Put Your Tax and Financial House
   in Order

The only way to achieve financial security is to monitor your tax and financial affairs throughout the year. And what better way to kick off the new year than to tidy up your financial and tax house. Here are some tips to get you started.

Take control of your credit cards. Over-reliance on credit cards hurts you in several ways. With interest rates typically in double digits, its the most expensive way to borrow money. Think of those monthly interest payments as draining off dollars that you could be investing in a home or saving for your retirement. And too much debt can hurt your credit score and make other borrowing more difficult. It takes time and discipline to reduce credit card debt, but its well worth the effort.

Rid yourself of stuff you dont use. Are you paying for a cell phone you rarely use? A magazine you never read? A mail-order video service you forgot about? An extra cable box for that basement TV you never watch? A membership to a gym you rarely attend? If so, now is the time to dump those wasted services and pocket the cash.

Build a cash reserve for emergencies. Your financial situation can quickly spin out of control if you cant come up with cash when you need it. If you lose your job, you might have to live on reduced income for several months. Or there could be unplanned medical bills, car repairs, or home repair costs. Even if you have insurance, reimbursements can take time and there are deductibles to meet. Work hard to put aside at least three months living expenses. Invest it in a safe, liquid account, and resist the temptation to raid it for non-emergencies.

Save regularly and save smartly. Develop the habit of saving something every month, no matter how small the amount. The earlier you start, the longer your savings will have to compound for retirement. Save as intelligently as possible. If you have a 401(k) plan that your employer matches, thats probably the best investment youll find. Other tax-advantaged plans usually make sense, especially for younger investors. But developing a regular savings habit is the key.

Diversify your investments. Youll reduce your risk by spreading investments among stocks, bonds, and real estate. Within each category, diversify among different industries and companies. The worst thing you can do is to have everything tied up in stock of the company you work for.

Identify your tax opportunities for 2012. There are many credits and deductions available to you in such areas as retirement, education, home ownership, and child care. Identify those that will reduce your taxes, and make adjustments as needed to qualify for those tax breaks.

Get that new filing system started now. Purge your old files. Destroy documents that you dont need. Create new files for your 2012 documents. Keep a tax and financial calendar that shows all deadlines for making payments and filing returns. And if you dont have a filing system, create one in order to organize and locate your tax and financial records.

Educate yourself about financial matters. You dont have to get a degree in finance, but read financial articles on topics that concern your affairs. Consider taking a seminar in basic investing. Ask questions of your advisors. The more you know about finance, the more you can take control of your own financial health.