THE BLOG
03/20/2014 05:58 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2014

The Sweet 16 Ways to Improve Your Finances During March Madness

This article was written by Sarah Kaufman for Manilla.com.

In between March Madness games, make these 16 changes to improve your financial life.

1. Create a budget.

This doesn't mean nickel and diming yourself. Instead, use a simple formula: Your income minus your mandatory expenses (anything with a deadline -- rent, utility bills, loan payments, etc.). The difference is what you can spend on everything else. The most important reason to budget is to make sure you're not spending more than you have. Already have a budget? Reevaluate it. Look at your bank statements to find out where most of your money is going. See if you can cut back in some areas, like entertainment, to make room for putting more toward important expenses, such as retirement or debt.

2. Put more toward retirement.

Make this the month you up your 401(k) contribution. Even if it's just by a percentage or two, that money will still compound interest and grow, giving you more during your post-work life. No matter how much you're saving, make sure you're contributing the maximum amount your employer will match. Don't have an employer-based retirement account? Two common options are (1) a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA), which allows you to contribute money now and pay taxes on them later, and (2) a Roth IRA, which forces you to pay taxes now but withdraw your funds later tax free. This could be beneficial to you if you think you'll be in a higher tax bracket when you want to withdraw. Check out a few different options here.

3. Get cash back or save with discount codes.

Most things you buy online have some sort of discount code floating around the Internet. Before you make any purchase, do a simple online search for a discount code or coupon for that particular retailer. Sites like Retailmenot, Coupon.com and FatWallet all offer codes that you can apply at checkout. Or, try a cash-back site like Ebates.com or Top Cashback, all of which allow you to get cash simply for shopping online at your favorite retailers through their sites.

4. Invest in your health.

Spending money on a gym membership, exercise classes or new running gear is money well spent because it could save you in healthcare costs down the road. Make this the month you start exercising. There's no need to spend hours at the gym or revamp your eating habits to see results and feel good -- instead, create small, attainable goals you know you can achieve, such as going to a gym class once a week, or eating one piece of fruit every day.

5. Reevaluate your get-out-of-debt plan.

You want to make sure you're paying down your debt as quickly as possible. First, pay at least the minimum amount due and pay it on time each month. Second, readjust your budget to see if there are areas where you could cut back so that you can put more toward your debt payments. This will help you get out of debt faster and pay less in interest over time.

6. Rethink the way you use credit cards.

Contrary to the way many Americans spend, credit cards should be used to build credit -- not to spend money that isn't there. If you've never used a credit card before, open one with a low annual percentage rate (APR), no annual fee, and a rewards program that offers cash back or other incentives, such as airline points or miles. Then, start small by using it to make a minor purchase each month (e.g., your cable bill). Pay it off in full each month.

If you've already racked up lots of credit card debt, stop now. Cut up your cards and make the minimum payments on time each month.

7. Create new savings goals.

Think five or even 10 or 15 years ahead: What will you want to buy and how much money will you need? For example, if you think you may want to buy a house one day, start saving now. Pick a goal date, pick a goal amount and then divide your goal amount by the number of years between now and the goal date (e.g., you want to buy a $300,000 house in 15 years. That's roughly a $60,000 down payment [20 percent of $300,000], so you'll need to save $4,000 a year [$60,000 divided by 15 years], or $333 a month [$4,000 a year divided by 12 months). Open a savings account based on accessibility (how often are you planning to dip into the fund?), interest (you want it to be high so your money grows), customer service, and penalties.

8. Save more on food.

You can eat healthier and save more money by planning your meals each week and preparing them at home. Start by planning a weekly menu -- how many meals do you need for the week? Figure out what you want to have for each meal (e.g., eggs for breakfast, salads for lunch, etc.) and make a list. See where ingredients overlap (for example, the peppers you buy for your salad will come in handy during dinnertime) so you don't buy more than you need. Also, use rewards points. Sign up for your grocery store's rewards program so you can get money back on the items you buy.

9. Revamp your look for less.

Use sites like Gilt or Hautelook to get deals on huge designers. Or, try a service like Hukkster.com, which alerts you when your favorite items go on sale.

10. Talk money with your partner

Sixty-five percent of people fight about money in their relationship, according to a 2013 survey from account management service Manilla.com. The key is to communicate, communicate and communicate some more. As uncomfortable as it may be (money is awkward no matter whom you're talking to), if you're married or thinking about getting married to your partner, sit down and have a conversation about your finances. Talk about your debt, how you're planning to get out of it, your financial goals (what are you saving for?), your financial expectations (how do you want to co-manage your money?), and any other financial issues that could affect your relationship.

11. Streamline with tools.

Apps, apps and more apps have been designed to make managing your money convenient and easy. Use Manilla to manage and share your bills and accounts, try Expensify to track your receipts, use Venmo to pay your friends and family, and try Spendee for budgeting.

12. Make money outside of your 9-to-5.

Go through your closet and consign old clothing. Do a deep spring-cleaning, and see if you have old electronics you never use that you could sell online on eBay. Check Craigslist for babysitting or tutoring jobs. Having an extra source of income means more money saved.

13. Stop paying late fees.

We don't mean stop paying them as they come in. We mean keep them from happening! Paying late fees is like throwing money down the drain because it's completely avoidable. Set your bills on auto-pay so you don't even have to think about it, or get Manilla's bill pay reminders so that you always know when your bills are due. Making on-time payments not only helps you to stop wasting money, but it also keeps your credit right where it should be.

14. Live by the "one in, one out" rule.

You buy something, you toss something (donate it or sell it for cash).

15. Donate to charity.

It's a good thing to do, but it can also save you money. Charitable donations (cash, goods, and even money you spent on gas on your way to a charity event) are all tax deductible. Learn about more tax breaks you don't want to miss.

16. File your taxes -- now!

'Tis time. The sooner you file, the sooner you get that refund. If you owe money, filing now means more time to save up to make the payment by April 15. Gather your account documents and receipts, and get to your accountant's office or get online (try TurboTax or H&R Block at home).

Sarah Kaufman is editor-in-chief of The Manilla Folder at Manilla.com, the leading, free and secure service that lets consumers manage all of their bills and accounts in one place online or using mobile apps. She's also a regular contributor to Yahoo! Finance, The Huffington Post, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Woman's Day, The Motley Fool and other major sites.

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