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New Year’s resolutions have become so cliché that the process of making them has become a joke. People settle for mundane goals for the year like “losing weight,” “quitting smoking,” and “getting out of debt.” These are great goals, of course, but most who think about these only when the calendar changes soon forget their plans, continue their lives as before, and lament their failure when they reflect as next year approaches.

Part of the problem is that these goals are not specific enough for anyone to take seriously. Gurus and bloggers are pushing forward the idea that goals need to be “SMART” — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based — as if it’s a new concept. This is a helpful way to look at your resolutions if you want to approach your life as a project manager. A better approach is to realize that time moves very fast, and with busy lives it’s better to make modest goals and focus on each small step that moves you in the right direction.

New year hatThe most popular New Year’s resolutions are tiresome. It’s no wonder people don’t keep them. Few people can be passionate about losing weight or getting out of debt, and even if they are, it will take a lot of work to change the behaviors (or medical conditions) that caused the circumstances needing improvement. These can be multi-year goals, and if your entire success relies on completion within 365 days (366 in a leap year) you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Here are some different ways at looking at financial resolutions that are not only achievable within the year but are more interesting than what many may typically resolve to do. While there are twelve listed here, you’re more likely suited for success if you focus on just one. The year will be over before you know it, but your resolutions should always be aligned with long-term goals for yourself or your personal mission statement.

1. Spend money on things that are important.

Your spending habits reveal what is important to you. If you spend more money buying video games for yourself than you spend on activities with your significant other, you have decided on some level that you favor your time with a computer game more than the one you love. The higher value each dollar has to you, with the importance of one dollar related to your level of disposable income, the bigger the importance of whatever you choose to spend that dollar on.

Look where your money goes. You may need to track your spending if you’re not sure. You’ve defined what’s important to you by your expenses. Your shelter (rent or mortgage) and food are obviously important and form the basis of your expenses, but beyond that, you can rate how important any activity is to you by comparing your level of spending. If you don’t like what you see, resolve to spend your extra money — after you cover necessary expenses and saving — on the things you want to be important to you.

2. Create something every month.

FoodThe culture in this country is one of consumption. We consume food, media, and resources. In order to consume, we spend money. This year, change your role in society. Become a creator rather than just a consumer. You can create something that other people consume or something that you consume yourself.

  • Cook more often than you prepare frozen meals and dine out.
  • Create your own adventures instead of watching movies and television.
  • Write in a journal rather than reading a best-selling novel.
  • Engage your mind creatively, taking photographs, making art, or performing music.

3. Learn a new skill.

This could be the year you focus on trying new things. The best new skills to learn would be those that are related to your interests and passions. Here are a few examples, but think about the things that make you happy and decide on a skill that enhances your attitude.

  • If you’ve had a favorite vacation destination in mind in a foreign country, start learning the language and culture.
  • If you like running but haven’t taken this type of exercise seriously yet, train yourself for a 5K race.
  • Learn how to play the piano.

Many new skills can take more than a year to learn. Don’t consider your year a failure if you don’t complete your mission to learn something new. Keep taking small steps that move your life in the right direction, and whether you complete your goal within one year is less important.

4. Earn money from your hobby.

Coin CollectionConsumerism Commentary started as a hobby, but after a while, it became apparent that writing could also be a business that generated income. In some cases, though, turning a hobby into a business can turn an enjoyable activity into a chore. Turning your hobby into a business is not the best option for everyone, so this has to be a personal decision. If you like collecting coins, do you want to be a coin dealer? If you’re particularly skilled at photography, do you want to market yourself and compete with professional photographers?

Not everyone wants to start a business, but keeping your activities small can keep the business aspect of your hobby to a minimum. Strike the right balance between hobby and business so you still gain a maximum amount of pleasure and satisfaction from the activities you enjoy.

5. Start a blog to track your finances.

I have first-hand experience about how helpful it has been to publicly track my own finances. This is a great way to maintain focus on any goal. By making your progress public, you are holding yourself accountable for your success. And if your goals are interesting to others, even strangers, they can join you in your quest and offer support — and more often, criticism — when you need it. Draw some inspiration from Naked With Cash as well as how I tracked my finances from 2003 through 2011.

Rather than using a blog to track your success, allow the blog to be your success. Start a website using WordPress or Tumblr and write anonymously about the financial issues in your life. You don’t need to be a great writer, but if you continue, your writing will improve. Don’t be concerned about building an audience or earning money. Writing for its own sake helps clarify financial issues, particularly when you read what you’ve written over a period of time.

Tracking your finances in software like Mint.com or Quicken isn’t always enough. When you look at your finances with the intent of writing about them, your brain performs at least a minimum amount of analysis, and this is a step further than most people take with their finances.

