Photo: Marc Royce
1. No Blame, No Shame
The foundation of a financial fresh start actually has nothing to do with money or specific financial dos and don'ts. The first, and most difficult, step is to absolve yourself and your spouse or partner of any guilt. So you need to make a promise to me. I need you to agree that the past is past, and we are going to focus on the future. Whatever mistakes you feel you have made with money, whatever moves you wish you had or hadn't made, are irrelevant. We are free to move forward only when we remove the emotional shackles of regret. This cleansing step is especially important for couples. You are in this together, so no finger-pointing or arguing about any past decisions. Do we have a deal? Deep breath, everyone. Exhale. Now you are ready to put your financial house in order.
2. Take a Snapshot of Your Finances
It's impossible to map out a route to your destination if you don't know where you're starting from. So let's take a "before" picture of your finances. You've heard me say this a million times, but I want you to open every single financial statement—bank, credit card, mortgage, 401(k), brokerage account—and take a look. Only when you have everything in front of you can you set priorities about what to do next. If you're vexed by your checking account (you swear you should have more money; you can never figure out why your checks bounce), start fresh by opening a new one. Leave enough in your existing account to cover any checks that haven't yet been processed, then transfer the rest to the new account and close the old one. Next, sign up for online banking. It should be free, and as long as you use your home computer, it's also safe. The advantage of online banking is that you can pay bills superfast, and your account is automatically credited or debited for each deposit and payment, making it easier to stay on track.
3. Adopt a Foolproof Credit Card Strategy
Make this the year you tackle that credit card debt once and for all. Doing so will make you and your family stronger and happier—forever. What happens to the stock market and the housing market is completely beyond your control. Credit card debt, however, is completely within your control. Every time you pay off a card with a 15 percent interest rate, you get a 15 percent return on your money.
See if you can qualify for a balance transfer card that offers a low or 0 percent introductory interest rate for the first six to 12 months. If you can get a good deal, move your high-rate debt to that new card. Do not use the card for any new charges, and push yourself hard to pay off the balance as soon as possible. If you don't qualify, no worries. Always pay the minimum due on each card, on time, every month. Whenever possible, send in some extra money on the card that charges the highest interest rate. Your goal is to get the costliest balance paid off first. When the first card is cleared, direct your payments to the card with the next highest interest rate. Keep doing this until you've zeroed out the balances on all your cards.