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Opinion: 5 ways to make this year better than last year

Welcome to 2021, finally. Though plenty of challenges remain, there is something reassuring about the promise of a new year. Specifically, the coronavirus vaccine is a shooting star to which many of us are attaching our hopes for better, healthier, and more prosperous days.

Among all its hard lessons, 2020 showed us that many people are one economic downturn away from financial insecurity. To be sure, this is a systemic issue that requires systemic solutions, and it’s natural to feel powerless about how to turn the ship around. Whenever I’m feeling that way, I like to focus on what I can control as an individual. For me, this means taking care of my mind, body, community, and yes, finances.

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I spend more time thinking about financial wellness than most people. But more than that, I think about the interplay between money and overall well-being. As we embark on the months again, I encourage you to join me in making 2021 your year of wellness, one small action at a time. Here are some ways to get started.

Something for your wallet

The pandemic has had very uneven impacts on Americans’ financial situations. Millions faced and continue to face unemployment as entire industries shuttered overnight, while essential workers and those who could transition to remote work may have been able to save more money than in a typical year. Wherever you find yourself, one of the foundational financial steps you can take is to make a budget for your current reality. Putting pen to paper around your cash inflows and outflows, savings, debts, etc., can help you visualize where you stand and determine your next steps with clarity.

With that as your anchor, I encourage you to take one more action that makes sense for where you are on your financial journey. It could be reviewing your credit report; refinancing or consolidating debts; making a list of financial goals; making an extra payment on your student loans; increasing your retirement contribution rate by one or two percentage points; or speaking with a Financial Advisor, among countless options. For every task you complete, you’ll feel more on top of your situation and build confidence to tackle the next one.

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Something from your job

If you’ve been fortunate to retain your job through this time, be sure to look into any benefits your employer offers to support your financial and overall health. In a recent survey, 85% of employers said they plan to maintain or increase their investment in financial health benefits as a result of COVID-19, including things like individual financial coaching, childcare and eldercare assistance, digital financial education and debt-related support.

Something for your community

Those who have a little extra to donate may be looking to areas where their charitable dollars can have the most impact in the current environment—fighting hunger, supporting organizations that promote diversity, inclusion and equity, offering relief for out-of-work neighbors, and supporting medical needs for vulnerable populations. If you don’t have the means to give directly, consider purchasing essential goods and services from local and small businesses. You can also lend your time and talent, rather than your treasure.

Something for your health

Following a year marked by sickness, let this be a year defined by healing—one little choice at a time. My husband and I, for example, have gone meat-free and even pulled off a vegan Thanksgiving. If that’s not your thing, consider taking up yoga in your living room or building a 30-minute jog into your daily routine. Whatever fits into your lifestyle is ultimately the best, most sustainable choice.

And remember to look after for your mental health as well. Many employers have introduced mental health benefits, like subsidized virtual counseling sessions. If you’re not working or don’t have such options available, many cities and organizations are offering free, low-cost, or sliding-scale therapy and other related services.

Something better than ‘back to normal’

In mapping out my own 2021 wellness plan, I’ve been wrestling the cliché of “getting back to normal.” Instead, I’d like to aim for something different, better. For me it’s not just about adding new activities or possessions; it’s deciding what I’m not bringing into a new year or post-COVID era.

I posed this idea to some friends and coworkers, and many are embracing it in their own ways. One shared that he’d been completely invested in career networking at the expense of family time. Now dinners with his wife and kids are the highlight of his day, every day—and the money he’s saved on cabs and happy hours has gone towards increasing his family’s emergency savings and future vacation fund. Another said that 2020 helped her realized just how much she had been spending on beauty products and services. She’s now not only more comfortable in her own skin but has also reallocated her beauty budget to upping her charitable giving and putting more in her niece’s 529 education savings account.

The bottom line

Everyone’s day-to-day looks different, but chances are there are things you can both add in and let go of to develop healthier habits and make room for new opportunities in 2021. The turning over of a new year is a perfect time to focus on your overall well-being, of which your finances are part and parcel. With every small step you complete, you’ll not only progress towards your goals, but you’ll ultimately feel better too.

Krystal Barker Buissereth, CFA, is head of Financial Wellness, Morgan Stanley at Work.

Disclosures: This article has been prepared for informational purposes only. The information and data in the article has been obtained from sources outside of Morgan Stanley. Morgan Stanley makes no representations or guarantees as to the accuracy or completeness of the information or data from sources outside of Morgan Stanley. This article does not provide individually tailored investment advice and has been prepared without regard to the individual financial circumstances and objectives of persons who receive it. The strategies and/or investments discussed in this article may not be appropriate for all investors. Morgan Stanley recommends that investors independently evaluate particular investments and strategies, and encourages investors to seek the advice of a Financial Advisor. The appropriateness of a particular investment or strategy will depend on an investor’s individual circumstances and objectives.

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