So you’re going to lose 15 pounds, organize your closets and stop biting your fingernails. Great — now how are you going to improve your personal finances in 2012? Having a budget for your personal or household expenses is a great place to start, but New Year’s resolutions are about improving on the good habits you’ve already established. Read on and resolve to try one, two or maybe all 10 of these suggestions. Learn how much you really spend: Successful diet programs tell participants to write down every bite or sip that passes their lips to find out how much they actually eat on an everyday basis. When people see how little snacks add up and when they chow down without thinking about it, it’s easier to target those trouble spots. The same principle works for your money. For one week, keep tabs on every penny you spend — cash, check, debit or credit card. If you spend it, jot it down. Having a record of your spending will help you pinpoint your impulse purchases.
Start an emergency fund: The “experts” say you should have three to six months’ worth of living expenses in a savings account you can tap into if you lose your job, have a medical crisis or the like. That’s really good advice. But for many of us, that can seem like such a huge amount that we’re discouraged from even starting to save. Put the six-month goal out of your mind for now. Figure out how much you can spare from your budget to sock away every month. It doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but it does have to be done regularly.
Own your splurges: We all have our weaknesses — fancy coffee drinks, tabloid magazines, takeout dinners. No, we’re not going to tell you to cut them out. But if you leave them out of your budget, you’re not going to stop buying those things; you’re just going to blow your budget. So be honest with yourself about the discretionary stuff you splurge on and include it along with your more sensible expenses.
(GALLERY: 12 Things You Should Stop Buying Now)
Set at least one long-term goal: By the end of 2012, what do you want to have accomplished? Maybe you want to be debt-free or to save $5,000 towards your child’s college education. If you’re already there, great; how about setting a goal to make two extra mortgage payments over the course of the year? If all of this sounds hopelessly out of reach, set a goal that reflects where you are right now. Maybe you want to qualify for a credit card or not incur any overdraft charges.
Pack a lunch one day a week: Yes, all the gurus say you can save bundles of money if you pack a lunch every day, but let’s be honest: That’s a lot of work if you’re not used to it. You have to build a decent chunk of shopping and preparation time into your schedule. The result is that many of us get intimidated and don’t even bother with this advice. Instead of skipping it this year, start small. Bring a lunch from home on Mondays — maybe leftovers from a weekend meal. Or stock up on microwavable dinners when your supermarket runs a special and throw one of them into an insulated bag for the commute. If the savings motivates you to brown-bag it more frequently, that’s an added bonus.
Prepare for “surprise” expenses: A lot of people dig themselves into a hole with credit card debt when they have to pay for an expense for which they didn’t plan or save. Of course, some things really are emergencies — say your car gets rear-ended, or your dog eats something he can’t digest. But many of the big bills that catch us unawares are events we should have seen coming. Start socking away money for back-to-school clothes, snow tires and other infrequent-but-predictable expenses
Score cheaper splurges: The jury’s still out on whether the explosion of daily deal sites is good or bad for merchants, but it’s definitely a boon for consumers. If you live in or near a major city, sites like Groupon, Living Social and BloomSpot deliver deals for cut-rate haircuts, dinners and fitness classes. If you’re willing to try something new (and read the fine print), these sites can sometimes reward you with significant savings.
Teach your kids how to budget: Kids are bombarded with marketing messages practically from birth, and countless influences send them the message that they need to spend to be satisfied. Unfortunately, there’s really no counterpoint to that; there isn’t a class in school where kids learn to distinguish what they need from what they want and how to pay for what they do buy. They need to hear it from you. Let your children see and be a part of your budgeting process so they learn how it works. Introduce them to the ideas of bank accounts and credit cards at age-appropriate intervals. Teach them about savings and debt, maybe by giving them an allowance so they can learn to manage money — and make mistakes — on a small scale, so they don’t wind up getting into big money trouble once they get out on their own.
Use comparison-shopping apps: Not everybody is on the iPhone/Android/Blackberry bandwagon, but people who are can benefit from some new high-tech tools that help you save. Several mobile apps put the kind of comparison shopping you used to need a desktop computer — or a trip around town to different stores — to accomplish. If you have a smartphone, you’re already paying for data use, so put the device’s instant connectivity to work for you. Some apps, for instance, let you scan barcodes and will tell you if the item on the shelf in front of you is cheaper on the other side of the mall on from an online retailer.
Go generic on one name-brand item: Again, personal finance experts sing the praises of house-brand goods, but if you’re not there yet, you don’t have to fill your pantry, medicine cabinet and linen closet with generic stuff in order to save. Again, start small. Pick just one thing: Breakfast cereal? Shampoo? Bathroom cleanser? It’s up to you. But give one a try. Save the receipt so you can return the generic if you notice a big difference in taste, performance or other dealbreakers. But maybe you’ll discover the the only thing you’re missing is the brand name — and the higher price tag.