How to make the most of your finances in 2014

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Now that Christmas is over for another 12 months we all have a chance to reflect on our finances for the coming year.

We all make new year resolutions and one of the most important for many this year will be to promise to make better use of our money in the year ahead. As well as promising not to get into any more debt.

Make this year the year you resolve to be efficient with your money - and resolve to keep that resolution! Make it the year you stop wasting money - and that's not the same as stopping spending.

By not wasting money you need to make sure that you are paying as little as possible to borrow money, paying as little as you can for the bills you need to pay every month, and making as much as possible from the money that you have invested. Oh, and doing it all tax efficiently into the bargain.

So to start you off, here are five questions that you can ask yourself this January to give you an idea of just how clever you are being with your money in 2014. There are lots more that you should be asking, but these ones will get you started.

And remember that if you need help with any money or consumer issues that you're facing, then drop me an email to fergus@bbc.co.uk.

Is your debt too expensive?

Make 2014 the year that you get sensible with your credit cards. Credit cards are great when used properly - and remember that as well as offering a sensible way to pay they can also offer protection if something goes wrong with the goods or services you are buying.

Look for a credit card with 0% interest. Once that interest free period ends try to switch any balance to another card that offers the same. Remember that the money you owe the credit card company is the total balance on your account, not the amount you pay them every month so if you are going to use a credit card pay it off as quickly as you can.

How much are you spending every month?

Most of us go through the month without keeping a sensible note of how much we spend, and many of us couldn't even have a sensible guess at the balance of our current account.

Work out how much you need to spend every month on essentials and stick to that budget. For the next month keep an accurate note of everything you spend. Be honest! This is the starting point for your budget. Make sure you include the monthly cost of things that you pay annually like house or car insurance.

It's easy to get into trouble when we're faced with unexpected expenses and don't have any savings. Try to save a little every month - you can only do this once you've started the budget above - and keep it in a separate account so that if something turns up that you need to spend money on in a hurry you won't have to borrow.

Is your mortgage competitive?

If you have had your mortgage for a while, it will be worth looking around to see if there is a better rate available. Lots of lenders will pay your costs for you if you move your mortgage to them. Start off by asking your existing lender if they have any other deals as this may be an easier option than moving to a completely different lender. Remember to check the terms of any new deal. There's no point saving a bit of money now only to find that you're tied in and can't move if your circumstances change.

Should you be changing your bank account?

Lots of current accounts pay very little, and many pay no interest on your savings. Any cash that you have left at the end of the month should be moved to a savings account with a higher rate of interest. And, on the subject of savings rates, make sure you look around for the best rate you can find for your money. Inflation is creeping up again and you need to have your money in an account that is paying a rate of interest better than the rate of inflation to make sure you are not losing out.

Do you have a plan?

Managing your money effectively doesn't just 'happen' automatically. You need to make it happen. You need to have some sort of a plan. What is it that you want to do with your money and your life, and when do you want to do it? The new house or car or retirement at 55 won't just appear and the mortgage won't pay itself every month.

You need to plan for them.

The starting point is to sit down and work out what you're trying to do, and when. There are no right or wrong answers to this one, and everyone will have different priorities. You might not even know all of the answers yet, it would be surprising if you did. But you need to ask the questions.

We'll be looking at this area in a lot more detail as the year goes on but do start the process now. Start to think about what it is you want and when you want it.

The plan is not a one-off action, but will evolve over time. You won't sit down one day for half an hour and say: "That's it then, that's my financial future sorted, thank goodness I won't have to think about that again for a while."

You can read more on money and consumer issues on my blog.

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