Your 2021 Action Plan
The beginning of the year is a great time to assess where you are and where you want to be so you can set your financial goals for the year ahead. As you reflect, you might realize you want to start saving, improve your credit score and take a summer vacation all this year – those are great goals! However, you might realize the easy part is setting your goals. The hard part is…where to begin?
The truth is, setting financial goals and working towards them shouldn’t only be packed into the beginning of the year – you’re not setting yourself up for success! The key to taking control of your finances and meeting your goals is having a manageable plan for the entire year.
Here’s a breakdown to help you keep your credit and finances in check all year long:
Q1: January, February, March – Kick Off the New Year
- Build a budget
- Check your credit health
- Get organized for tax season
Q2: April, May, June – Spring Clean and Organize Your Finances
- Pay back or use your tax return wisely
- Tackle your debts
- Create better money habits
Q3: July, August, September – Create a Summer Spending Plan
- Revisit your budget for summer
- Check your credit report and score
- Prepare for home improvement projects
Q4: October, November, December – Plan for the New Year
- Start saving for the holidays
- Know what kind of credit you need
- Set your New Year’s Resolutions
Q1: JANUARY, FEBRUARY, MARCH – Kick Off the New Year
Starting the year off right and making positive changes begins with assessing where you are today and setting goals. Take a look at your savings, debts, and credit score. Building a budget and understanding your credit health is a great way to evaluate where you are. And, don’t forget tax season is right around the corner – time to get organized!
1. Build a Realistic Budget
Building a budget at the beginning of the year is smart. It’s the foundation to help track your spending habits, save money, or pay down debt – all things that can boost your credit score and brighten your future. Here’s how to get started:
- Add up your income. Record all the after-tax income you earn each month, starting with your salary and/or hourly wages, and adding in any other income from things like investments, Social Security checks and side hustles.
- Record your expenses. Start with the obvious expenses, like your rent and gym membership. Next, factor in discretionary spending, like eating out and buying clothes. Include contributions to your savings account and debt payments as expense categories. With expenses that can fluctuate – like your weekly trip to the grocery store or your utility bill – look back over the past 6-12 months and calculate an average.
- Account for every dollar. When you compare your money coming in (income) with your money going out (expenses), every dollar should be counted. If your monthly after-tax income is $4,500, for example, the sum of your expenses should not exceed $4,500.
Keep adjusting until you know where each dollar of the $4,500 belongs. If you discover you only need $4,000 to cover your planned expenses, then that means you have room to contribute an extra $500 to paying down debt or saving each month. If your planned expenses are more than $4,500, find ways to cut back on spending or increase your income until the amount coming in matches the amount going out.
2. Make Your Credit Health a Priority
Look at your credit health at the beginning of the year and commit to keeping tabs on your credit score throughout the year. Prioritizing your credit score will help you with your other financial goals in the future, whether you’re applying for credit, getting a new job, or moving to a new apartment. Any of these businesses might use your credit report to decide if you’re a good person to do business with.
The good news is that in today’s digital world, making a habit of checking your credit score is easy! Check out Upgrade's Credit Health for free credit monitoring and other tools to help you track and understand your credit situation.
3. Get Organized for Tax Season
Every year the April tax deadline looms and getting organized and understanding the latest tax laws before you file is key. While self-filing online is a good option for some people, it could be worth the extra cost to get help and gain the peace of mind that you’re filing your taxes accurately.
Q2: APRIL, MAY, JUNE – Spring Clean your Finances
Spring time isn’t only for spring cleaning your home, it’s about cleaning up and organizing your finances! Now’s a great time to get thoughtful about how you can use any extra money you might have or lower the cost of debt you might owe. It’s also a great time to think through adopting some better money habits that can help make the rest of the year more manageable.
1. Decide What to Do About Your Tax Return, or Tax Payment
If you’re getting a tax refund, that’s great news. But, don’t blow this money on something that you won’t see a return on – you work hard for your money, so make the most of it!
One of the best investments you can make is paying down debt. Saying good bye to high-interest debt now could help you save money in the long run – not to mention give you invaluable relief! If you’ve already paid down your debt, consider starting or contributing to an emergency fund. An emergency fund can help you avoid turning to high-interest credit cards in the future when you’re in a pinch. No matter what you do with this money, just remember using your tax refund responsibly is an investment in your future. Don’t blow your money on something that will quickly fade away.
On the flip side, if you owe money on your taxes and weren’t expecting to get hit with a bill, don’t stick your head in the sand and just wish it will go away. The government would rather get the money over a period of time as opposed to not at all, so they do have an installment plan available if you can’t pay in full. Another installment option is a personal loan, which is worth checking out. At Upgrade, you can check your rate and see how much you qualify for in just minutes. The key is researching your options – compare interest rates, fees and repayment terms so you’ll know what option will work best for your situation.
2. Tackle Your Debts Head On
If you’re stuck in the revolving debt cycle it’s worth looking at your options to get yourself out of the never ending spinning wheel.
Credit card interest rates can change with little notice. If you’re carrying a credit card balance, changing rates will impact how much you’re paying every month. Moreover, that high balance is impacting your credit utilization ratio (an important credit score factor!) and that could be dragging your credit score down, ultimately impacting your ability to qualify for affordable credit in the future.
Pledge to pay off your debts now and you’ll be able to keep more money in your wallet to spend on what’s important to you. Plus, it can help improve your credit score.
One path that has helped millions of credit card holders escape the revolving debt cycle is consolidating that debt with a personal loan. Consolidating your debt with a fixed low-interest personal loan may not only save you money, but also give you the relief of streamlining your finances and knowing a clear pay off date that you can circle on your calendar.
