New Year’s resolutions are easily broken, especially ones tied to saving more money.
But 2022 will be a good time to get serious about your finances, as the year will bring new and expensive challenges to your budget. Starting Jan. 1, most Versant Power and Central Maine Power customers will see their electric bills jump 30 percent. Heating fuel prices will rise 30-60 percent. And grocery lists will cost more to fill as inflation takes hold and supply chain delays persist.
Financial experts in Maine offer the following tips on how to pay down debt, save and invest by taking small steps to improve your financial fitness and stay committed to it in the new year.
Create a budget. Review your checkbook or bank statement to see how you are spending money. That’s an important financial exercise that a lot of people don’t do, but that can instill financial discipline, Peter Neelon, a financial adviser at Edward Jones in Windham, said.
“Just by looking at your checkbook for 20-30 minutes, you can figure out where your money’s going, then figure out how much your take-home pay is and see what the differences are,” he said. That will show if there is extra money to put into savings, retirement or other goals.
Writing down everything you spend is a more detailed step that can help identify where there is money that could be used to pay down debt or save up for a major appliance, said Lucie Estabrook, CEO of Birchbrook, a Bangor financial planning agency.
Save, even a little. Many Mainers have been hard hit by the pandemic and are eking by month-to-month, but it’s important to try to save even a little, as it adds up over time. Even a few dollars a week snowballs into actual savings, Estabrook said.
If you have an employer that offers a 401(k) retirement plan, put money into that. Money contributed to the plan decreases your taxes. And you get free money if the employer provides some matching funds.
Putting a small amount into a savings account each week can make a difference, too. Someone saving $4 per weekly paycheck would save about $200 a year at a 1.5 percent interest rate, and that would add up to $5,000 over 20 years, Susan Veligor, principal at Cornerstone Financial Planning in Portland, said.
“It’s only $5,000, but it’s $5,000 you didn’t have before,” she said. Once the first $1,000 is saved, it can be invested in the stock market, where the percentage growth can be much higher.
She recommends taking books on budgeting out of the library to learn about savings options. Local adult education centers and community colleges also have courses that can help with financial literacy.
Trim the fat. Taking a hard look at discretionary spending and deciding how much really is necessary can identify money that could be better spent on something else.
The $180 cable bill probably can be lowered, Neelon said. And if you are a safe driver and haven’t been in a car crash, you might want to get a less expensive insurance policy with a $1,000 deductible rather than $100, he said.
A lot of money can be saved by simply cutting out the $5 a day coffee or repeat visits to a fast food chain that add up over a year.
It’s the small amounts saved here and there that can add up to improve your financial fitness, he said.
Create a debt pay-down strategy. Paying down credit card debt is critical to financial well-being. Some experts recommend paying extra on the card with the highest interest rate first and only the minimum on other credit cards you might have. Once that high interest rate card is paid off, do the same with the next highest interest rate card. And make sure not to once again rack up more credit card debt, Estabrook said.
Also look for cards with a lower or perhaps zero interest rate for a given period and transfer over your high interest rate card balance.
Another strategy would be to get a debt consolidation loan at a low rate. A home equity loan could be one option, but unlike with credit cards, you can lose your house if you don’t pay on the loan, Neelon warned.
Those with high mortgage interest rates on their home should refinance to a lower rate soon. The Federal Reserve plans to raise interest rates up to three times in 2022, and banks are expected to raise mortgage rates along with those hikes.
Plan for the future. Saving six to 9 months of salary is an often-quoted goal set by financial planners, but not everyone can achieve it. Setting aside even $1,000 is a good start for emergencies, such as needing to buy a new washer.
“Make sure you have an emergency fund and replenish it if you have to use it so you don’t have to turn to a credit card or a loan,” Estabrook said. “You just have to take one step to start saving.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the name of Birchbrook.