose a financial institution, you can find credit unions, community banks and online banks with free checking and lower fees. If you're a good bank customer and are unhappy with a particular fee, you should contact the institution to see if that fee can be avoided. A survey by the Consumer Federation of America found that bank overdraft fees at the 14 largest banks remain high, from $33 to $37.
-- I will analyze all of my finances and put aside a rainy day account.
There were 1.05 million consumer bankruptcy filings in the first nine months of this year, an 11 percent decrease from a year earlier, according to abi.org. The number is down largely because it is expensive to file for bankruptcy, and many families have wisely cut back on their debt. Find out exactly where you stand financially by examining your bank accounts, investment accounts, mortgages, credit card debt and education accounts. You must know exactly how much you have and how much you owe. Unemployment is a blight on society right now.
A workable budget should include three to six months of gross salary in a liquid account for any possible emergencies. This money could be needed when you are in a tight spot, so keep your hands off of it in the meantime.
I will have a viable strategy for home or rental.
There were 610,337 foreclosure filings in the recent quarter, according to RealtyTrac.com. While that's down one-third from a year earlier, it is still substantial. The benchmark 30-year fixed-rate mortgage was recently 4.24 percent, according to bankrate.com. Work with lenders if you're encountering problems, and, if you're thinking of buying, determine exactly how much you can afford. While mortgage rates are low, qualifying isn't easy. As far as home equity loans are concerned, work at paying them off as soon as possible so you're not making your burden even more overwhelming than it already is.
-- I will maximize benefits at work.
Such benefits are too often overlooked or forgotten with so much else going on at your job, yet health care and investment opportunities at work can make a difference for your family's future. Fund your 401(k) retirement account to the limit, especially if there are company matching funds. Keep doing it. But avoid putting all of your money in your company's stock, since diversification is crucial in volatile periods.
-- I will include family members in planning for the financial future.
Pretending that all is well when it isn't doesn't help anyone, but fear-mongering isn't the answer either. This unstable economic period is an opportunity to inform all family members about the cause and effect of spending and debt. Spouses and children should be able to discuss the family budget without emotion so each family member has a general grasp of costs and priorities.
It is also important to have a will to provide for the family's future in the event that one spouse is not around. Otherwise probate court will be calling all the shots. Both spouses should be aware of the content and intent of that crucial document.
(Andrew Leckey answers questions only through the column. Address inquiries to Andrew Leckey, 555 N. Central Ave., Suite 302, Phoenix, Ariz. 85004-1248, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)