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How to Reverse Your Financial Direction Even When the Economy Doesn't

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Federal Reserve reports that consumer credit rose by 4.75% in November, at once an alarming figure but an understandable one given the increased spending on big-ticket items such as student loans and auto loans last year.

With that much debt on hand, it's critical that consumers take a break to review their personal financial situations, largely to ensure their debt burden doesn't get away from them.

That's not easy, however, for many Americans. Financial advisory experts say U.S. adults may be letting their guard down a bit, with more and more good news coming out on the economy.

But last Friday's U.S. Bureau and Labor Statistics employment report poured some cold water on any upbeat consumer sentiment. An economy that needs to generate 200,000 jobs monthly just to tread water doesn't look so hot when the economy produces only 74,000 jobs per month -- as it did in December.

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There's not much Main Street Americans can do about the jobs report, but there's a lot they can do about stabilizing their own personal financial situations.

To get that process started, here are a few tips from Ventura Wealth Management, a financial management firm in Ewing Township, N.J. (Incidentally, the firm touts Ben Franklin's adage that "if you're failing to prepare, then you're preparing to fail" on its website.)

Check your retirement planning progress. Ventura advises Americans to balance debt payments with long-term savings. "Have a good sense of where you stand in your retirement planning," the firm says in a research note released this week. "Companies continue to recover financially, which means corporate plans and benefits packages also continue to recuperate. Review the options in these plans since default options, though easy to enter, may not offer the best results for you."

Save smartly. You can pay down debt and save, if you're savvy about it. For example, you can match what your employer contributes to your retirement plan to maximize dollars. "Even without these plans, set aside a piece of your weekly/monthly budget, and don't touch that money for 20 to 30 years," Venture reports.

Take a "macro view." You can get some good cues on saving and spending from closely tracking the Federal Reserve. "The Fed made big headlines in 2013, and it will continue to do so through 2014 and beyond," Ventura says. "In the New Year, it must attempt to unwind five years' worth of unprecedented stimulus which means a likely rise in interest rates, decreases in bond values and hikes in mortgage rates. Other effects loom, so monitor the impact and adjust to the changes accordingly."

Those aren't the only steps to take to get a good grip on your finances.

Pamela Yellen, author of the book The Bank on Yourself Revolution, has some good tips for Americans struggling with debt and savings and takes a more holistic approach to the issue.

"You have to realize we all have it within ourselves to modify our behavior," she explains. "So understand that real, permanent change is usually driven by your own desire, rather than outside pressure."

Yellen advises having a heart-to-heart talk with yourself. "Where are you right now financially, and where do you want to be?" she asks. Yellen encourages Americans to enlist the support of one or more allies or a coach to stay on track. "An ally -- whether a professional for hire, a friend or a religious leader -- can help you reinforce your commitment to good personal financial management."

Recommitting to sound personal financial practices is as much an emotional commitment as a logical one -- in fact, it helps to bring both attributes to the table.

"By setting your mind and heart to the task, you can successfully turn around your fiscal direction," Yellen adds. "This could be the year that you surprise everyone."

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