NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Lose weight, take a vacation, spend more time with family ... although these are all excellent resolutions to make for the New Year, none are quite as important as improving your finances — at least according to a survey by Capital One. When consumers were asked which area of their life they most needed to get more from, 59% said finances while only 27% said love and just 15% said work.
If you're among the majority of Americans looking to improve your financial picture, there are some steps you can take for a brighter 2014. We checked in with experts who weighed in on the five most lucrative financial resolutions you can make.
1. Get on a realistic budget.
This may sound like an obvious solution for many — the simple formula of having more money going in than money going out — but it's oftentimes much more complicated than that, says Jim Schinella, CEO of budgeting tool Manilla.
"People will forget the payments that occur once a quarter or once a year, or the fact that someone's birthday is coming up, and then they find they've overspent," Schinella says. "That's why you need to have a system that gives you total transparency of information."
Another big budget-buster is entertainment expenses, Schinella says. Such things as dining out, movie and concert tickets and even cocktails can really add up. Daily expenses such as morning coffee and lunch can also be an issue.
"Ask yourself: How would I cut that down? What meals might I cook at home?" Schinella says. "Many people would be shocked how much they can save by lowering those types of casual expenses."
Also see: 5 Reasons You Should Apply for a Job by New Year's Eve>>
2. Take advantage of your employer-sponsored 401(k).
It's no secret that everyone should be packing as much money as they can away for retirement, Schinella says. Unfortunately, not everyone takes advantage of their employer-sponsored plan. Some people don't like the idea of the automatic paycheck withdrawal, while others may fear they won't work at the company long enough to take full advantage of the match.
"You want to capture whatever employer match you have, because it's free money," says Greg McBride, Bankrate.com senior financial analyst. "You may not always work for an employer who has a 401(k), and when you switch jobs you may have to wait a period of time before you can start putting money away again."
If the 401(k) option is not available to you — or even if it is — McBride recommends also investing in an IRA.
3. Pay off your credit cards.
If you're already in a situation where you're behind in credit card payments, Schinella says it's only going to get worse after the holidays.
"Coming out of Christmas, people may not be able to pay more than the minimum. Then the fees will mount up and make it really difficult," he says. "You've got to have a plan so that you can get out of the hole — out from under any recurring interest-bearing debt."
Over the past few years, more people have made progress on paying down debt, but it's still the biggest stumbling block to increasing savings, McBride says.
"People always say they will start saving as soon as they get their debt paid off, but they never pay it off," he says.
Also see: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Opening a Store Credit Card>>
4. Start an emergency fund.
Unfortunately, people are woefully under-saved for emergencies, McBride says. An emergency fund should be considered a short-term goal and should be the top priority on a savvy investor's list of short term goals, along with a special vacation or a college fund for a child.
Only 24% of Americans have an adequate emergency savings fund, according to McBride, and 27% have no emergency fund at all.
"Starting the emergency fund is really a good place to start in terms of financial resolutions for the New Year," McBride says. "Honestly, the biggest barrier to saving is that people aren't in the habit of saving."
5. Invest wisely, and use an expert.
Do your homework before making major changes in your portfolio, says Scott Tiras, an Ameriprise private wealth adviser based in Houston.
"Markets will always go up or down over time and on occasion, significant events may cause more dramatic shifts in stock prices. It's important to keep your portfolio in line with your long-term goals," Tiras says.
Best of all, find someone who can help keep you on track.
"It's important to have a good sounding board when it comes to staying on track with your finances. Talk with a trusted friend or family member or hire a financial adviser to help you control your behavior so you don't make irrational decisions when the market does go through a correction," he says.
— By Kathryn Tuggle