6. Support local businesses.

The 3/50 Project is an initiative that encourages consumers to spend $50 among three local businesses each month. Keeping your money local helps improve the economy in the community where you live, and it helps you build relationships with your neighbors near you and across your town. Similarly, as much as I don’t like the real motivation behind American Express’s Small Business Saturday, many mom-and-pop business do in fact see benefits to encouraging AmEx customers to enter their stores.

Following an initiative can provide extra motivation for achieving a goal, but you can do this without an initiative as well. Supporting local businesses is a possible resolution that most people don’t consider. Usually, people resolve to save money, and that could mean shopping online or visiting big-box or warehouse stores. Spending money in these locations does not help a community thrive — at least, not directly.

The same is true about local community banks and credit unions. By moving your money away from big banks, you are taking a financial action that is more beneficial in the area where you live. This is a simple, achievable resolution for the new year.

7. Sell or give away your stuff.

ClothingThis could be the year you focus on decluttering your life. When I moved into my current apartment a few years ago, I seemed to have so much space available. I fell into the typical habit of expanding the way I live to fit into my new environment. If you look around your living space, you can probably find a number of things you don’t need. Here are just a few suggestions of where to start:

  • Look through your closet and give away the clothes you no longer wear.
  • Sell your old games, electronics, movies, and books on eBay or Amazon.com.
  • Organize your papers and shred old documents you no longer need to keep.

This sounds like a good weekend project rather than a New Year’s resolution, so to make this worthwhile, consider running through this process on the first Sunday of each month. Each time, you’ll find more to eliminate. If unchecked, “stuff” can take over your life. If you have so much it’s burdensome, your possessions can own you rather than the other way around. Reduce and eliminate your dependency on things that take up space.

8. Spend more time with activities that make you happy.

I mentioned above that you can determine what’s most important to you by following the money. The same thing is true about time. If you were to analyze every waking minute of my day, you’d see that I spend most of my time working on my business and most of the rest of that time with my girlfriend. Or that’s what I’d like to believe. I, for one, spend a good portion of time entertaining myself with movies and television. Productivity nerds would fairly criticize me, but I do find value in resting my brain by allowing a local grumpy doctor solve medical mysteries so I don’t need to or by watching a clever con game unfold.

But buy spending my time this way, I’ve traded my enjoyment in creativity, like photography and music, for sitting in front of a television. Decide what’s important to you and schedule time to dedicate to those activities. I’m not a fan of keeping a schedule, but when you can schedule activities you enjoy rather than scheduling corporate meetings, you will end the year happier and more fulfilled.

And the reason we make resolutions at all is because we are unhappy with something in our lives. If we can spend more time on enjoyable activities, we won’t be nearly as unhappy.

9. Volunteer with an organization that matches your values.

Until the government decides to offer a tax deduction for volunteer work, this potential resolution won’t have a direct effect on your finances, but it could inspire you in ways that do affect your money. The first step is creating a mission statement for your life. In fact, defining your mission can be a complete resolution itself for the year, as defining a meaningful mission requires thoughtful self-reflection that goes beyond the confines of a lunch break at work.

Once you have an accounting of your values and life goals, it’s easier to determine what organizations share your view of the world. Spending time with these organizations and the people who share your philosophies can be rewarding. Often, the reward is through personal satisfaction and pride but there can be a financial aspect, as well. You may decide that you want to use your wealth to improve life for a community, or you may decide that you would like to motivate yourself harder to build your own wealth to help you complete your life’s mission.

10. Be happy with what you have.

The drive to want more for ourselves creates motivation to move forward, to earn more money, and to improve our financial habits. When there’s a mission behind this drive, a purpose in life, it makes that motivation more meaningful. Your should also stop wanting for a moment to consider that if you are reading this article, you were most likely lucky to be born in a situation or community where wealth-building, education, and even sanitation are possible. The “pursuit of happiness,” along with life and liberty, concerned the founders of the United States, but happiness is easily within reach.

Resolve to consider all the positive things in your life: your family, your wealth (no matter how bad your financial situation is, it could be worse), your friends. Consider the opportunities you’ve been given that helped you achieve what you have so far as well as the work you’ve put into shaping your life.

11. Don’t settle for low-quality relationships.

Unfortunately, there are often people in your life who bring you down. You don’t want to surround yourself with yes men, but if you look at your extended circle of friends, chances are you have a few with whom spending time makes you feel good and a few who often dampen your mood. While you don’t want to eliminate relationships with people from whom you can receive kind criticism, it is beneficial to reduce time with people who consistently have a negative attitude.

