A Nine-Month Plan for Getting Your Family's Finances in Order

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First Month

Cut down credit card debt. The first trimester is the time for cleaning up your financial act, says Jean Chatzky, financial editor for the Today show. A good place to start is with credit cards. Balances in the thousands of dollars cost hundreds in annual interest -- money you'll need for new expenses. They also hamper your growing family's ability to get loans for big-ticket buys like a home or the inevitable minivan.

Consider transferring your balance to a credit card with a lower interest rate. Visit www.bankrate.com to compare rates and fees; once you've switched, charge as little as possible until you've paid off your debt.

Stash receipts. Next, you'll need to create a new budget. To start, keep track of every penny you spend. The easiest way is to reserve a compartment in your wallet for receipts for all cash purchases, says Tamara King, an executive vice president at Women's Financial Network at Siebert, a financial services firm in New York City. Don't tally them yet; you'll need a few months' worth to develop a clear picture of the petty cash effect on your finances.

When the time comes to crunch the numbers (the third month), those receipts -- along with credit card records and a scrupulously kept checkbook log -- will document your spending patterns.

Second Month

Install finance software. If you're not already hooked on a computer program like Quicken or Microsoft Money, install one now. These personal-finance workhorses, which cost as little as $30, provide forms for creating a budget and chart-making tools for tracking your cash flow. It's too early to enter numbers, but you can get acquainted with the program's functions.

Of particular benefit to busy parents is the software's capacity to organize financial records in one place. You'll come to appreciate this convenience at tax time, loan-application time, and any other time you need to put your fingers on details like account numbers and balances. The program's online bill-paying function can also save you valuable time and effort during those sleep-deprived early postpartum months, says Dee Lee, a Harvard, MA-based certified financial planner.

Update your beneficiaries. Double-check for and delete any out-of-date beneficiaries on your company-sponsored life insurance and 401(k) plan, particularly if you were single when you started your job. "Whenever there's a major lifestyle change, you need to look at those beneficiary statements," Lee says. Your parents, siblings, or even an old boyfriend may still be listed.

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