Our Month-by-Month Guide to Having Your Best Financial Year Ever

Save more, slash debt, and spend better. Experts break down an easy, month-by-month money plan for the year (and beyond).

Photo: Ted + Chelsea Cavanaugh

If you considered a resolution to get your finances in order this year, but found the idea so daunting that you opted to walk the dog five minutes longer each day instead, we're here for you. What may seem like an insurmountable task becomes doable when you tackle small tasks one by one, month by month. Let our money experts guide you through the year to a happier, healthier financial well-being. One might say it'll be a walk in the park.

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January: Tackle high-interest debt

Paying interest is like forking over money for nothing, so your first job is to get a handle on loan repayments. For each of your debts, jot down the interest rate, the minimum monthly payment, and how much you owe, advises Shannon McLay, founder and CEO of the Financial Gym in New York City.

Next, implement the avalanche method: Pay the minimum on all your debts each month and put any extra money toward the loan with the highest interest rate. If you get a windfall—like a bonus or a tax refund—put it toward that top debt as well. Once you pay it off, move to the loan with the next-highest interest rate, and so on.

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February: Prep for a smoother tax season

Prevent a last-minute document dive when filing your taxes. This month, as tax documents come in, Lisa Greene-Lewis, CPA and a tax expert for TurboTax, suggests storing them in a folder along with your receipts for deductible expenses.

Next, think about the previous year. Make note of any big life moments that might affect your taxes—like buying a house or losing your job.

Finally, as basic as it sounds, triple-check all personal information that you enter on your tax forms or give to your accountant. One of the most common filing errors is entering incorrect Social Security numbers for spouses or children—and these numbers are critical for receiving valuable tax benefits and a timely refund.

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March: Build emergency savings

You don't want to go to bed worried that a blown-out water heater could be your undoing, but many of us are unprepared to cover an unexpected $1000 expense. That's why creating an emergency fund is so important. "The point of money is to feel secure," says Suze Orman, host of the podcast Women & Money. "The goal is to have eight months' worth of living expenses in savings."

While that may seem impossible, it's not if you pace yourself. Orman advises socking the money away over 12 to 64 months. "Stick to a plan that gets you to save a little more than what feels easy," she says. Set up automatic deposits—right out of your paycheck—to an interest-yielding account and name it something like "Save Yourself". Experts say personalizing an account with a name that calls out its purpose motivates you to keep saving.

If you dipped into your emergency savings last year but are on better financial footing this year, focus on replenishing those savings.

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April: Tidy up financial documents

Sure, disorganization can cost you time, but it can also cost you money, like if you have to replace an original document (say, the title to your car). Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out ($15; amazon.com), suggests you gather important papers, sort them by type and date, and store them in a document box near where you pay your bills. "It's easier to find and file information as you use it," she notes.

Next, think about the information you're constantly looking for, scan the relevant documents, and then save them in a digital file. Finally, stand in awe of yourself when you find your most recent W-2 with a few swipes of your phone rather than the usual ransacking of your home.

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May: Maximize your investments

With tax stress out of the way—and possibly even a little tax refund money to play with—turn attention to your retirement account with the goal to contribute 15 percent of your income. (Take advantage of employer matching, if your company offers it.)

Make sure the investment mix still suits your long-term goals. "Your 401(k) plan likely has an online tool that can help you realign your balances in a way that's right for you, based on your age and when you plan to retire," says Katie Taylor, vice president of planning and engagement at Fidelity Investments.

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June: Earn more on your savings

You'd never stockpile cash under a mattress, but stashing money in an account that barely earns interest isn't much better. Let this be the month you calculate what your savings account yields every year. With that figure in mind, look into low-fee, high-interest accounts offered by online banks and stash your money with one that offers the highest rates.

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July: Check your credit report

It's easier to secure a loan for a big-ticket item, like a car or house, when you have good credit. Go to annualcreditreport.com and order a free report from Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. "Rather than getting them all at once, request one report from a different bureau every four months to keep tabs on things throughout the year," says McLay.

Read your payment history carefully to ensure it's correct and report any activity you don't recognize. If you notice recurring suspicious activity, you might want to freeze your credit. Keeping in mind that child identity theft can go undetected for years, consider freezing your kids' credit to help prevent it.

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August: Save on school costs

Your child doesn't need a raft of new school supplies when you have a junk drawer full of pencils, pens, and notebooks. Be resourceful and reuse, says Kelsey Sheehy, a personal finance expert at NerdWallet. She also suggests teaming up with other parents to buy supplies in bulk. If you go back-to-school shopping online, try a browser extension like Honey, which automatically applies the latest coupons or promo codes.

If your kid is applying to college—deep breaths!—gather the paperwork you need to apply for a student loan. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) becomes available on October 1, so aim to submit it by November 1 because need-based aid is first come, first served.

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September: Prioritize advance-planning documents

Not to be doom and gloom, but you need a will and other end-of-life documents. "People don't like thinking about death," says Orman, who developed the online Will & Trust Kit of four "must-have" documents ($199; suzeorman.com) with her estate attorney. "Everyone assumes they only need a will, but that just says where your assets will go when you die," she points out.

You also need a revocable trust with an incapacity clause (which appoints someone to handle certain assets for you if you're unable); an advance directive (which states what medical care you want in an emergency); a durable power of attorney for health care (which names a trusted person to make medical decisions for you); and a durable financial power of attorney (which names someone to make financial decisions for you). Once you have these documents in place, hold a family meeting to inform loved ones of your plans.

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October: Snip bills and subscriptions

You have a Spotify account and so does your husband, and so does your kid. Getting rid of redundancies and recurring payments is like finding free money! Print out a few months of bank statements and highlight your regular payments, or use an app like Marcus, which breaks down spending for you.

Also, try bargaining with your providers, says McLay. For cable, cellphone, and internet service, look into the introductory plans competitors offer and ask your provider to match the lowest one. Or download an app like Trim, which negotiates lower rates with providers on your behalf. (Trim is free to use, but you'll split the savings with them.)

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November: Reduce health costs

Create a binder for your medical forms, or go virtual with an app like Apple's Health, which has a Health Records feature. This may help you avoid costly diagnostic testing because, according to doctor-turned-financial adviser Carolyn McClanahan, many diagnoses can be made based solely on your medical history.

Save money at the pharmacy, too. Ask how much a drug would cost if you paid without going through insurance and you may get a lower price, says McClanahan. Download GoodRx, a free app that compares drug costs and offers scannable coupons, and remember to use up flexible spending account funds, which usually expire on December 31. If you're not sure what's covered, visit fsastore.com for eligible products.

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December: Have a money conversation

What do death, politics, and religion have in common? For many of us, they're all easier to talk about than finances. Break the taboo by holding a quick weekly check-in with your partner, says Cameron Huddleston, a personal finance journalist.

A discussion about what you value most can help you get on the same page and create shared financial goals, says Kathleen Burns Kingsbury, a wealth psychology expert and host of the podcast Breaking Money Silence.

Next, look at your spending over the past month or two and see if it aligns with your values. For example, if quality family time is important to you but most of your extra money goes toward material items, you may want to reevaluate your budget.

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