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December 31, 2013

10 easy-to-do steps to lower economic stress in 2014

It's that time of year, when many people resolve to be better: Got to lose 20 pounds, stop smoking, start exercising. Human nature is such that come January, there will be a 20-minute wait for the elliptical machines in the gym . . . and by mid-February, that wait will drop to zero.

Resolutions are usually a terrible way to effect change. Changing habits involves changing your lifestyle, and that requires a deep commitment that most of us lack.

If you've resolved to get your financial life in order, I offer 10 important and easy-to-do steps. None is groundbreaking, but they are all too easily overlooked. If you do all 10, I guarantee that you will be better organized and more aware of your finances. That will lead to better decision-making and lower levels of economic stress.

1. Have a goal-based plan. Investing is a tool to achieve specific goals. Most people invest to save for retirement, college or a major purchase. However, like all the lights and bells in a casino, there is great temptation to get caught up in Wall Street's whirlwind. With the media buzz, trading action and diversions related to investing, it is easy to get distracted.

Break that habit. Figure out your needs, and pursue that objective. That means asking questions about your future and mapping out a plan in response. (When are the kids going to college, and what's that going to cost? When do you want to stop working? How much do you want to spend in retirement? How much traveling do you want to do?)

These sorts of questions are what matters to your portfolio — not how you did vs. Standard & Poor's 500-stock index last month. You are not a perpetual endowment or foundation — you have very different goals. Recognize and act on that.

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