Get Your Life Together, Finally

Excuse our eye rolls, but reserving the New Year for finally organizing our lives or simply making a change for the better is far from ideal. We appreciate the symbolism of a fresh year and new start, but all too often, those plans don't pan out. And, if you're struggling paycheck-to-paycheck in April and your social life is making you sad in August, then we say waiting is not an option. So, before the holiday hoopla kicks off, we're resolving — right here and now — to get our acts together. And, we brought in the big guns.
Tackling our bank accounts, our well-being, and — perhaps scariest of all — our closets and homes, we went to three experts who helped us re-evaluate a few key areas. With their help, we've rounded up 15 clever tips for finally getting our lives in order without the pressure of the New Year lingering over our heads. Read on, get started, and don't be surprised if everyone's asking you for advice come January 1.
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slide1Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Organize: Your Money
The Expert: Alexa von Tobel, founder and CEO of LearnVest, author of Financially Fearless (available December 31).
NIX THE UNNECESSARY
You work hard for your money, and frankly, you deserve to treat yourself to weekly drinks with the girls, an annual vacation, and all those SoulCycle classes. But, it's starting to add up. Von Tobel says the solution can be found right at home. "You may think your budget is as lean as possible, but there are always tips and tricks that can help you free up some extra cash," the financial-planning pro says. Re-evaluate how your money is spent in your home, and explore the alternative — and perhaps cheaper — options. "For example, the average U.S. household spends $2,000 per year on electricity, but studies estimate that 10% of your electric bill pays for power you aren’t even using. There are ways to avoid this, like making sure you don’t have any 'vampire electronics' plugged in, wasting energy (cell-phone chargers fall into this category, for example)." Von Tobel's advice is to find the best deals on those boring (or, rather, necessary-but-boring) items such as utilities or cable, so as to pocket more of your hard-earned cash for things you truly enjoy.

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slide2Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
GET A GAME PLAN
Finding a two-bedroom for a reasonable price may give you a thrill now, but you have dreams of signing a deed in the next five years. So, instead of setting yourself up for a purchase you can't quite afford, von Tobel stresses that we must make a plan. Consider your down payment — that's 20% of your new, dream house's price — and make adjustments, as necessary, to begin saving up the cash. This preparation is the most important step, our expert says. "If you buy a home that you can barely afford and then something happens to your income, you will be stuck in quite a stressful situation."
The good news: If you set a five-year plan, you still have some time to improve your financial status before you sign on the dotted line. And, don't forget your credit score (i.e., check it now!) to ensure it's in a solid place for when you're ready to apply for a mortgage. Bonus: Save an extra few bucks with von Tobel's suggestion for a free credit report at AnnualCreditReport.com.
slide3Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
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MAKE IT PERSONAL
It's a proud day when you realize that you not only have enough money to live comfortably, but you're even pocketing a little extra. "I firmly believe that investing your money is one of the smartest ways to grow it over the long term," von Tobel tells us. "It’s all about putting your money to work for you." Per our expert, first and foremost, you should make sure your finances are thriving (this means that you're debt-free, you're regularly saving for retirement, and you have backup funds in case your investment flops), then move on to making a selection. "Ultimately, investing is personal," she says. Do your research on the companies you believe in, and be willing to commit at least five years, as the market tends to be "unpredictable."
slide4Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
SPLURGING IS A GOOD THING
Go ahead. Read that again. Spending a little more than usual is a good thing, and it's even better when done properly. Thankfully, von Tobel has filled us in, just in time for the season's bonus checks and a little extra pocket change. "Before doing anything with that sweet holiday bonus, put the bulk of it out of sight (and straight into your savings account) until you decide what you want to do with it," she wisely tells us. "Though this isn’t the most exciting way to spend the extra cash, you’ll want to use 90% of that bonus toward your financial future. Start by putting it toward any outstanding debt. Then, look to your emergency savings and retirement accounts."
Once that's covered, the remaining 10% is dedicated entirely to the purchases that make you happy, she says. That pair of Acne boots, a color and cut at a fancy salon, or hitting the slopes for a weekend getaway may never feel sweeter.
