10 smart financial tips to begin 2012

One of our best investments is in ourselves

In general, consumers did lots more shopping this holiday season than last, which could mean a headache when those credit card bills arrive. In fact, heading into the 2011 holiday season, a Consumer Reports poll found that 14 million Americans were still paying off holiday credit card purchases from the previous year.

So here are 10 ideas to get on the right money track:

1. Get a goal. If you're bogged down by credit card debt, write a plan of attack. "Figure out a plan that pays them off within one to two years," said Kenneth Lin, CEO of CreditKarma.com in San Francisco. That could mean doubling your minimum payment or cutting back on new purchases.

2. Seek credit card deals. Keep an eye out for them, says Lin, who expects banks to more aggressively market credit cards this year. Look for cards with lower interest rates, better terms or cash-back strategies. Compare cards at CreditCards.com, LowCards.com, NerdWallet.com or CreditKarma.com.

3. Rethink your banking. With so much change afoot, it's smart to be sure you're not paying too much for banking services you don't use, says the California Society of CPAs. Decide what's important: Free ATMs, drive-thru banking, no minimum checking fees, personal service. If not satisfied, compare bank features at Bankrate.com, FindABetterBank.com or MyBankTracker.com.

4. Use, don't lose, gift cards. Shockingly, an estimated $41 billion in gift cards issued since 2005 has never been spent, whether because the cards were lost, stolen or forgotten.

5. Check that credit report. Each year, you're entitled to free copies of your credit report from each of the credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Those reports help make up your credit score -- the number between 300 and 850 that affects what you'll pay on everything from credit cards and mortgages to car loans and apartment rents. Even job applications can be impacted.

To get your free reports and check them for accuracy: www.annualcreditreport.com.

6. Limit small expenses. If money's tight, we've all got places to cut back. A family of four's sodas at restaurant meals, for instance, can mean an extra $10 every time you eat out. Same for those daily bottled waters or coffee drinks on the way to work, said Leslie Greenman, author of "Dating Our Money." One box of teabags at the grocery store "is the same price as just one cup of tea from Starbucks," she notes.

7. Go green, not plastic. Studies show we spend less when we use cash instead of credit cards. Try the habit of starting each week with a set amount of spending cash. It's a way to avoid overdraft fees and credit card binging.

8. Buy good stocks and sit. "Unless you're the best stock picker in the world buy quality stocks -- either individually or in mutual funds -- and let them sit," said Scott Rhoades, an Edward Jones financial adviser. Unless a company has a management shakeup or a fundamental change in its product, it's best to hold at least three to five years, he said. Otherwise, the fees you pay for churning stocks could eat up any returns.

9. Pump up your retirement. Max out your 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans at work. "Sometimes people forget they can contribute. It's important to max that out before talking about other retirement plans, because it's pre-tax dollars," Rhoades said.

Or put tax-deductible money in an IRA account. In both cases, you can add catch-up dollars if you're over 50.

10. Stay healthy. If you've got health insurance, quitting smoking, losing weight and drinking less can save on premiums. If you've got a flexible savings account (FSA) at work, don't forget to get reimbursed for your 2011 health-related expenses (typically by March 31).

One of our best investments is in ourselves. Stay healthy, be happy in 2012.

Contact Claudia Buck at cbuck@sacbee.com. For more stories visit scrippsnews.com.

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