Lose weight. Go to the gym three times a week. Stick to a budget. New Year's resolutions can end up feeling restrictive. But budgeting doesn't have to handcuff you. Instead, it should give you permission to spend on what's most important to you.
-- Set goals. If you're having trouble putting a budget into practice, you may lack motivation. Discipline is easier to embrace when it comes with a reward. Your goal might be to save enough money for a Caribbean vacation or a down payment on a new crossover.
-- Account for all your expenses. You may know what you pay every month for housing, utilities and your car loan, but what about clothes and eating out? Do semiannual expenses such as insurance and gifts throw you into a financial tailspin? You're not alone.
To see the big picture, you'll have to take stock of your spending. That's easy if you track income and expenses at a budgeting site, such as Mint. If you aren't already using a budgeting tool, tally up all the big expenses that don't come every month and estimate your annual costs. Divide that by 12, and add the amount to your monthly budget. Then review credit and bank statements for several months to see what you're spending. After that, you can set realistic targets for monthly outlays and savings. Don't forget to set something aside for unexpected expenses.
-- Build in wiggle room. If you're overspending every month, it may be because you haven't built in a buffer zone for each category. Adding a buffer means you won't bust your budget if you spend more than you expect. Whenever you spend less, the buffer-zone money can go to savings or toward a splurge.
-- Make a commitment. Plan a time each week to sit down, track your spending and see how you're doing. And let's face it: You have to make trade-offs to reach your goals. If you spend too much on eating out, cook more gourmet dinners at home. Change your route to work so you don't pass the Starbucks as often, or head to the gym instead of happy hour.
(Jessica Anderson is an associate editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to email@example.com. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit http://www.Kiplinger.com.)