baby stepsLast year at this time, one writer -- and only one -- in the entire Chicago Tribune features department was either brave or foolish enough to bare his family finances for all to see: yours truly.

In a two-page spread, I outlined 10 steps to a better family budget, using my own experiences with debt, savings and spending habits as the template. This led in short order to a roller coaster ride I could never have anticipated:

  1. taunts from twisted readers who bombarded me with mean comments about how dumb my wife and I were.
  2. a gig as the Tribune's recession columnist.
  3. getting laid off by the Tribune about a month later.
  4. hundreds of well wishes from fans who couldn't believe the Tribune would lay off the Recession Guy.
  5. and finally: an immediate invitation from WalletPop editor Beth Pinsker Gladstone to move my "Recession Diaries" column to AOL, which I did.
To say I've learned a lot about the Great Recession -- and how it brings out the best and worst in people, myself included -- ranks as My Understatement of 2009. Rich with the experience of living through the very issues I've advised readers on, I know that today I can make a much better 10 Steps list to kick off 2010 than I did for 2009.

If you read this list and find some spark of motivation in it, remember: New habits take a minimum of 30 days to etch their way into your heart and mind. All those flabby folks you'll see jamming up gyms in the first week of January will be gone by the first week of February. If you really want to commit to getting in financial shape, plan to stick it out: No pain, no fiscal gain. Print this list out and review it often; it reflects the collected wisdom of many monetary experts I've sought out as a family finance writer.

1) GET THE DETAILS DOWN ON PAPER
You can't fix your finances until you have a clear picture of what you face, including credit card debt, savings, loans, monthly bills, income, and detailed expenses. This step represents moving from unconsciousness to consciousness, and that can be painful. You may not like what you see. But without the facts in front of you, you can't make meaningful change.

Need a good template to get you started? Click here for the one provided by the City of Chicago's treasurer's office.

2) COMMIT TO PAY DOWN AND PAY OFF YOUR CREDIT CARD DEBT

Do this any way you can: second jobs, selling off unneeded assets, and cashing in some emergency savings all rank as viable options. Especially in 2010, credit-card lenders will come after consumers with every dirty trick they can to rake in dough, from obscure fees to hiking interest rates for the most arbitrary of reasons. Need some sobering up on this? The average American lugs around almost $17,000 in non-mortgage debt, according to Experian. Paying $200 a month on a 10 percent APR, it'll take you a whopping 12 years to pay that debt off. The bad news: Most of us pay much higher interest rates on our credit cards.

3) CONSULT AN EXPERT
You can't afford it? Actually, you can't afford not to. If you're in financial trouble, avoid at all costs credit doctors who advertise (and charge big-time) that they can get you debt-free. Instead, seek an appointment with or resources from Money Management International, a non-profit credit, debt counseling and education agency.

If you're doing OK but still feel disorganized, seek out a certified financial planner to help you get your short- and long-term goals in order. And don't forget the free budget planning tools and software on outstanding Web sites such as mint.com.

4) SAVE, SAVE, SAVE

Most Americans who complain they can't save anything also have bad habits they're barely aware of, such as binge spending and impulse shopping. As Americans, we should be ashamed of our world's-worst savings rate. True, the recession has improved it considerably: from near zero in early 2008 to 6.9 percent in mid-2009. But it's still an embarrassment when you consider that the Japanese saved in the 30 percent range for much of the '90s.

The easy way to save? Have money automatically moved from your bank account to a money-market fund every month. You won't see the cash, so you'll never miss it -- although it will be there when you need it.

5) KEEP A SPENDING JOURNAL
Dieters serious about losing weight know how empowering -- and eye-opening -- keeping a food journal can be. Do this with your spending for 30 days, then look back and see where you're wasting money, and where you can economize. Even if you're not diligent enough to do this every day in 2010, try 30-day runs as occasional check-ins to see how your spending discipline has held up.

6) AVOID IMPULSE SHOPPING
You know who you are: The shopper who hits the mall out of boredom, for the thrill of the sale, or in the name of "retail therapy." But there's no quicker way outside of eating out too often (see tip 7) to drain your wallet and savings potential. When you shop, try this instead:

  • Make a list of only the things you need.
  • Commit to shopping only for those items before you head out.
  • Trawl Web sites, when possible, to find the best prices first.
  • Consider used instead of new where possible.
  • Most of all, ask yourself, "Do I really need this?" Sure, having a closet full of shoes is fun. But would you choose a full closet over an empty bank account or retirement plan?

7) CUT DOWN ON EATING OUT
If you pay $1 for French fries at a fast-food place and call it a bargain, then you haven't shopped lately for potatoes at a supermarket. Eating out to excess thins out our wallets and thickens our waistlines; cutting down marks a crucial step to fiscal and physical health. (Notice how most eateries don't list the sodium, fat or caloric content of their meals?)

If you're craving a restaurant meal, remember that the only difference between many identical lunch and dinner items is a higher price. Try eating less of your portion and bringing leftovers home for an extra meal. And if you learn to say "no" to eating out at least one in three times, you'll realize significant savings right there.

8) AGGRESSIVELY SEEK TAX ADVANTAGES
Many people who dedicate a portion of their homes to office space, or drive the family car for business trips, don't realize tax deductions to their full potential. Commuter transit is also eligible for a tax break, and even gym memberships can be deducted if a doctor signs a letter saying they've ordered you to work out as part of your mental health regimen. The more information you share with an informed, proactive accountant, and the more questions you ask, the better the chances she can help you reap big tax savings in 2010.

9) USE COMPOUND INTEREST TO YOUR RETIREMENT ADVANTAGE

Credit card companies know they can make a killing off you as interest charges on unpaid balances pile up. Yet this same sleight of hand -- courtesy of compound interest -- works to your advantage as you save for retirement. A 25-year-old who makes $50,000 a year in family income, puts away $3,000 a year, and keeps stashing 6 percent of his salary into retirement with just modest pay increases, can expect to retire at age 65 with more than $1.1 million. You can find a good retirement calculator at Bloomberg.com.

10) 10% FOR 2010: SET A GOAL TO TITHE TO WORTHWHILE CAUSES
While giving away cash sounds contrary to goals of saving and paying off debt, remember: You're trying most of all to change your attitude and habits surrounding money. Habitual givers know the practice goes a long way towards instilling an abundance mentality to replace one of scarcity. Giving to worthwhile causes appears as a constant theme in Old and New Testament scripture, and giving money away makes us feel wealthier while making the world a richer place.

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