Tony Levene is a renowned financial journalist, who has previously been a columnist for Guardian Money. He has written several books, including 'Investing for Dummies' and won the ABI Lifetime Achievement award and the Headline Money award.
January can be a bleak month. There's the weather (wet this time rather than freezing), post-festive miseries and the personal failure feeling of resolutions that have already crumbled to dust. But the new year can be positive.
You can have a real sense of achievement with a series of money-saving tasks that you can complete over the month rather than kick yourself because your top resolutions (eat more sensibly? clean the kitchen before bedtime?) have gone wrong.
It's list-making time. That means a good old-fashioned sheet of A4 paper, placed where you will see it every day.
It's list-making time. That means a good old-fashioned sheet of A4 paper, strategically placed where you will see it every day, rather than an easy to ignore entry on a mobile device or laptop. You will get a good feeling from crossing through a task when completed with a thick marker pen!
You can go further by listing personal rewards you can earn. Saved £500 by using local park facilities and cancelling membership at the gym you hardly ever entered? Then turn that money into a specific item for your home, or perhaps a weekend away.
Obviously, everyone has different needs and their own rewards but here is my personal January to-do list.
1. Complete my on-line tax return. About one in three people has to do this. It can be a chore, but it can also be an opportunity. Because I have to gather all my finances together, it gives me the chance to audit my money, to see what I have. My reward? Ensuring the job is done by 31 January will prevent a fine which starts at £100 for filing even one minute after the deadline.
2. Check to see if my financial plan is still on-track. As my personal and wider family circumstances change, what may have been a good idea last time I looked may no longer be my best approach. I need to consider insurance, loans, pension plans and savings in relation to my current and future requirements, not what was suitable in the past. My reward? Making better use of my resources, improving protection for home and family, boosting my pension and generally feeling better!
3. Ensure investments are still fit for purpose. I don't want to sit in front of a computer all day watching financial markets, but I know I should look at what I have to do if anything is now failing to work. I can't second guess stock prices and interest rates, but it's worthwhile finding out if an investment has fallen behind. There may be a good reason for this. You might wish to use a financial adviser here. My reward? Besides knowing I am not a victim of inertia, I could improve my personal wealth.
4. Declutter my bank accounts. Here I have to emulate one of those “get rid of your rubbish” TV programmes. I have one cheque book account and a few savings accounts which seemed a good idea years ago. Now they contain small amounts and I haven't used them for years. The hoarder's excuse that “they'll come in useful some time” does not hold water. The cheque account has £19.51 and has been untouched for years and the tiny savings accounts earn just a tiny percentage above nothing. So they will go. My reward? Enough cash to buy a dedicated bedside tablet computer (for help with that late night crossword!).
5. Detach myself from direct debits. I've got a number of regular payments that I would not set up now, but I have continued to pay out of apathy and inertia. There's the magazine I hardly ever even open, there's the good cause membership that I am no longer convinced is the best use for my charitable impulses. And what about the mobile phone contract which is far too elaborate for my needs or my television bundle which is rarely strays beyond Freeview? My reward? I should recoup enough for a weekend away in Europe - which maybe tells you I should have been better organised before!