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RISMEDIA, January 4, 2011—(MCT)—”The new year gives us all an opportunity to make decisions and take action,” said Thomas Murphy, partner and certified financial planner at TEMAA Financial in Dallas. “I suggest 2011 be the year you take control of your finances.”

If getting your finances in order is one of your New Year’s resolutions, Murphy suggests the following tips to help you achieve your goals in 2011.

Make your goals concrete: What are your financial goals? How will you achieve them? Without this blueprint, you’ll be chasing your tail, worrying about which stock or mutual fund to invest in. Having no real plan could result in higher risk than you need, scattered and duplicate investments, and high fees.

Be specific about your goals. Don’t just say, “I need to pay down my credit card.” Instead, say you want to put a specific amount toward your credit card bill next year and you will achieve that by paying a specific amount each month. Clearly defining a goal enables you to develop a concrete plan for achieving it. “Come up with a plan on how to become debt-free, either on your own or with debt counseling,” said Todd Mark, vice president of education at Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Dallas. “What matters is taking those steps.”

Becoming debt-free also means changing your mindset toward debt. “Like most people who are used to carrying the extra weight around the middle, people get used to carrying debt and saying, ‘That’s where I am right now,'” Mark said. “We want to change that. We don’t want them to accept it, and we don’t want them to be comfortable with it.”

Spend strategically: “Make the decision that you will not spend one dime unless it is to help you achieve your goals,” Murphy said. “No more spending money on things you no longer care about or to impress the neighbors or for any other reason, except it is part of your path to achieve financial success, however you define it.”

Track your spending: “Record every penny you earn and every penny you spend for at least 90 days,” Murphy said. “If you have no real idea how much money you make or where it all goes, you are not in control.”

Save more money: Always pay yourself first each month. It doesn’t have to be a large amount of money. It just has to be consistent and left alone as much as possible. The compounding effect over time will take care of the rest. “Set up a program to save the difference between what you earn and what you spend,” Murphy said. “Save first, spend after. Stretch to save at least 10% of your income. Put the savings in an emergency fund and commit that you will only touch it for real emergencies—unforeseen and unforeseeable events. Set a goal of accumulating six months of living expenses in this emergency fund.”

Take advantage of all opportunities offered by your employer to save money, such as through a 401k. “Those savings which come automatically out of your pay are best,” Murphy said.

Pay off or pay down debt: Debt is one of the biggest obstacles to achieving your financial goals. It will divert your money and cause your financial journey to come to a screeching halt. “The more you owe, the less control you have over your life,” said Calvin Helin, a demographic economic trend analyst and author of the upcoming book, The Economic Dependency Trap: Breaking Free to Self-Reliance. “Debt puts you in a position of seeking to pay off your debt rather than pursuing other areas of life that might be more rewarding. It is one of the biggest sources of family stress.”

If you racked up credit card debt for the holidays, aim to pay it off in three months. “If you haven’t paid off your holiday debt by the time you’ve gotten your tax refund, there’s a good chance you’re going to continue to be paying on that during the holidays in 2011,” Mark said.

Commit to paying credit cards off every month, Murphy said. “If you find you cannot resist the temptation to buy, cut up all but one card and leave that card at home,” he said. “Use it only for important purchases after careful thought and a plan for how and when you will pay it off.”

Getting rid of the anxiety of high-interest rate debt is a far better gift than almost anything you could buy. “Those who understand interest earn it; they do not pay it,” Murphy said.

Make your goals realistic: “Don’t say, ‘I’m going to be debt-free and a millionaire by the end of 2011,'” Mark said. “Maybe you can say, ‘I have a goal of paying down $10,000 in debt in 2011, and I want to be debt-free in four years.'”

Protect your income and assets: “Find out if your employer offers disability insurance and life insurance,” Murphy said. “If so, buy it. To determine how much you need, conduct a financial fire drill and imagine you are permanently disabled. How much money would need to come in the door to allow you and your family to maintain your standard of living?”

For the long-term unemployed: Your aim is to stabilize your finances as much as possible. Besides the obvious priority of landing a job, you should analyze what financial resources you still have to sustain you.

“If you’ve been unemployed for awhile, try to get a part-time job at night and on weekends to help reduce the cash-flow drain and provide you with a sense of belonging,” said Lynn Lawrance, certified financial planner at Financial Network Investment Corp. in Dallas.

If you’ve been unemployed for more than six months, watching your spending is all the more critical. “Tracking every penny is a necessity, not a luxury,” Murphy said. “Making conscious decisions about every spending decision is vital. Forcing yourself to reduce your standard of living temporarily may be the only way to allow you the peace of mind necessary to interview well.”

When you do spend, make the money count. “Squeeze every penny you spend to minimize the damage to your net worth,” Lawrance said. “Spend only on absolute essentials and items that will boost your networking and interviewing success.”

(c) 2010, The Dallas Morning News.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.