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Get your finances in gear for the new year

TODAY financial editor Jean Chatzky offers four "tweaks" that can help make a difference in how you feel about your money and your life.
/ Source: TODAY

I am not a big one for New Year's Resolutions. On the occasions that I have made them, by February they've been discarded. I've come to believe, as a result of this lack of willpower on my part, that the start of the year is not a time to try to make sweeping changes.

Small changes — tweaks — however are another story. There are certain behaviors, certain habits that you can adopt without a whole host of effort that can make a huge difference in your life, particularly your financial life. So today, in lieu of a list of resolutions so grandiose I'd fully expect you to abandon them before you even got started, I'd like to offer you the following tweaks. Adopting even one or two of them, I've learned, can make a big difference in how you feel about your money and how you feel about your life.

1. Save something (anything). You've heard me gripe in this space before about how little Americans are saving these days and the statistics bear me out. We are socking pretty much nothing (on average) away for our futures, whether those futures are next week, next year or next decade. That is a problem on many levels.

Near-term, it means that we are likely to float our wants and needs on credit cards we'll have to pay off at double-digit interest rates rather than writing a check or using a debit card to pay for them immediately.

Long-term, it means that we will end up working more years than we may want to pay for everything from housing to healthcare. It's a problem we can solve by putting some of the money we're earning today away for tomorrow. The easiest way to do it is by electing to have money automatically transferred from your paycheck into a retirement plan (like a 401(k)), from your checking account into a college savings account (like a 529), or from your checking account into a savings account that you agree will be hands off for the foreseeable future. The money will not only add up quickly ($400 a month will yield $5,000 by the end of the year once interest kicks in), but the fact that your pile of loot is growing will inspire you to kick in more.

2. Bank online. There are so many reasons banking online makes sense. It's a time saver (it takes the average family 15 minutes to pay their bills online each month compared to two hours if you're writing checks and licking envelopes.) It's a money saver (you also save $5 to $6 a month in stamps). It's a known thorn in the side of identity thieves (people who bank online check their accounts four times as often as those who don't and are more likely to notice something gone wrong with their money). And, because you're more in touch with your finances, you're more likely to be an active manager of them rather than just a passive watcher.

3. Protect the people you love. What's the use of building assets and financial security if you haven't taken basic steps to make sure the people you care for would be protected if something happened to you? It's a good question. Unfortunately, too many people — too many parents — don't have a good answer. If you have dependents and you haven't gone out and gotten a simple will so that your belongings would be passed on in the way you desire and there are guardians in place for any minor children, well, you haven't done your job. If you have dependents counting on income from you and you haven't put in place a term life insurance policy so that their financial world wouldn't be rocked if you were taken from them, you haven't done it either. And lest you think you're off the hook if you're a single individual with no one counting on your income, you're not. You need a disability insurance policy if there is no one in place to take care of you financially.

4. Grab a little financial knowledge. Finally, if the column until this point has read like Greek to you, well then it's time to start paying a little bit of attention to your finances. I know that in this busy, busy world it's tempting to divide and conquer all the family chores. If money is not one of your line items, it's all too easy to let someone else — most often a spouse — take care of it for you. It's a mistake. You need to know how to handle your family finances before you're thrown into a situation where you have to handle your family finances. So once or twice over the next few months, sit down with your family's money manager and pay the bills together, make sure you know where the important documents are located, make a short list of the key contacts (lawyer, accountant, broker, banker) so that if you ever need to take the reigns, you can.

Happy New Year!

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .