- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2006

Pamela Newman rang in the new year 10 years ago as a waitress. And she swore it would be her last year waiting tables.

“I looked around and thought: ‘Is this what I want to be doing 10 years from now?’” she said. “There was so much I wanted and, until that point, I hadn’t even thought about how I was going to get there.”

Ten years later, Ms. Newman, 35, is where she wants to be. She went from hand-to-mouth living to owning two condominiums in the San Diego area, one of which she rents out, and created a successful career in real estate sales.

All it took was resolve.

This time of year is full of resolutions: Lose weight, exercise more, work less (or more), be kinder to others. But as you make your list of resolutions for this year, a good, hard look at your finances could be far more beneficial in the long run than working off the extra 15 pounds you gained.

“This is definitely the time of year to get things started,” said Barry Armstrong, a Boston financial planner with Woodbury Financial Services. “For some people, it’s a bitter message. There are things that you don’t like doing. But they have to be done.”

First, if you don’t have a financial plan already, resolve to set goals for yourself. Like Ms. Newman a decade ago, you have to know where you are going so you can figure out how to get there. Whether you want to buy a home, pay for college, lower debt or retire, you will have to do some research to figure out what you will need.

Next, figure out where you are. That means looking at your income, assets, debts, loans and investments. Americans had a negative savings rate this year for the first time in nearly a half-century. People are living beyond their means, and by gathering and assessing your income and spending, you can figure out if you are among them.

Credit cards play a big part in spending, thus warrant close attention, Mr. Armstrong said. If you find you have spent more than you have earned, running up your debt, it’s time to put away the credit cards.

“If you can’t afford to buy something, don’t put it on the credit card. Put them in a drawer,” Mr. Armstrong said. “And pay as much as you can on them, every month. I’ve even advised people to get a second job. Go work for UPS for three or four months if you have to, but get them paid off.”

Ms. Newman had to use her credit cards while training to become a real estate agent, racking up $8,000 in debt “just buying groceries,” but she paid that debt down quickly.

“Never pay the minimum, otherwise you’ll be paying on those cards 30 years from now,” she said. “I also closed out ones I wasn’t using, but I kept the card I had the longest open, since that’s good for your credit score.”

Another good resolution is to order your credit report. Recent changes in the law allow consumers to get a free copy of their credit reports from each of the three reporting agencies — Trans Union, Equifax and Experian — by going to www.annualcreditreport.com or calling 877/322-8228.

You might find old debts that are weighing on your credit score. Even if they are just $50, they can reduce your score a great deal if they have gone unpaid for years or are charged off. You also may find improper reports that can be challenged and erased from your report.

For homeowners, 2006 may be the last time it’s financially feasible to refinance mortgages, as interest rates are expected to start climbing next year. Stick with fixed-rate mortgages, Mr. Armstrong said, and close out lines of credit.

Finally, it is always good to review your 401(k) retirement-plan allocations. If your company has a matching 401(k), make sure you are saving at least as much as your company is willing to match.

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