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The business of life: Setting financial goals

(Article by Michael J. Martinez, 27 December 2005)

'Tis the Season to set financial goals for 2006 and beyond

Ten years ago, Pamela Newman rang in the new year as a waitress. And she swore it would be the last year waiting tables.

"I looked around and thought, 'Is this what I want to be doing 10 years from now?"' Newman said. "There was so much I wanted and until that point, I hadn't even thought about how I was going to get there."

Ten years later, Newman, 35, is where she wants to be. She has gone from hand-to-mouth living to owning two condominiums in the San Diego area, one of which she rents out, and has created a successful career in real estate sales.

All it took was resolve.

This time of year is full of resolutions: Lose weight, exercise more, work less (or more), be kinder to others. But as you make your list of 2006 resolutions, a good hard look at your finances could be far more beneficial in the long run than working off the extra 15 pounds you gained on fruitcake.

"This is definitely the time of year to get things started," said Barry Armstrong, a Boston financial planner with Woodbury Financial Services. "For some people, it's a bitter message. There are things that you don't like doing. But they have to be done."

First off, if you don't have a financial plan already, resolve to set goals for yourself. Like Newman a decade ago, you have to know where you're going so you can figure out how to get there. Whether you want to buy a home, pay for college, lower debt or retire, you'll have to do some research to figure out what you'll need to accomplish those things.

Next, figure out where you are. That means looking at your income, assets, debts, loans and investments. Americans had a negative savings rate this year for the first time in nearly a half-century. People are living beyond their means, and by gathering and assessing your income and spending, you can figure out if you're among them.

Credit cards play a big part in spending and warrant close attention, Armstrong said. If you find you've spent more than you've earned and are running up your debt, it's time to put the credit cards away.

"If you can't afford to buy something, don't put it on the credit card. Put [the cards] in a drawer," Armstrong said. "And pay as much as you can on them, every month. I've even advised people to get a second job. Go work for UPS for three or four months if you have to, but get them paid off."

Newman had to use her credit cards while training to become a real estate agent, racking up $8,000 in debt "just buying groceries," but she recognized the value in paying that debt down quickly.

"Never pay the minimum, otherwise you'll be paying on those cards 30 years from now," she said. "I also closed out ones I wasn't using, but I kept the card I had the longest open, since that's good for your credit score."

Another good resolution is to order your credit report. Recent changes in the law allow consumers to get a free copy of their credit report from each of the three reporting agencies — Trans Union, Equifax and Experian — by going to or by calling 877-322-8228.

You might find old debts that weigh on your credit score. Even if they're just $50, they can reduce your score a great deal if they've gone unpaid for years or are charged off. You may also find improper reports that can be challenged and erased from your credit record.

For homeowners, 2006 may be the last time it's financially feasible to refinance mortgages, as interest rates are expected to start climbing next year. Stick with fixed-rate mortgages, Armstrong said, and close out lines of credit if possible.

Finally, it's always good to review your 401(k) retirement plan allocations. If your company has a matching 401(k), make sure you're saving at least as much as your company is willing to match.

"We have 10 employees at our firm, and we have a matching 401(k) plan," Armstrong said. "We discovered three out of the 10 people were eligible for a 401(k) and weren't even using it at all. And we're financial planners. It's absolutely critical to have."

Despite her success over the past decade, Newman has new resolutions for 2006. Last year she started a new business, Cabana Kitten, which imports clothing from India and resells it online and in San Diego-area surf shops. She has hoarded her real estate commission checks for money to live on, carefully planning each step.

"This year, I resolve to make a living at this," she said. "I hope to make $50,000, so that I can be independent."