Mary Alexander doesn't make New Year's resolutions.
Instead, the 40-year-old looks back at the past year to help guide her forward.
"I hope to have revelations about what's happened in the year," said Alexander, who is mom to three kids ages 7 to 17 and lives in Red Hook, New York. "Like, what did 2020 teach me?
"What was the point of it all?" she added. "How did I grow as a person?"
That's led her to want to take control of her financial life and make better money decisions in 2021.
With her children and her fiancé's two children at home doing some form of virtual learning, the electric and food bills have jumped. Plus, there is the prospect of college and a car for her oldest.
It's all made her more mindful about money. She and her fiancé plan on refinancing their house so that they can save about $300 a month. The next stimulus checks will be set aside, along with the tax refunds they receive in April.
"I don't think that we anticipated this lasting as long as it has," Alexander said. "We took a lot of stuff for granted."
This is the time of year that many Americans make resolutions or look for ways to reset their lives. In 2021, people are hoping to move on from the pandemic and perhaps become smarter about their money.
"If there is one thing we learned in 2020, it is just how fragile the system is and the economy is," said Sahil Bloom, an investor and financial educator.
"You have to take control of your own finances," he added.
"You need to embrace a learning culture and environment around just getting a little bit smarter every day about your investing, your earning, your spending and building wealth."
To do that, curate a list of learning tools that allow you to gain knowledge, Bloom said.
Where to look
There are plenty of free educational resources available, geared towards both adults and children.
The National Endowment for Financial Education targets people of all ages, and offers free online courses, learning activities and quizzes, among other things.
The nonprofit personal finance organization Next Gen Personal Finance has activities on topics such as investing, budgeting, and paying for college, as well as free lesson plans on subjects like saving and managing credit.
You can find content for both adults and children on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's website. Topics include home buying, getting a loan and paying for college. Your kids can head to the Money as You Grow section, which has a variety of age-appropriate lessons.
The more visually inclined can look at Napkin Finance, which uses sketches and graphic images to explain concepts such as individual retirement accounts vs. 401(k) plans, debt and budgets. Khan Academy also has personal finances courses.
For those who prefer reading a book, Bloom recommends "The Psychology of Money," by Morgan Housel.
"Knowledge and understanding are the foundation of all of this," Bloom said.
"Once you have developed a true understanding of these concepts, that is the start of you being able to implement them and taking control of your financial destiny."
Making financial changes
To get a handle on your money, first sit down and take a look at your financial situation. Come up with goals for the year and how you want to pursue them, Bloom said.
Marcetas Decatur-Henley's goal is to save more money in 2021.
The 50-year-old works as an executive special education director at a private company that partners with schools around the country. In April, she saw her salary cut by 20%.
"I was forced for about three months to just cut back on a lot of things," said Decatur-Henley, who lives in North Wales, Pennsylvania.
"In doing so, I saw that there are so many things that I was spending money on that weren't really necessary."
She's trying to now carry that mindset into 2021, although her full salary has since been restored.
"I'm so much more grateful," she said. "I've had time to just sit back and think about all of my blessings: my beautiful home, my beautiful kids and extended family."
Cutting back on expenses that aren't necessary is one way to stash more cash aside.
You can also make a pact with yourself when you go to spend money you don't necessarily need to spend, Henske advised. When you make the purchase, or even partake in a bad habit, take a set amount of money out of your checking account and put it into your savings.
"Put some barrier up in front of it ," he said. "It gives you something to think about.
"It gives your brain a chance to catch up with your heart."
For paying down debt, set up a recurring monthly amount you commit to paying, Henske advised.
While moving balances from a high-interest credit card to a lower-interest one may save you some money, it doesn't focus on the real problem — which is bad habits, he said.
It's also a good idea to check your credit cards' year-end statements, which usually break down where you spent your money in the past year. That will help you see where you can cut back.
Make a year-long schedule
While sticking to your new goals may seem challenging, try not to get overwhelmed.
"Do it for four weeks," Henske said. "If you realize you can do it for another four weeks, do it in February, too.
"Do bite-sized challenges."
You can also get an accountability partner, whether it is a financial advisor or a friend who wants to accomplish the same goals. Set up regular calls to check in on your progress.
While the first of the year is a great time to reboot, it can really be done any time of year, Henske said.
The best thing to do is to put for dates in your calendar throughout the year, such as Jan. 1, April 1, July 1 and Oct. 1. Block off an hour to go over your finances. If you have a partner or are married, sit down and look at what you have, what you have saved and, if you are overspending, what you have spent, he advised.
"The key is don't set huge goals," Henske said. "The key is to set little goals, attainable goals but worthwhile goals."
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