Financial tips no matter what your age

Advice for adults, teens and children

The funny thing about a recession is that it forces people to get real about their money -- something that many avoid at all costs when times are good.

Overall consumer debt, which peaked at $12.5 trillion in 2008, was down to $11.4 trillion at the end of last year.

That means people are saving more. And they're more mindful of purchases.

But as the economy improves, there are signs that some may already be forgetting the lessons of the past few years.

It may be tempting to loosen your purse strings after years of vigilance, but experts say now is the time to fight that urge.

"We're burying our head in the financial sand," said Gail Cunningham, executive director of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. "We think tomorrow will be better or our ship will come in. It's just too much to face. ... The building blocks of personal finance -- people do not have their arms around them."

In recent years, there has been a major push by federal and state governments, financial firms, nonprofits and schools to improve financial literacy.

Here are some tips for people of all ages:

For adults

Check your credit. It's a sad truth that many people don't know that they're entitled to a credit report from each of the three credit reporting bureaus each year.

Open bills. Knowing where you stand is half the battle.

Get organized. Make sure you have a financial center -- a place where you keep all your bills and other financial papers. This doesn't have to be a home office or a fancy software program. It can be as simple as an accordion file.

Balance your checkbook. Writing down your expenses and payments and subtracting from your total balance can be a powerful tool in keeping you from overdrawing your account.

Avoid fees. If you're the type that is unorganized or often travels, make sure that you don't miss a bill payment and get slapped with a late fee.

Track your spending. The best way to know where your money is going is to track it. Try keeping track of every penny you spend for 30 days.

Create a realistic spending plan. Once you know where you spend your money, you can make educated changes. Remember to budget in some flexibility.

For children

Elementary school: Ask your parents to help you open your own savings account. Keep track of how much money you put in and take out to see how close you are to meeting your savings goal.

If you're saving for something special, like a new bike or toy, hang a picture of it on the wall. This will remind you of your savings goal every day.

Middle school: Ask your parents if you can plan a family event, like a trip to the zoo or an afternoon at a water park. List all the things that cost money, like tickets, food and souvenirs. Set a budget, and encourage everyone to stick to it when the big day arrives.

High school: Get a part-time job. Earning your own money can help you save for big goals, like college expenses.

Talk to your parents about opening a checking account. Learning to use a debit card responsibly and balance your checkbook is good money-management practice.

For older children, Mint.com has developed a game with Scholastic that teaches how hard it can be to save. Play it at www.mint.com/education/ .

For everyone

Look for free money. Contribute the maximum to your retirement account at work. Ask about flexible spending accounts or health-savings accounts. All lower your taxable income and, in some cases, are truly free money.

Investigate refinancing your mortgage. Many online calculators can help you figure out whether it makes sense to refinance.

Have an estate plan. Estate plans aren't for the wealthy only. Everyone should have a plan in place to ensure that those closest are protected in the event of a catastrophic event.

Create an emergency fund. Emergencies are going to happen. And while you can't anticipate them, you can prepare for them. The important thing is to save something. Think of it like losing weight. Small change adds up.

Reach Sue Stock at sue.stock@newsobserver.com.

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