Your January Financial To-Do List

Lifestyle and Budget Consumer Reports

Now that the holidays are in the rearview mirror, it's time to see whether you're on track to meet your financial goals—and to make any necessary adjustments. Our financial to-do list can help.

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Whether you're just starting out, in the midst of a busy career, or living on a fixed income, a bit of financial housekeeping at the beginning of the year can help you save money, get the most out of your investments, and avoid making costly mistakes. Here are five to-do items for the month of January. We'll continue to provide you with financial to-do lists at the beginning of each month to help you improve the chances that you'll have a prosperous 2016.

1. Simplify Your Budget

If you missed some of your financial goals in 2015, create a realistic household budget or make adjustments to the one you already have.

If you've found keeping a budget exasperating, you might be making it too complicated. For instance, monitoring separate categories to track everything you spend, such as groceries, restaurant meals, drugstore purchases, and gas, can be frustrating. You'll see why when you try to figure out where all of those items you buy at Costco, Target, and Walmart fit into your budget.

Instead, create a budget that's simple enough to use. All you really need is spreadsheet software. A basic budget requires just two sections: One for your monthly income and spending goals, and another where you enter your actual monthly expenditures as the year progresses.

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While you're setting it up, review how much of your salary you managed to save and invest last year. Christine Benz, Morningstar's director of personal finance, suggests 15 percent is a reasonable minimum target.

2. Avoid a Tax Penalty

Tax season never ends for Americans who have to pay quarterly estimated income taxes. If you’re self-employed, you probably already know that four times a year—in mid-April, June, September, and January of the following year—the Internal Revenue Service expects you to pay estimated taxes on your current earnings. If you don’t, you’ll pay a penalty.

Lots of other folks also need to make those payments to avoid penalties. If you have a major gain during the year—from the sale of stock or property, for instance, you should pay estimated taxes on that income. Social Security beneficiaries with income from other sources, including pensions, might also have to pay. 

Make sure that paying your quarterly estimated taxes by Jan. 15, if applicable, is on your to-do list. And start collecting your receipts for tax deductions and income statements for your 2015 annual tax return.

3. Buy Products on Deep Discount

Consumer Reports product research experts, who track prices all year long, have compiled a list of items that are typically at their lowest price in January. If you're shopping for the best deals, look for sales on TVs, toys, treadmills, ellipticals, sheets, and winter clothes.

Want an even better deal on all the products and services you buy? Try haggling. In a Consumer Reports National Research Center survey of 2,000 American adults, 89 percent of people who said they haggled received a better price at least once.

To increase the odds you can negotiate a better deal, remember that nothing is off limits. You should always be polite. Make sure you know what constitutes a fair price before you start. For more tips on becoming an expert haggler, read our tips on effective bargaining.  

4. Grab Discounts on Summer Travel

Winter weather got you down? Start researching summer vacation possibilities to take advantage of discounts for early bookings.

To save the most, see our airline travel buying guide. We also have tips on using your frequent flyer miles, and ways to save on hotel roomsrental cars, and luggage.

Check our ratings of U.S. airlines, based on our survey of more than 14,000 coach passengers and some 6,000 first-class passengers who gave us their opinions about the width of their seats and how comfortable they were. They also weighed in on how much legroom they had and whether there was enough space for their carry-on bags.  

5. Update Your Home Inventory

Make sure your list of possessions covered by your homeowners insurance policy is up-to-date. Add any new electronics and other items of value that you received over the holidays.

If you don't have a home inventory, creating one is easier than ever thanks to myHOME Scr.APP.book, an iPhone and Android application from the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. This free app lets you photograph your belongings and scan bar codes and serial numbers. It then stores the data electronically. You can organize this information room by room, and create a back-up file automatically.

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