"This is the year I get serious about emergency savings."
As of September 2011, about four in ten unemployed Americans had been out of work for more than six months. I know my advice to have eight months of emergency savings can be a serious challenge—and I don't expect you to be able to check this off your to-do list in a few months—but it's doable, if you push past good intentions to action. Set up a monthly automatic deposit from your checking account into a savings account. Then think of an amount you can reasonably save each month—and double it. Don't dismiss this as impossible. I have rarely seen a household budget that couldn't be seriously trimmed. To really boost your savings, try living on 75 percent of your income for one month (or, for dual-income households, living on one salary). Little luxuries you'd normally justify by saying you "must" have them will quickly reveal themselves to be the drain that they are—and your emergency savings fund will get a nice bump.
"This is the year I have "the talk" with my parents."
As if your own financial security weren't stressful enough, you may also be worrying about your parents and the security of their retirement and estate. Talking about this is how an adult child shows her love for an aging parent, and I applaud you for caring. Unfortunately, most people stop at retirement savings and trusts—they don't dig into all future scenarios. Encourage your parents to seriously consider long-term-care insurance (LTCI). Given long life expectancies and the extreme cost of nursing home and at-home care, LTCI can be a godsend for families. It can give you peace of mind that a loved one's needs won't bankrupt you, and it can save you from shouldering the burden of being a full-time caregiver. Learn more at LongTermCare.gov and GotLTCI.com.
"This is the year I teach my kids how to value money."
Schools, for the most part, do a lousy job teaching kids about money. That falls to you. Don't expect them to learn through family telepathy; I urge you to start the conversation when they're young. Kids love interactive games more than lectures, so drive home the power of money with an exercise they can excel at. Sit with your kids and show them what your utility bills are—how much it costs to make the laptops hum and the water run. Then tell them how much your bill was a year ago for the current month. For example, what was your January 2011 bill? Have your kids calculate 10 to 15 percent of that bill. Next, explain that if this January's bill can be that much lower (you decide what actual percent you want to aim for), you will split the savings with them. It's amazing how quickly this helps kids connect shorter showers and turning off lights to the dollars and cents your family spends—or saves. And the Great Utility Challenge, as I call this, can also start other family converstions about money. For super kid-friendly energy tips, visit the federal government's Energy Star Web site (EnergyStar.gov).
Next: The websites to avoid