3. Commit to Better Money Habits
There isn’t a silver bullet to help you reach or maintain strong financial health– it’s a mix of many things you do every day that can help strengthen your wallet and credit score over time. There’s a lot of simple things that can deliver big results. Here’s a few tried and true techniques:
- Monitor your score regularly Make a habit of reviewing your score every month and staying in the know about what’s impacting your score.
- Sign up for auto-pay Your payment history is the top factor that impacts your credit score. Don’t let yourself miss a payment. Sign up to automatically pay at least the minimum each month. You can always add a second payment if you have the money, but if you at least pay the minimum you’ll avoid a credit-dinging late payment on your report.
- Turn on automatic savings If you have room to save each month, set up an automatic transfer from your checking account to your savings account. Schedule it close to your payday so you don’t have time to miss (or spend!) the money. You can use this extra savings to prepare for a major purchase, give yourself a cushion, or pay down some old debts.
Q3: JULY, AUGUST, SEPTEMBER – Create a Summer Spending Plan
Summer is a great time of year but it can also be the most expensive with summer projects, vacations, and back to school. You’re half way through the year, so take the time to revisit your budget and consider any extra expenses this season may bring. Your wallet will thank you if you’re well-prepared.
1. Revisit and Readjust Your Budget
During the summer months it’s easy to forget about your budget. Make a habit of reviewing your budget during the summer and recalibrate accordingly.
How much is that home improvement project going to cost you? Does taking that project on mean you can’t take the annual summer vacation you always take? It’s easy to go into debt if you don’t keep track of where all of your money is going. Take inventory of your finances and monitor your spending closely. Decide if you need to cut back on some things like dining out so you can put that money towards your other summer goals.
2. Review Your Credit Report
It’s always good to know what’s on your credit report and check for accuracy and areas of improvement, but for many of us, summer time is an even more important time to take a look. Between summer spending and other end-of-year expenses, you might want to apply for credit or achieve other goals that relies on what’s recorded in your credit report and having a strong credit score.
Based on the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from any of the nationwide credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Go to www.annualcreditreport.com and get a free copy of your credit report. It’s important to do this annually and check for inaccuracies or unusual activity. If you check your report annually you’ll need to take steps to correct an error.
3. Finance Your Home Improvement Projects
Ready to turn your backyard into an outdoor oasis with a new pool? Or maybe you want to take on that bathroom renovation that you’ve been putting off? If you’re planning to take on any home renovations and are like the majority of us who do not have cash on hand to fund the full project, understanding your credit options and sticking to a smart project plan is vital – it can power (or deplete) any project.
If you know exactly how much you’re going to spend on your project, you might consider a home improvement loan. On the other hand, for projects that entail ongoing expenses you might want to consider Upgrade Card.
Upgrade Card gives you the same flexibility as a credit card since you only pay interest on the amount you use. However, unlike a credit card, you can budget for predictable monthly payments because each time you draw from your line you get a fixed rate and term. In contrast, borrowing with credit cards is open-ended with no set pay-off date, and can come with higher fees. Credit cards typically come with variable rates that can increase on existing balances when the prime rate goes up.
Q4: OCTOBER, NOVEMBER, DECEMBER – Holiday Planning
The fall and winter months can be the most magical time of year that brings families and friends together, but it also ranks highest in consumer spending. Retail sales are forecasted to increase by 5-5.6% and online sales likely to rise 17-22%.1 From holiday travel, to special gifts to family feasts – the costs add up! While we don’t want to let money get in the way of the festivities, sporadic spending can land you in a stressful state later. Preparing and prioritizing is key to making sure you end the year full of holiday spirit while not depleting your bank account.
1. Shop Smart During the Holidays
‘Tis the season for giving, but it’s also important to be conscientious about your spending and shopping habits. Consider how much you need to spend during the holidays and build a savings plan into your budget. Once it’s time to start holiday shopping, apply thoughtful strategies to reign in unnecessary spending. A few saving strategies to help spend more thoughtfully:
- Compare prices: make it a habit to research the best deal, both online and in-store. See if an item comes in a generic brand that might be cheaper.
- Stick to your list: make a shopping list before you leave the house and stick to it to avoid unplanned purchases.
- Don’t lose focus: the checkout aisle is the prime spot for retailers to overwhelm your willpower with vices like candy and cheap knick knacks – keep your tunnel vision on.
- Shop smart, not fast: consider holding off on purchasing something until you know it’s sale season. Can it wait until Black Friday?
- Be selective in who you shop with: do you have a friend who you partner up with for retail therapy? Leave them at home.
2. Choose the Best Credit Option
If you realize that you might need to turn to credit during the holidays, get to know your options and plan ahead. Doing so will help avoid getting yourself into high-interest debt that will cause post-holiday stress, or worse – being trapped in a never ending revolving debt cycle.
Instead of turning to high-interest credit cards this holiday season, you might want to consider other options. If you created a holiday budget and know how much you need – that’s a great start! Check to see if you qualify for a personal loan to cover the costs you outlined in your budget. People often choose a personal loan instead of a credit card because with a personal loan you get a fixed rate and term so you know exactly when you’ll have that debt paid off. And with personal loans through Upgrade you can see if you qualify in minutes and also won’t get penalized if you decide that you want to pay off that loan early.
3. Set Your Goals for the New Year
Now is a great time to reflect on the past year, give yourself a pat on the back for accomplishing the goals you hit, and evaluate what you can do to make more progress in the year ahead. Whether that means working to pay down your debt or saving more, being more diligent about sticking to a budget, or boosting your credit score so you can qualify for better credit opportunities in the future, it’s a great time to get that action plan into place and get ahead of your New Year’s goals!