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CREATE A FINANCIAL FRAMEWORK
While all of our bank accounts may look different, von Tobel claims there's one common goal we can set for 2014. "Get organized!" she says. "Creating a financial framework is definitely feasible to accomplish and implement." Begin with establishing a separate e-mail account, she advises, to keep track of your statements, set calendar reminders for your monthly bills and other financial responsibilities, and — her personal recommendation — use tools like the LearnVest Money Center that help you consolidate and manage financial responsibilities and goals in one place.  
slide6Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Organize: Your Home
The Expert: Michelle Adams, editor-in-chief of Domino.
IT'S OKAY TO TAKE SIDES
As much as we love the contents of our closets, we don't exactly plan to spend hours in there looking for a piece to wear, nor do we have much time to create a Dewey Decimal System of every item we own. So, Adams, Domino's EIC and in-house pro, made it simple with a few tricks that will take you about an hour now — and save you tons of time later.
First, pair like with like, she says. Hang shirts with shirts, pants with pants, etc., and then arrange by color. This will help with the whole grabbing-an-item-in-a-pinch dilemma (much like the one we face each morning). In addition, "dresses and pants should be hung at either end of your closet, shirts and skirts should be placed in middle," she says. "This will give you room to store shoes below, where you can clearly see them." Amen to that.
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MAINTAIN TRAFFIC CONTROL
The entryway of your home is not only the first impression for guests who walk though your door, but it's also the area that you see first. And last. Ideally, this small area of transit should reflect comfort, convenience, and your personal style right off the bat. Adams has a few simple, yet largely effective, ways to get the job done. These are her must-have items:
—  A console, to ground this highly trafficked, yet often un-designed area
— A mirror, for one last look at yourself before heading out the door
—  A lamp, to add warmth and to greet you upon your return
— A dish, so that you’ll always know where you put your keys
— An umbrella stand, to stash your wet things on rainy days
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DOUBLE-DUTY IS KEY
When you're working on a budget, it's just as important to know where to save as it is to know where to splurge. And, when it comes to the latter, Adams says it's the double-duty items that are totally worth the $$$. Pieces like decorative hampers are beautiful and functional, to boot. While you can toss your socks in there as you so choose, they also "can double as design accessories or side tables after you’ve run out of closet space," she says.
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Whether you're splitting a cavernous one-bedroom with your S.O. or a studio with five, found-on-Craigslist roomies, it's important to feel like you can find a bit of personal peace within your living space. And, as Adam says, you've got to carve it out yourself. Find a pocket that can be yours, be it an entire room that's barely used or a corner space that miraculously hasn't been taken over by your roommate's band equipment. "Fill it with the things you love," she says, "such as art, music, or plants." Establish your own little sanctuary, and perhaps encourage your roommates to do the same. It could make all the difference for your state of mind.
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UPGRADE YOUR JUNK DRAWER
To junk drawer, or not to junk drawer: That is the question. And, more often than not, our answer is a resounding yes — one that sounds an awful lot like a drawer full of clutter slamming closed. But, there's a way to upgrade your nook of miscellany so that it doesn't feel or look like a pile of trash. "A silverware divider quickly supplies order to a junk drawer," says Adams. "It designates space for pencils, scissors, tools, and trinkets." It's also an all-too-easy way to find those barely used pliers or that yellow highlighter on the day that you finally need them.
slide11Illustrated by Sydney Hass.
Organize: Your Well-Being
The Expert: Gretchen Rubin, blogger and author of The Happiness Project.
MAKE YOUR BED — REALLY!
Hey, not every day is going to be an impress-the-boss, pay-off-your-credit-card, and throw-a-dinner-party-without-even-breaking-a-sweat kind of day. But, we firmly believe that starting out on the right note can have a lasting effect on the rest of the day. And, Rubin says it's as simple as making your bed. Yes, the thing you just rolled out of. Perhaps begrudgingly.
"That habit of bed making is correlated with greater well-being and higher productivity," says Rubin. "But, beyond any study, people have told me anecdotally that it gives their life order, they start their day right, and they feel more in control." Think of it as a morning exercise that organizes just a small part of your day and prepares you for the rest. "You might not be able to meditate for 20 minutes," says our expert, "but you can make your bed.”