I’ve discovered this over a long period of time. I’ve always held onto friendships, regardless of the quality, because I believed that every close connection was as important as another. Perhaps I grew up, or perhaps I just had less time to spend with people. Perhaps there have been a few events where I had placed faith in a friend and had been disappointed, and another friend advised me I shouldn’t have such “high” expectations for my relationships. There are enough great people in the world not to have to settle for mediocre people in your life. If you feel you are consistently lowering your expectations, it may be time to spend time with others — as long as you are doing as much as possible to be a good person, yourself, in your inter-personal relationships.

This is the age of Facebook. People brag about how many “friends” they have, and it’s more of a thrill of collection than an enjoyment of real connections. Resolve to enhance the quality of your relationships rather than quantity. Although this goes against most “networking” advice for professionals who want to advance their career, it’s an approach for people who want to advance their life.

12. Let go of your grudges.

Just like it will benefit you to reduce your exposure to people with negative attitudes, consider expelling the negative feelings you’re harboring towards others. I don’t believe that positivity in itself brings about wealth — you can’t increase your bank account by just thinking about how nice it would be to have a bigger bank account, regardless of what New Age aficionados tell you — but letting go of thoughts that prevent you from accepting opportunities and greeting the world optimistically will help put you in a better position to take advantage of good things that come your way.

The above resolutions are not specific. You can use them — or better, just one or two — to guide your thoughts and attitude for the coming year, or you can use them to create a basis for measurable targets that come December 31 you can say you reached. Some tie directly into your finances, and others are related laterally. All of them can help you go beyond the typical neglected resolutions like “losing weight” and “saving money.”

Do something worthwhile and meaningful with your self this coming year..

Photos: L. Marie, Ancient Art, LizMarie_AK

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Someone I know is boycotting Wal-Mart. I would not be able to boycott Walmart myself, as I never shop there in the first place. My absence from Wal-Mart does not have any effect. I believe I’ve stepped inside the store twice in the past decade or longer, and I don’t remember why. The basis for avoiding the store came from visits long ago, while I was in college, and was reaffirmed by at least one of those visits in the past decade.

The stores are designed like bazaars, the people I encountered were rude and sometimes dirty, and the prices were no better than those I could find elsewhere. That’s enough to keep me away. The fact that the company does not respect its employees is another reason to avoid the retailer, but beside the point of my personal experience and preference.

Again this year, Wal-Mart stores featured brawls and arrests as people fought their way for a limited supply of marked-down items like iPad Minis. The store, and other stores like it, are not completely to blame. Yes, retailers manipulate the market to induce high demand and short supply, and this creates hysteria.

Why stores are open on the holidays.

Which comes first? Are stores, like those that open on Thanksgiving, forcing retail employees to spend less time with their families on this holiday, just responding to consumer demand? Or has the retail industry created this monster by hyping up materialism as a piece of American culture since the late 1940s through advertisements (including product placement in entertainment), changing how people living in the middle and lower classes expect to live their lives? Or has the public in the United States simply accepted this type of commercial messaging without wide criticism of behavior or philosophy?

That we’ve ended up with people trampling and killing others at Wal-Mart, like the incident in 2008, is a sad commentary on the state of American culture. The reasons that got us here are complex and intertwined. No, this type of activity, the mass hysteria surrounding the ever-expanding Black Friday time period, is not representative of everyone in the United States, however bad it looks to the outside world.

I not concerned that my not wanting to shop at Wal-Mart, for the reasons I cited above, makes me seem “elitist.” I also don’t shop in stores on the other end of the consumer spectrum, so I’m confident in the sensibility of my tastes.

“I pledge not to shop on Thanksgiving.”

This year, a popular campaign spread through social media: “I pledge to not shop on Thanksgiving. If I’m shopping, someone else is working and not spending time with their family. Everyone deserves a holiday.” A Facebook friend of mine responded to this campaign by welcoming the retail industry to the world he already lives in as an emergency responder. He, like doctors, firefighters, and police, work on holidays, but that’s understandable. If you’re in the business of saving lives, the calls can come at any time. Retail workers do not save lives. Do they deserve to be home with their families more than first responders do?

Others are calling for the government to intercede and force businesses to keep their doors closed on holidays. It’s an interesting concept; states and local governments have often historically required businesses to remain closed on Sundays. Officially, the reasons for these laws tend to be so employees can remain home with their families once a week, but you can’t ignore that the concept stems from a religious influence on government.

If shoppers led the way by refusing to shop on holidays, businesses would see no choice but to remain closed. But because every shopper wants to believe they’re scoring a deal, enough will take advantage of every opportunity. There will never be the a popular protest large enough to force stores to remain closed, but there will also never be the support for laws to do the same thing. We are headed towards a society where the retail industry will be open 24 hours a day around the holiday frenzy season.

Maybe working on holidays won’t be considered to be such a social problem in the future, if retail workers are replaced by robots (and if assaulting a robot becomes a punishable offense — there are many variables to consider). The prevalence of online shopping has probably prevented the adventures in brick-and-mortar shopping from being more deadly than it has been.

But isn’t “saving money” good for Americans?

It’s amazing that with all this focus on so-called saving money, Americans aren’t in better financial shape. Spending with discounts and bargain-hunting is far removed from “saving money.” Of course, it’s not amazing at all, because the prevalence of advertising and a culture of bargain-scouring results in more spending, not less.

As an individual, and certainly as a Consumerism Commentary reader, you may be able to exercise some control. You’re more likely to wait for only the best deals, buying only what you need, but overall, this approach to promotions, including advertising Black Friday deals and opening early, benefits the retail industry more than the purchasing public.

If these deals didn’t make tons of money for the retail industry, the shopping season would not be getting more intense every year. At the same time, a healthy retail industry is supposedly one of the keys to a booming economy. Then again, what worked in the years after World War II may not be as effective today. Retail profit margins are thinner than ever. Much of the profit goes to the manufacturers who are likely to be based outside the United States.

Can “Small Business Saturday” help?

Over the last few years, American Express has tried its own marketing campaign, supposedly to aid the economy. The company’s Small Business Saturday encourages Americans to spend money on the Saturday following Black Friday — after all their money has been spent, anyway — by patronizing local businesses. These are the businesses who can’t discount prices on the same merchandise found in large stores, but can perhaps offer products you can’t find elsewhere.

Small Business Saturday is however just an excuse to get consumers to use American Express cards more often, so the large financial corporation can increase its profits on swipe fees. Many small businesses do not accept American Express cards because the swipe fees (fees the retailer pays to credit card processing companies for each transaction) are higher than those for Visa and MasterCard, but then again, premium Visa and MasterCard credit cards, like those offering rewards and concierge services, can rival American Express in terms of high swipe fees.

So if you really want to help your local business and local economy, shop from small business as often as possible, and use cash.

How did you handle shopping through this year’s Thanksgiving holiday? Did you go shopping and did it take time away from your families? Did you use a Black Friday outing as a way to bond with your family like Erin did? Are you planning to shop locally on Saturday? Does Cyber Monday exist this year? What can society do to change today’s consumerism-focused situation, if you believe it does need to change? Can boycotting accomplish anything?

Regardless of what you’ve done on the consumer side of your life, I hope you — all Consumerism Commentary readers who celebrate Thanksgiving — had an enjoyable and thankful day.

Photo: Flickr/jbhthescots

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Naked With Cash is the year-long series on Consumerism Commentary where seven readers’ households share their financial progress on a monthly basis. I’ve partnered with financial planners who will offer some guidance along the way. Read this introduction to learn more about the series. This month, the participants and experts will be discussing retirement as part of their analyses.

Anonymous S is a 24-year-old engineer earning $67,000 a year plus bonus. He also builds websites on the side for an hourly fee of $20 to $35. Read his bio here. Anonymous S is on Team Roger, with Certified Financial Planner Roger Wohlner.

Last month, Anonymous S described his progress as of April 2013. You can also catch up on his net worth history through 2012 by reading his first Naked With Cash monthly entry. Keep reading to see his net worth report for May 2013.

Following the analysis from Anonymous S., Roger Wohlner will offer his own thoughts and guidance.

Roger Wohlner, CFP appears courtesy of The Chicago Financial Planner.

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I spent about half of the day today taking care of some of the financial responsibilities I have been putting off. It feels good to check to-do items off my list, especially if they have been sitting there for some time, and I’ve been either procrastinating or filling my day with other priorities.

One of my goals has been to retitle and reopen bank accounts and investments under my revocable living trust. I established a trust earlier this year to keep my assets under a banner that makes it easy to deal with if something were to happen to me. Although I intend to live well into the next century, it’s unlikely my plan will play out as I hope. This is a process I started months ago, and now I can consider the process complete.

My first visit was to the local Wells Fargo branch, where the customer service representative tried hard to assist, but wasn’t quite familiar with the process. She was new to the branch, but had worked for the bank and its predecessors for more than twenty years. Her former branch is located in an area of the state populated mostly by retirees, so she probably should have been familiar with the process for assigning new accounts to a trust.

Unfortunately, Wells Fargo requires a complicated process for dealing with trusts. I needed to open a new account — giving up the account number I’ve had since 1989 — and transfer money from the old personal account to the new trust account. With the establishment of a new account, I was put through the typical sales pitches, and I had to make a choice between accounts, all with different requirements to avoid a bottomless pit of fees.

My personal account, grandfathered with terms from when my account was owned by Wachovia, will remain open, at least for the next month or two. The account is linked to several automatic payment services, so I want to be sure my deposits and withdrawals are associated with the new account number.

At Wells Fargo, the customer service represented confirmed, after various consultations with other individuals at the branch and over the phone, that business bank accounts could not be opened under the trust. This was my expectation, so I wasn’t surprised.

After my ninety-minute adventure, I moved down the street to the local Chase branch. At Chase, I didn’t need to open a new account. The “private banking specialist,” after consultation with the bank’s legal department, approved the request to retitle my personal account under the trust. She was required to fax my paperwork to a central office, but other than that, the process was quick.

The Chase representative was also able to provide a signature guarantee, a required protection for the forms I needed to submit to Vanguard to move my non-retirement investments to new accounts established within my living trust. I had completed the forms several months ago, but it took a visit to the bank, where an employee with the ability to provide a signature guarantee happened to be available, for me to complete the process.

Later, at home, I checked my retirement accounts at Vanguard, Fidelity, and TIAA-CREF. Retirement accounts cannot be placed within a trust, but the beneficiaries can be set as the trust. This is incredibly convenient, especially with several retirement accounts. If I ever decide to change my beneficiaries, and if I have children or get married, chances are I will, I can change instructions just by amending my trust documentation — one change rather than changes at each brokerage. All three brokerages allowed me to modify my beneficiaries online.

TIAA-CREF still requires me to send one form through the mail. For some reason, my investments at TIAA-CREF are structured into two different departments. When I first established my retirement account there, I did so because I had little money to contribute and the brokerage had a much lower minimum deposit amount than Vanguard. When I opened the account, they created as a “Retirement Investment.” That makes sense, I thought.

When I decided to invest in different mutual funds at TIAA-CREF, somehow these new accounts were opened up in what they call the “mutual fund side” of TIAA-CREF. When I first invested, I thought I invested in a mutual fund! I did — one of TIAA-CREF’s index mutual funds — but it’s contained in some kind of retirement account wrapper, and it seems unnecessary to me. It doesn’t appear to be an annuity; I can withdraw funds from the account at any time without any consequence other than the 10% penalty tax for early withdrawals.

For this account, I was able to change my beneficiary to the trust using the website, but for the accounts I opened later, designated as “Directly Held Mutual Funds,” TIAA-CREF requires me to print out and send a form through the mail.

With all my deposit and investment accounts now owned by my revocable living trust and with the trust designated as beneficiary of my retirement accounts, I am more confident that if the worst were to happen, dealing with my assets won’t be too much of a hassle. And until then, as situations in my life change, I can easily make changes to my continuation plan reflecting those life changes. Revocable living trusts sound complicated, and most people assume you have to be wealthy for them to be worthwhile, but everyone benefits. They save stress and money (in court fees for probate) at a time when family could face high levels of pressure.

Photo: Flickr

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Discover it for Students

by Joe Taylor Jr.

Discover’s made strong inroads into student borrowing over the past few years. Discover it® for Students represents the bank’s latest foray onto college campuses, with pricing and features that resemble full-featured credit cards more than the typically watered-down student accounts on the market. Loading up your wallet for the long haul For years, student credit cards earned bad ... Continue reading this article…

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Moving to Another Town to Find Singles (Rich or Otherwise)

by Luke Landes
Philadelphia Love

There are many reasons to move from one city or town to another. I would expect moving for a job is one of the most popular reasons. If you have a great job working for a company, but they decide, with or without your agreement, that you would benefit the company more working for a ... Continue reading this article…

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Earning a Living With Rental Properties: Should You Be a Landlord?

by Luke Landes
For Rent

If you have the option, owning assets that produce income is a better financial strategy than owning assets that generate expenses. If you own a house or apartment for your own residence, for example, you need to pay for maintenance, repairs, taxes, mortgage interest, landscaping, utilities, or a homeowner association fee that covers some of ... Continue reading this article…

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Improve Your Child’s Cognitive Ability for Income Potential

by Luke Landes
Rubik's Cube

There’s a chance you could become a multi-millionaire after repeatedly slamming your head into other people and suffering through the resulting mini-concussions and minor brain damage, but not everyone can be a professional football player in the NFL. There’s a safer and less harmful path toward financial independence. Cognitive ability is an important part of ... Continue reading this article…

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