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Get Fiscally Fit in 2011: 12 Weeks to a Wealthier You

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12 weeks to a wealthier you!

Ladies, it's 2011 and a financial tune-up is in order. Bounced checks, late fees, falling credit scores or missed payments should not be par for the course this year. Since 54 percent of all Black children under the age of 18 are supported by their mother, it's time to create a money plan that you can keep.

"Don't just set huge goals in 2011. Identify some small and medium-size ones as well," advises Patricia Seaman, a senior director at the National Endowment for Financial Education (nefe.org), a Denver-based nonprofit dedicated to financial empowerment.

"Ideally, hone in on three important goals, such as starting an emergency fund, reducing one debt and creating a beautiful living room space." Getting financially fit, Seaman concludes, is based on paying attention to the goals you set rather than how much money you have. Ready? Rip out our weekly tips, follow them to the letter, and watch your finances firm up.

Budget Smart

Week 1: Determine Your Priorities
Stop making financial decisions in the dark. To discover how your lifestyle influences financial decisions, take the LifeValues quiz online at smartabout money.org/lifevalues. The questions probe topics such as how you regard your home. Is it a gathering place for family or an investment? From there, focus on which goals to accomplish.

Week 2: Set Realistic Goals
Everybody has something to fix within her financial life. It could be as simple as "I wish I could save $2,500 by the end of the year" or something a bit more complex like "I need to pay off $10,000 in credit card debt by 2013." Whatever your situation, Carmen Wong Ulrich, author of The Real Cost of Living: Making the Best Decisions for You, Your Life and Your Money (Perigee Books), says, "Start by figuring out exactly how much money you have and how it's being allocated."

Week 3: Record Bills in One Place
To understand why you may not have enough money when the bills are due each month, track your spending. That means taking out your monthly bills and tallying the total amount due for all bills. Depending on your financial style (yes, everyone has one), you can (1) record the information in a notebook; (2) input the data into a money management software, such as Quicken Deluxe 2011 ($70, quicken.intuit.com); or (3) log on to mint.com, a free budgeting Web site that tracks and graphs spending, income, balances and net worth. For a complete list of the account information you need to know, see sidebar.

In one month you can... Eliminate miscellaneous purchases. For the next 30 days, write down everything purchased. Save all your receipts in a sturdy accordion check file ($1 at most dollar stores). At the end of the month, you'll uncover pockets of overspending.

In one day you can... Create a financial workstation at home. Whether it's the kitchen table or a small desk in the corner of your bedroom, organizing a space to file bills, statements, checkbooks and envelopes near your laptop takes the hassle out of bill paying. For chic simplicity, buy the Linon Home Decor Products Anna Desk ($162, desksco.com).

In one hour you can... Sign up for online banking. Having access to your accounts 24 hours a day makes money management easier. Online bill paying is safe and convenient, and it's the best way to make sure routine bills, such as gas, electric and student loans, are paid automatically each month on the day of your choosing.

Week 4: Stop Spending
Here are five ways to save big on everyday items.
1. Buy a coffeemaker. A large Starbucks coffee in New York City is $2.30, plus tax. Make it at home and save $598 a year.
2. Download coupons. Add savings to your grocery store loyalty card at coupons.com and pgesaver.com.
3. Review cable and cell phone bills. Cut Internet service, extra minutes or unlimited texting if not in use.
4. Bring your lunch. A midday meal can easily cost $10. Bring lunch three times a week and save $1,560 annually.
5. Erase the fees. Late fees, over-the-limit fees and bounced checks can add up to hundreds of dollars each month.

Save Wisely

Week 5: Start Socking It Away
Natalie McNeal, author of "The Frugalista Files: How One Woman Got Out of Debt Without Giving Up the Fabulous Life" (Harlequin), suspended all unnecessary purchases for 30 days. How did she do it? "I started by doing my own hair, going naked on the nails, and looking for cool free events on giantstep.net," says McNeal. She saved $400. You can, too, by visiting the frugalista.com.

Week 6: Create an Emergency Fund
It helps protect you against life's ups and downs, such as car repairs, a leaky roof and job loss. If you're young and single and have no mortgage strive for three months' expenses, or up to $10,000. Triple that amount if married with kids and a home. To pad your account, seize opportunities. "Find ways to stand out in your career," says McNeal. "If you belong to a listserv, post industry happenings or start a blog. Positioning yourself as an expert creates buzz and gives your employer a chance to see how you think outside of the workplace." These ideas can translate into a bonus or a boost in salary.

Master Your Debt

Week 7: Monitor Your Credit
Mistakes can easily drag your credit score down, but if you don't monitor your report, you'll be clueless. Protect your score using www.guardmycredit.com, which offers Equifax products that notify you of any changes and lets you see your full report and score at any time, for as little as $14.95 per month.

Week 8: Shop for Better Rates
"You don't have to put up with credit card rates that have soared to 29 percent or annual fees of $50 or more," says Jordan E. Goodman, coauthor of "Master Your Debt" (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.). "Instead of relying on mail offers, search Web sites to find the best deal for you based on your spending habits." If you fly a lot on one airline, get a card that rewards you with frequent-flier points. The same is true for hotels or your favorite retailer — concentrate your spending so you earn free bonuses from the places where you spend the most money. Creditcardperks.com has good deals.

Week 9: Get Help
Visit a reputable nonprofit organization such as the National Foundation for Credit Counseling (800-388-2227, nfcc.org) to receive such counseling. This organization can connect you to more than 100 member agencies. Make sure that the agency you choose is accredited by the NFCC. These agencies have agreements "with banks to lower your interest rates to about 6 percent and consolidate all your payments into one monthly payment, which they distribute to the creditors," Goodman says.

Invest Like a Pro

Week 10: Start with Your 401(K) or IRA
Follow the plan as we have outlined and you will find money to invest. The goal of investing is to create a wealth-building vehicle for yourself and your family. If you work for a company that has a sponsored retirement plan, then invest up to the annual maximum, which is $5,000 for those ages 49 and younger for an IRA and $16,500 for a 401(k). "Don't just invest up to your company's matching contribution," advises Lee Jenkins, author of Lee Jenkins on Money: Real Solutions to Financial Challenges (Lift Every Voice). "Put as much as you can into your retirement savings, and get out of consumer debt to free up even more money." Start by investing $100 a month, which is much less than the cost of a good weave, in an IRA or 401(k). At a growth rate of 10 percent, your savings will grow to more than $200,000 in 30 years.

Week 11: Ask the Retirement Questions
Aside from your employers' benefit plan, those in their mid careers should be thinking about other retirement questions such as: What should I think about with regard to pensions when I take or leave a job? When should I think about long-term-care insurance, and should I buy it? Do I have enough money to retire? Do I have adequate protection if I become disabled? Speak to a reputable financial planner to help guide you through these decisions. To find one, ask a friend or family member for a referral, or contact the Financial Planners Association (fpanet.org).

Week 12: Master the Basics of Investing
Pocketbook titles like "Standard & Poor's Guide to Money & Investing" and "Standard & Poor's Guide to Understanding Personal Finance" (McGraw-Hill), both by Virginia B. Morris and Kenneth M. Morris, are the perfect primers for new investors. Each will give you the ins and outs of the stock market, financial planning, taxes and credit. In addition, money.cnn.com and msn.com are great sites to play with calculators and to learn about how your everyday consumer buying decisions affect the economy.
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