This week is America Saves Week — a great time to take a hard look at your finances. Make 2010 your year for financial action! Even with a sluggish economy, you can make changes to improve your financial future. This week, start small but think big with these suggestions from America Saves and the Consumer Federation of America:
* Start (or add to) an emergency fund. An emergency fund is your protection against unexpected expenses. Having an emergency savings fund may be the most important difference between those who manage to stay afloat and those who are sinking financially. That's because maintaining emergency savings of $500 to $1,000 allows you to more easily meet unexpected financial challenges such as car repair or a medical bill and avoid high-interest, short-term loans.
* Track your spending. If you're looking for ways to cut back, your first course of action should be to know where your money is currently going. Knowing how you and your family spend money can help identify areas to reduce your spending. Keep track of every penny you spend for a month and see if you discover any surprises. Then use your spending record to make a plan for next month, and for the rest of the year.
* Let go of bad habits and bank your savings. A simple behavior change, like bringing your lunch to work rather than eating out, can add up to big savings over time. (Want to know how much? Check out the online lunch savings calculator at http://aarp.org/money/toolkit/articles/lunch_savings_calculator.html). Find one or two things in your life — such as gourmet coffee, eating out or recreational shopping — to cut back on and bank the difference. What you don't see, you will probably not miss.
* Go automatic! Treat savings like another bill by setting up automatic monthly transfers at your financial institution from your checking to savings account or having a portion of your paycheck directly deposited into your savings. Savers who save automatically are more likely to be successful long-term.
* Save all or part of your tax refund. With IRS Form 8888, you can choose to save all or part of your tax refund, and even divide the savings among several different direct-deposit accounts if you wish. See the details at www.form8888.org.
* Take advantage of free money at work. Many employees turn down free money from their employer by not signing up for a work-related retirement program such as a 401(k) plan.
Savers with a dollar-for-dollar match would likely receive an annual yield of greater than 100 percent on their investment. Get inspired to save at work by visiting the America Saves Web site www.americasaves.org/strategies/work/save.asp.
For more information on saving and other financial issues, see my "Living Well" blog at SWKTalk.com/livingwell.