The start of a new year is a time when many people take stock of themselves and their place in the world, and resolve to do better.
The year-end financial rush - the time for workplace benefit selections, 2014 charitable donations, the paying of deductible expenses and Roth IRA conversions - has come and gone. Now's the time to look ahead and think about any changes to improve our finances in 2015.
A good place to start is a review of the past year's financial successes and challenges. Where did all your money go in 2014? Did you end the year with more savings, or more debt? What about retirement or college savings, and how did any investments you may have perform?
Here are a few areas that deserve particular scrutiny:
Mortgages and car loans. Defying many predictions, mortgage interest rates declined this year. People with good credit can get a 30-year home loan (or refinance one) with an interest rate under 4 percent. Car loans can be had (or refinanced) at rates as low as 2 percent.
If you're paying higher interest, consider refinancing. Lower rates can pay a loan off faster, increase equity, reduce monthly expenses and possibly accomplish all three. Mort- gage calculators at online sites such as bloomberg.com and bankrate.com can help decide, but pay attention to lender charges such as closing costs, which can vary greatly.
Recurring expenses. Monthly or annual service fees and memberships tend to come in small amounts but can add up, and you may not use or need some of the things you're paying for. You may be able to get what you do need for less money. Gym memberships, cable, video and music services, phone lines, auto clubs, retail clubs, membership or- ganizations, the list goes on. Eliminate a $9-a-month expense and you will save more than $100 over a year.
Insurance. This is a recurring expense, too, but one that deserves special attention because it's so costly. As your circumstances change, you may need more or less coverage, and the insurance you need may be available at a lower cost from a different company.
Have an aging car? Maybe you need less insurance coverage. Got married or became a parent? You need a term life insurance policy. Review your needs and coverage to see that you're protected from financial catastrophe, but aren't paying more than you need to.
Credit cards. There are many credit-card options if you have reasonably good credit. If you always pay off your balances, and don't incur interest charges, credit cards can save you money with cash-back or rewards. If you've had the same card for years, there's probably a better deal waiting for you.
If you're carrying a credit-card balance at a high interest rate, at least: Call the toll-free number on your card, tell them you're thinking about switching to a different card, and ask them to lower your interest rate. They might, and you have nothing to lose. Or, shop for a better deal.
Investments. Another year, another all-time high for the stock market. And you may be a year closer to retirement, or paying for college. It's time to review investments you may have. Maybe you need to rebalance your funds or reduce your exposure to risk. Also, review the fees you're paying, because similar investment funds can have surprisingly different costs.
Big expenses. Some of the most expensive things in life, such as homes and cars, need maintenance, repairs or replacement, and all are a year older now. Consider big expenses you'll face and make a plan to pay for them. If you don't have an emergency fund, it's time to start one in case of financial emergencies.
Auto recalls. This won't save your money, but could save your life. Roughly one of every five cars on the road was recalled in 2014, some for dangerous defects. Check nhtsa.gov to see if your vehicle was recalled and beat the rush to get an air bag that won't kill you.