The most ambitious, life-changing goals all have two things in common: They make you feel instantly weak at the knees, and at first glance, they might appear to be too outrageous to achieve. If your financial goal for 2018 seems like more of a pipe dream than simply a task on your to-do list, then that's good. It means you've set your sights high and are poised to push yourself to make it a reality.
The next step is key: Develop a game plan. Whether your aim is to manage your money like an adult or to eliminate financial guilt for good, the only way to make that scary goal seem a little more achievable is to map out a path to success.
We've tackled the hard part for you and we've devised the ultimate month-by-month guide to help you take control of your finances, once and for all. For each month, we've handpicked a different topic to focus on, including mastering your 401(k), paying down debt, and drafting a budget, so that you'll hit your goal by December.
Ready to take control of your finances in 2018? This is your 12-step plan.
JANUARY: Do an Audit
First things first: Before you can start supercharging your savings or paying down debt, it's important to do a money audit. Dedicate this month to scrutinizing your spending habits. Print out bills from the last six months, and do a deep dive into your account statements.
Gaining a thorough understanding of how much you earn, what you spend your money on, and any reoccurring costs is crucial to managing your finances like a grown-up. Set up a digital and hard-copy filing system so that every bill and receipt has a designated space. When you do your next audit in January 2018, everything will be in order.
First Step: Sign up to a money tracker app like Level Money or Mint, which pulls data from your bank account to offer spending insights.
FEBRUARY: Draft a Budget
Now it's time to take the lessons from your audit and suggest possible improvements. Open a fresh spreadsheet, and write your monthly income at the top. This is the amount deposited into your bank account each month after deductions. Next, tally fixed expenses like rent and utility bills. In a separate column, write down your variable expenses, like gym memberships and entertainment costs.
Pause to review each category. Could you minimize your variable expenses? Are you happy with your savings contributions? This budget will act as your financial framework for the year, so make sure it's ambitious but achievable.
First Step: Use our step-by-step budget guide to make sure you don't miss any expenses.
MARCH: Build an Emergency Fund
A massive 57% of Americans don't have enough cash to cover a $500 emergency expense, like a medical bill or car repairs. That means that a simple unforeseen cost could push the majority of people into debt.
If you don't have an emergency fund, then now's the time to set one up. Make sure these small, regular savings are built into your budget as non-negotiable costs.
First Step: Open an online savings account that isn't linked to a card, so you're not tempted to dip into your emergency fund. Automate savings contributions so that a small portion of your paycheck goes directly to this account each month.
APRIL: Set a Savings Goal
There's one surefire way to stay motivated to save money: Set a clear, achievable goal. Without one, it'll be easier to justify that impulse purchase or extra cocktail at dinner. Set yourself visual reminders of your goal, like updating your desktop background to an image of your dream vacation.
First Step: Assign your savings goal a dollar figure, and then mark smaller financial goals in your calendar each month to track your progress.
MAY: Review Your Credit Cards
A 2015 study reveals 31% of Americans have no idea how much their current credit card costs them in fees. Yes, credit card fatigue is real, and it could be costing you hundreds of dollars. This month, focus on reviewing your credit cards, and question if they are still the best to suit your lifestyle. If you have a credit score over 690, you could be eligible for top-tier credit cards with better rewards.
First Step: Use a credit card comparison website, like NerdWallet or Compare Cards, to find out if it's time to switch to a better deal.
JUNE: Address Debt
Debt can seem insurmountable, but avoiding student loans or credit card debt isn't the solution. Dedicate this month to addressing debt, and put measures in place to start paying it off.
First Step: Collect statements to get a real grasp of your debt. Yes, that includes medical bills, student loans, mortgage, credit cards, and personal loans—everything. Use credit score services like Credit.com to check the accuracy of your debts, like late payment fees and credit limits. Visit National Student Loan Data System to better understand your student debt.
JULY: Do a Money Cleanse
You've set a savings goal, drafted a budget, and created a plan to pay down debt. Now, it's time to supercharge your savings or debt repayments.
Challenge yourself to eliminate all unnecessary costs for the month of July. Think of it as the financial version of Dry July. Trade dining out for potluck nights, suspend your Netflix account, and resolve to brew coffee at home rather than indulging in a daily cup. It might seem small and insignificant, but stripping back your spending habits will make you realize how many day-to-day purchases are unnecessary. That's a valuable lesson that will stay with you far beyond the monthlong cleanse.
First Step: What's your most common non-essential daily or weekly expense? Take a look at our list of the top nine things we spend too much money on, and find out how to cut them from your routine.
AUGUST: Learn About Your 401(k)
"People fear their 401(k), but it's just as important as your health," says Fidelity Investment assistant branch manager Jennifer Kruger. "We go for a physical and schedule annual teeth cleanings; our financial health should be just as important."
There are multiple options to make sure you're prepared for retirement, so it's crucial to understand what 401(k) plan your company offers (if any) and how to take advantage of it.
First Step: Schedule a one-on-one with your employer's HR or financial manager, and use our 401(k) cheat sheet to improve your knowledge. "You're limited to the options on your company plan, so you need to know where you stand. I’ve seen it range from hundreds of choices to just 10," Kruger says. If you want to be involved in the investment process, then ask to chat about selecting individual mutual funds to make up your own portfolio.
SEPTEMBER: Boost Your Income
If your only savings strategy is to spend less money, you're making a vital mistake. While outgoing expenses are important, you can also boost your bank balance by focusing on the flip side: your income.
Use the month of September to explore new ways to generate income. How can you make money outside of your day job? A simple side-hustle like tutoring, selling unused clothes and furniture, or creating an online store could fast-track your savings goals.
First Step: Got a spare room? Consider turning it into a rental by listing it on Airbnb. Resolve to put any profit straight into your savings account or toward debt repayment.
OCTOBER: Start Investing
A Fidelity study found that 92% of women want to learn more about managing their money, but almost half admit they aren't comfortable chatting to a professional to get started. If you've been putting off investing your money, now is the time to start.
You don't need to be wealthy to invest. Branch manager Amy Godwin says $500 is all you need to get started.
First Step: Use our investment guide to find out about the different options available to you, and schedule a meeting with a financial planner for tailored advice.
NOVEMBER: Scrutinize Fees
A TransferWise report suggests the average American household is throwing away hundreds of dollars in unnecessary fees. The study found that people lose $290 a year in bank fees alone, a statistic that the majority of Americans say shocks them.
Use this month to gain a better understanding of your bank, credit card, and ATM fees. Scan your bank statement to find out what your most common fees are, and then work to either refute or avoid them in future.
First step: Automate all reoccurring expenses, like credit card repayments or utility bills, to avoid unnecessary overdue payment fees.
DECEMBER: Review and Restrategize
You've made it to the end of the year! You've set a budget, reduced your spending, improved your 401(k) knowledge, started investing, and more—it's no small feat. Now that you've touched on these 11 different facets of your finances, it's time to reflect on your habits and restrategize. Ask yourself, what goals did you achieve, and what could you have done better? Take these learnings into the new year, and enter 2018 knowing that you've done all that you could to take ownership of your financial future.
First Step: Celebrate your success!
Looking to give your home the same once-over? Follow our 12-month guide.