Ask Brianna: How can I refresh my finances for the new year?

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Posted: Dec 27, 2016 11:06 AM
Ask Brianna: How can I refresh my finances for the new year?

"Ask Brianna" is a Q&A column from NerdWallet for 20-somethings or anyone else starting out. I'm here to help you manage your money, find a job and pay off student loans — all the real-world stuff no one taught us how to do in college. Send your questions about postgrad life to askbrianna@nerdwallet.com .

Q: I want to make 2017 the year I fix up my finances for real. How can I give my money a fresh start?

A: I applaud your commitment to financial fitness. This is one of the most meaningful things you can do for yourself in 2017 and beyond.

While your resolve is strongest, set aside cash for emergencies in a traditional savings account. Make your primary goal to save $500 by automating transfers from your checking account. Over time, work toward accumulating at least three months' worth of expenses. Remember, this is for unexpected costs such as medical bills and car repairs, not a sleek, new snowboard.

Next, if you're not saving for retirement, start now. Many employers match your 401(k) contributions, so try to save at least enough there to collect that free money. Even if your workplace doesn't offer a plan, you can open an individual retirement account. Small contributions can grow to big bucks over time: If you start saving $50 a month when you're 25, you'll have about $100,000 by age 65, assuming a 6 percent average annual rate of return. Wait until age 35 to start saving that same $50 per month and you'll have just about $50,000.

Getting your emergency and retirement accounts started is huge, and those might be the only things you focus on this year. But once they're set, here are ways to bring your money makeover to the next level.

VANQUISH YOUR STUDENT LOAN DREAD

Make this the year you take control of your student loan debt. If you pay more than you can afford toward your federal student loans, sign up for income-driven repayment at studentloans.gov. Your payments will be capped at a percentage of your income. Anything not paid off after 20 or 25 years will be forgiven, though it'll be taxed as income.

If you feel secure in your job and have strong credit and earnings, you can refinance your student loans.

"See if you can get a tail wind to pay down those student loans in the form of lower monthly payments or a little bit better interest rate," says Brian Hanks, a financial adviser at Practice Financial Group in Eagle, Idaho.

This payoff strategy is best if you have private loans, which often come with higher interest rates and fewer consumer protections than federal loans. If you refinance federal loans, you'll lose access to income-driven repayment and forgiveness.

PLAN AHEAD FOR SPENDING

Review your 2016 year-end bank and credit card statements and note any spending surprises. Weddings, holiday gifts and travel can easily pile up debt, so decide now how you'll pay for them in the new year. If you can't start a fund of $50 or $100 every month toward these big-ticket items, commit to reserving a portion of any work bonus or tax refund.

A budget guideline like the 50/30/20 rule is helpful and simple. It suggests spending 50 percent of your take-home pay on needs, 30 percent or less on wants and 20 percent or more on savings and debt payoff.

Picking one or two big-picture goals — debt-free by 2018 or down payment for a house by 2020 — also can guide your daily spending. Make the list of goals your phone's screen saver. Or post your goals on your fridge to stay motivated, says Angel Melgoza, a certified financial planner and founder of MyLife Financial in McAllen, Texas.

I prefer adding goals to a paper calendar. Why the analog method? There's something about physically scratching a big "X'' across each day you're living up to your plan. It was the only thing that worked for me when I decided to run a 5K this summer after a lifetime of spurning sports.

SET PROGRESS CHECKPOINTS

Now that you've set new goals for the year and made them visible and easy to track, don't let your money motivation gather dust along with your yoga mat.

Set up time once a month to check your balances, take note of your progress and recalibrate your plan if needed. When you draw a big line through a scary goal, you'll realize you can do anything.

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This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

RELATED LINKS:

NerdWallet: How to refinance your student loans (told in under 350 words): https://nerd.me/6-nerdwallet-studentloans

Federal Student Aid: Apply for income-driven repayment: https://studentloans.gov/myDirectLoan/index.action