By Stacey L. Bradford
1. Create (and maintain) a budget
"Establishing a household budget is a cornerstone of economic success," says June Walbert, certified financial planner with USAA Financial Planning Services. In fact, 88% of people with a savings strategy manage to stash away money, in contrast to 50% of folks without one. Start off by tracking your spending for one month. Write down fixed costs such as mortgage and car payments. For discretionary items, keep tabs on small purchases (like the kids' movie tickets) with a debit card, and save receipts for cash-bought items. Once you understand your expenses, you can redirect nonessential costs toward your savings goals.
Fast Fix: Monitor spending with free, user-friendly websites and mobile apps from Mint.com and Pageonce.com.
Watch Out: Families forget to save for home and car maintenance. Although these aren't everyday costs, they should always be incorporated into an annual budget so that you're not short on cash when they occur, says Eleanor Blayney, consumer advocate for the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards.
2. Automate your bills
When life gets hectic, it's easy to accidentally skip a credit card payment. But a creditor doesn't care about your kids' busy schedules or that you're swamped at work. In addition to a hefty penalty, a late payment can negatively impact your credit report—your payment history makes up 35% of your credit score. Improve it by automating as many bills as possible.
Fast Fix: Use the auto-pay feature on your bank's website to manage bills that are the same each month. For amounts that vary (like utilities), set them up to be debited from your checking account.
Watch Out: If you often have a low balance, it's better to pay bills yourself, as doing it automatically may cause you to overdraw. Sign up for e-mail or text due date reminders on Mint or Pageonce.