Liz Pulliam Weston

The Basics

5 ways to dig yourself out in 2010

Skip the excuses. The truth is that only you can control your financial destiny -- and you should start right now.

By Liz Pulliam Weston
MSN Money

Many Americans are facing real financial crises: lost jobs, lost homes, lost retirement savings.

Many others, though, are mired in financial messes completely of their own making. Despite relatively steady incomes, they:

  • Live paycheck to paycheck.
  • Carry credit card debt.
  • Neglect their credit records.
  • Fail to save anything for retirement.
  • Put off the financial fixes they need to make, even if that fix is bankruptcy.

Denial is not a financial plan. And neither is fear, confusion, a government bailout or a lottery ticket. Many people, perhaps believing themselves powerless or that the goal is too far away, simply give up. And in doing so, they give up control of their financial destinies.

If that sounds like you, now is the time to take action. It's not only possible -- it's incredibly doable. Let's make 2010 the year you dig yourself out of your money morass, the year you begin to call your own shots.

The process is simpler than you might think it is.

To be better off than you are today, you don't need to save a million dollars, but you do need to save something. To be better off than you are today, you don't need to be debt-free -- only to stop digging your hole deeper. You don't need perfect credit or a year's income in the bank for rainy days.

What you do need is a paycheck and the resolve to change your financial future. Leave the excuses elsewhere. No matter how you landed in this muck, only you can decide it's time to get out.

The Your Money message board is full of people who decided to take control of their financial destinies, then took action. They paid off debts, restored their credit and started saving for the future.

Below are the five steps you need to take if you want to join them. I'll devote a column to each of them in the coming weeks, but here are synopses to get you started:

1. Save $500

You've probably heard the advice that people need to have emergency funds equal to -- take your pick -- three months', six months', nine months', even a year's worth of expenses. In reality, it takes a much smaller kitty to pull yourself up from paycheck-to-paycheck living: just enough to keep the little things like a broken water heater or a car insurance increase from becoming an emergency.

A pad of just $500 can start you on the right path, dramatically reduce your anxiety level and save you a fortune in bounced-check fees and finance charges. I'll show you how to find the money and how to spend it the right way.

2. Raise your credit scores to 740

Credit card companies have burned millions of their customers in the past couple of years by jacking up rates, lowering credit limits and canceling accounts.

Some people are taking the wrong lesson from this by swearing off credit entirely. In this world, you need to have and use credit to get the best rates and terms on important loans, such as a mortgage. But you don't have to carry debt to have good credit scores. I'll walk you through how to get your FICO scores to the gold-standard 740 level, so you're the one calling the shots with lenders.

3. Make a vow: No new debt

The first step in getting out of your debt hole is to stop digging. That's obvious. But the minute you commit to a no-new-debt lifestyle, you'll be blasted with temptations to do just that.

It's kind of like deciding to go on a diet -- fattening foods appear out of nowhere to tempt you. I'll talk about how to deal with those temptations and create a debt-proof lifestyle.

4. Expect to live until you're (at least) 80

The younger you are, the harder it is to imagine your future decrepitude, but the odds are very good that you'll live well past the usual retirement age. The earlier you get started saving for retirement, the less of your income you'll have to devote to the cause and the more flexibility you'll have in deciding not only when to quit work but how you'll spend your retirement years.

Even if you've procrastinated, though, not all is lost. I'll show you how even a few bucks a week can make all the difference.

5. Change your financial destiny

If you've tried to fix your finances in the past and failed, the problem may be that you didn't think big enough. Sometimes what you really need is to take a bold step. You may have to go back to school, change careers, move to a new city or start a business. I'll talk about how to assess your current situation and decide whether it's time to take a leap.

If you need some inspiration along the way, check out the Your Money message board thread "Dig yourself out in 2010." We'll collect success stories, answer questions and offer advice throughout the year to people who are determined to end the year in much better shape than they started.

Liz Pulliam Weston is the Web's most-read personal-finance writer. She is the author of several books, most recently "Your Credit Score: Your Money & What's at Stake." Weston's award-winning columns appear every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. She also answers reader questions on the Your Money message board and helps middle-class families cope at Building a Brighter Future.

Published Dec. 31, 2009

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