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…AND, THEN SLEEP IN IT
Maybe we should have switched these last two tips, as your bed isn't only supposed to be made to look nice. Rubin, who is currently working on a book about habits, says we need to set and abide by a bedtime and break out of our tendency to devalue the time we need to rest each night. And, for the record, that means at least seven hours, she says. "Many people are chronically sleep-deprived. It’s hard to turn out the light," Rubin points out. "The last hour of the day is their true goofing-around, leisure time; they don’t want to give it up. It is, however, a lackadaisical kind of leisure. People fight more; they snack on food they shouldn’t be eating; they’re not doing exciting things with that leisure time. It’s really worth thinking about turning out the lights."
Of course, turning out the lights, and shutting out the world, is easier said than done. And, it doesn't help when we allow ourselves to get so tired that we fall asleep, say, on the couch, face full of makeup, Netflix still running. So, like the mornings, set an alarm that will alert you when it's time to go to bed. "What I’ve started to do is brush my teeth and take out my contacts before it’s bedtime," Rubin says. "I sometimes put off going to bed because I’m too tired to take my contacts out. By doing it before, you’re ready to jump in bed the moment your bedtime alarm goes off.”
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FORGET THE BALANCING ACT
Maybe you've heard it before, or have said it yourself, but there's often a tendency to search for balance — a harmonious blend of work, play, Zen time, high pressure, family, friends, and self. It's a juggling act many people attempt. Rubin's advice: Let it fall. “I never think about balance. The thing about balance is that, if you get the right proportions, there would be room for everything. That’s not the case," she tells us. In forgetting the balancing act, Rubin suggests that you simply commit to those things you truly care about. "I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me. But, that means the things that aren’t so important to me get dropped. So, I then have to set my priorities."
Of course, letting things go is challenging, and doing tasks we don't love can sometimes be a part of life. But, for the most meaningful parts of your life — no matter how big or small — Rubin suggests putting them in your datebook. For example, she says, "If you have to have time to read for fun, put it on the calendar: 'Saturday afternoon, I’m going to read for fun.' Life comes, and things fall by the wayside. Put things down on your to-do list, and commit to it."
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CHANGE YOURSELF, NOT OTHERS
We all have one: a friend who calls you for every "crisis" but is not really around for when you need a shoulder. Or, perhaps, a boyfriend or girlfriend who you love to take care of, but lately you're feeling more like mom than a partner. Whatever the case, your one-sided relationship needs to change now. Before you tell your loved one why their behavior is bothering you, Rubin says: Not so fast. "I don’t think it ever works," she says about the confrontation approach. "What changes things are if you change your own behavior."
First things first: Identify the problem. Recognize what it is, exactly, that's bothering you, and be truthful with yourself. Are you insulted? Frustrated? Jealous? "Once you do that," says Rubin, "a solution presents itself. For instance, if you and your sweetheart are having a bout over household chores, maybe you hire someone to do them to avoid conflict. It doesn’t have to be a ‘you do it, or I do it’ situation." Second, see what you personally can do to change the situation. Try to adopt a more carefree approach to housework, or be a little less available for dramatic, long phone calls. Committing to a change in yourself may not necessarily transform others, but in the end, it will bring you peace.
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ACT LIKE A 10-YEAR-OLD
No matter what age you are, job you have, or relationship you're in, being happy may not always come naturally. It's not that you're sad, exactly, but maybe you've just lost sight of what brings you joy. So, what really makes you happy — the genuine, jump-up-and-down, lift-your-spirits kind of happy we all need and deserve? The answer to escaping your funk, Rubin says, is to think like a 10-year-old.
"We think fun is easy and spontaneous, but it’s easy to forget what fun is, too," she says. "We forget what we like, and going back to happy times in the past will help bring the fun back. It’s been there all along; we just lose touch with it.” Reflect a bit, and try to recall something that once brought you joy — dancing, drawing, swimming, helping your parents in the garden. Adapt your old favorite habits — that is, unless color-by-number activity books are still your thing — and commit to them. Those pastimes that once wholeheartedly made you happy will likely resonate for the long haul.
More expert advice on how to get your act together, FINALLY: