NEW YORK (AP) -- Getting rid of those 10 ugly pounds. Spending more time with the family. Quitting smoking. Cleaning the attic, the basement, the garage.
The possibilities for New Year's resolutions are almost infinite. For those who are considering money matters for their Year 2003 lists -- and, according to a recent survey by Visa USA, about half of Americans are -- here are some ideas from experts to help you prosper:
SAVING: Don Blandin, president of the American Savings Education Council in Washington, D.C.
Resolve to save for your future, and use the statement you get each year from the U.S. Social Security Administration as a tool. You should receive the statement about three months before your birthday. Use those 90 days to develop a financial plan for achieving your major life goals -- retirement, first home purchase, college for your children or anything else on your personal wish list. Social Security benefits alone will not be enough to ensure a comfortable financial future or retirement. Social Security replaces just 40 percent of preretirement income for the average earner, so you need to make sure you have supplemental funds from a pension, 401(k) retirement plan or your own savings. Find savings tips at www.asec.org.
DEBT: Howard Dvorkin, president of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Pay with cash and make a commitment to eliminating your existing debt. For most people, it could be a four-to-five-year task. The way to start is to pay more than the minimum balances they're asking you to pay. That lets you apply more to the principal. I recommend that people try to pay three times the minimum each month. At the very least, make the minimum payment plus all the interest that accrued that month, which will be about double the minimum. If you don't think you can do it yourself, call and talk to a certified counselor at 800-728-3632 or visit www.consolidatedcredit.org.
TAXES: Jim Seidel, senior tax analyst with RIA, a New-York based provider of tax information and software.
Since almost 70 percent of individual taxpayers don't itemize their deductions, but take the standard deduction instead, the best opportunity most have to save taxes is to take advantage of tax-advantaged retirement accounts. Contribute as much salary as you can to your 401(k) or other company-sponsored retirement plan. Why is this better than other savings? Your contributions aren't subject to income tax, and they grow tax-deferred. You can contribute as much as $12,000 to your 401(k) for 2003, and an additional $2,000 if you're 50 or older. At least contribute enough to get the employer matching funds. That's free money. See www.riahome.com.
INSURANCE: Jeanne M. Salvatore, vice president for consumer affairs at the Insurance Information Institute in New York.
Reassess your homeowners' insurance policy to make sure you have adequate protection for both the structure and everything inside. Think about what's changed in your life over the past year: Have you made alterations or improvements to your house, like adding a deck or redoing the kitchen or bathroom? Did you make major purchases of a big-screen TV, expensive electronic equipment, jewelry or collectibles? When it comes to things like jewelry, there often are coverage limits and you may want to consider a rider. You especially need to review your policy if there's been a marriage or divorce, because that means things are coming in or going out of the house. And if adult children have moved back in, you need to make sure their stuff is insured, too. Find more information at www.iii.org.
CONSUMER EDUCATION: Judi Mahaney, media specialist with the Federal Citizen Information Center in Washington, D.C.
Save time and money this New Year by taking advantage of the vast information available from Uncle Sam. Just visit www.pueblo.gsa.gov. You can read hundreds of publications online, or you can order a Consumer Information Catalog. If you have questions about any of the programs, services and benefits of the federal government, just call 1-800-FED-INFO.
CHILDREN'S EDUCATION: Jenny McGinley, coordinator of educational programs for Commerce Bancorp in Mount Laurel, N.J.
Our new site at www.commercewowzone.com aims to help parents and teachers explain the basics of finance to children and teens. Using animated characters, games and stories, the site teaches kids about the importance of money and introduces them to the principles of saving, banking and investing. Younger kids can follow the adventures of Penny Arcade, Lucy Change and Freddy Dinero, while teenagers can play the Commerce Bank Fantasy Stock Market game. There are lesson plans for teachers, including how to balance a checkbook, calculate interest costs and write checks. The goal is to help students develop personal financial skills that will serve them for a lifetime.
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