The Act 2 Column: A financial to-do list that's bound to pay off

It's easier to reach a financial goal when

It's easier to reach a financial goal when you articulate it and create a plan of action to achieve it. (Credit: iStock)

Start the new year off on the right financial foot with these money tips for 2014:

Track your expenses. Almost every financial plan starts with this most dreaded task. The good news is that there are plenty of software programs and apps to help you.

Earn more on your safe money. Sure, interest rates are low, but with a little work you may be able to squeeze out some extra money. Go to depositaccounts.com, where you can find longer-term CDs with low penalties; shop around at credit unions that offer better interest than most banks; and consider "I-bonds," a kind of savings bond issued by the U.S. government, from treasurydirect.gov.

Get a handle on your risk tolerance. Before you start managing your money, take a risk assessment questionnaire, which is offered by most mutual fund companies. The results should help you create a diversified portfolio that is consistent with your time horizon and ability to weather market volatility.

Stop beating yourself. The average investor made only 2.1 percent from 1992 to 2011, according to Business Insider (read.bi/1apDjrT), compared to stocks, which were up 7.8 percent and bonds, which gained 6.5 percent. What's the reason for the underperformance? Investors act on their emotions, buying after the market has already gone up and selling when it is down in the dumps.

Put your retirement account on autopilot. If possible, choose auto-rebalancing to ensure that you stick to your game plan.

Determine whether you should manage your money or hire someone to do it. Do you have the time, energy, acumen and temperament necessary to manage all of the components of your financial life? If not, it could be time to interview a financial professional. The National Association of Personal Financial Advisors -- napfa.org -- and the Financial Planning Association -- bit.ly/K3Y7i3 -- have good search tools to help identify the right adviser for your needs.

Calculate your retirement number. Stop freaking out about retirement and run the numbers. The Employee Benefit Research Institute's "Choose to Save Ballpark E$timate" tool -- bit.ly/1kCJHGh -- is easy to use.

Weigh renting vs. owning a home. Yes, the real estate market is finally recovering, but depending on your personal situation, it still may make sense to keep renting. Before you take the plunge, use this New York Times calculator -- nyti.ms/1da0Vm4 -- to determine whether renting or buying is right for you.

Carefully assess your property insurance. The best time to review your policy is before an event occurs, not after. The three biggest mistakes people make with homeowners insurance are: 1) under-insuring; 2) shopping by price only and not comparing apples to apples, and 3) not reading policy details before a loss occurs.

Review life, disability and long-term care insurance coverage. This is the part of your financial life where an error can cause huge damage to your family. For life insurance, make sure you have enough with lifehappens.org. Nine times out of 10, term life insurance is the best bet. For disability insurance, enroll in your company's plan, if offered. If you are self-employed, shop around and buy at least some coverage. If you're older than 50, time to shop around for long-term-care insurance.

Manage your credit and protect your identity. The data breach at Target is a good reminder that we need to manage our credit histories and protect our identities. An easy step is to review your credit report at the website annualcreditreport.com and be sure to check your credit card bills and flag any unusual names.

Prepare for tax season. For right now, do two things: Pull last year's return and create a file for all incoming tax data.

Review your Social Security options. Before you file for Social Security benefits, take time to review your options. AARP has a free calculator, bit.ly/1bSGmIu, and there are a several paid calculators including MaximizeMySocialSecurity.com, SocialSecurityChoices.com and SocialSecuritySolutions.com.

Create/review/update estate documents. Hire a lawyer to prepare a will, power of attorney, health care proxy/living will documents and trust, if necessary. As part of the process, create a list of documents, which includes information about investment accounts, insurance policies, auto titles, income tax returns. Estate records and final instructions also should be stored in a safe place -- don't forget to provide copies to your executor or trustee.

Jill Schlesinger, a certified financial planner, is a CBS News business analyst. She welcomes emailed comments and questions.

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