6 of the smartest things you can do with your money in 2016

December 31, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
Man inserting coin into piggy bank
Photograph Dan Brownsword via Getty Images

For Americans, money is one of the leading causes of stress. It’s no wonder then, that better improving our financial habits is a top resolution for 2016. But holding true to that commitment can be incredibly challenging. While financial planning can be a complicated task, let’s break down some of the best ways for you to make progress on your money in the year ahead.

Specify—and write down—your goals
In order to reach a goal, it’s helpful to know what you’re actually working to achieve. The more specific you can be, the better. For example, it’s time to translate “save more money” into “increase my retirement contributions by 5%.” Once you settle on a specific goal, there’s a simple trick to make it more realistic: Studies show that writing down your goals makes you 49% more likely to achieve them. So take some time not just to think about your resolutions, but to record them—in a notebook, Word File, Google Doc, or on a piece of paper taped to your fridge.

Get financially secure
Knowing you’re financially prepared for the unexpected can help relieve some of that money-induced stress. But what does it mean to be financial secure? At LearnVest, we believe a strong foundation exists when you’ve built a solid emergency fund, paid down any credit card debt, and are on track with your retirement savings.

To break it down:
Build an emergency fund
Emergencies are bound to happen, and they can be expensive. An emergency savings fund can help you cover the cost of unexpected events—such as job loss or car repairs. We recommend aiming to set aside at least six months of take-home pay in a high-yield savings account, where you can earn interest but still have easy access. You may even consider putting aside more if you have an inconsistent income (i.e freelancing) or have a family to support—so consider checking with a financial planner for a personalized recommendation.

Pay down credit card debt
If you carry a balance on your credit card, you’re certainly not alone: the average indebted American household has outstanding credit card bills totaling $16,000. If you carry debt, we recommend making minimum payments across your cards, then putting any extra payments toward the debts with the highest interest rates. You can even consider going on a cash diet (and putting your credit card on ice, literally), as you work to tackle that debt.

Save for retirement
We recommend saving enough to replace at least 85% of your annual income in each year of retirement. That can be a massive goal, so some of the best advice I can give is to start as early as possible and to slowly increase your contributions every few months.

Get a budget you can stick to
Having a budget is great, but if it’s too complicated, it can be nearly impossible to maintain. I love the one number strategy: after your monthly take-home pay, subtract your fixed expenses (think rent, cable bills, etc.), your financial goals (debt payments, retirement contributions), and your non-monthly expenses (like holiday gifts or insurance premiums). Whatever is left is yours to spend on everything else. Divide by four and you’ll have a weekly spending target—or one number—that you can easily track.

Automate your goals
Consider opening separate accounts or sub-accounts for each of your savings goals. Earmarking in this way can make it a lot easier to see your progress, and once you reach your target, it can make the spending guilt-free. You can automate contributions each month into these accounts so you don’t have to think twice.

Use your bonus wisely
If you receive an end-of-year bonus, try the 90/10 rule. Put 90% of the funds toward your major financial goals, and save the remaining 10% to treat yourself to something fun.

Enlist support
It can be hard to stay on track when you’re going it alone. One thing so-called “supersavers have in common is that they have someone to hold them accountable. Be it a friend, co-worker, or trusted financial planner, don’t be afraid to ask for support along the way.

Alexa von Tobel is the founder and CEO of LearnVest.com.

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