The countdown until January 1 has officially started (if you’d like a down-to-the-second countdown, check out this counter from TimeAndDate.com). Before getting too caught up in end-of-year merriment, pay attention to these four important financial “to-do’s” that should be checked off the list before the New Year begins.

Yeah, yeah, I know this is a busy time for everyone. But this is important and it could save lots of money. And I know you wouldn’t be here at KCL if you didn’t like saving money!

Make a charitable donation

If you itemize deductions on your tax return, this is your last chance to make a charitable donation and receive a deduction on your 2012 income taxes. Consider a donation in someone’s name, or consider donating money to the Sandy Hook School Support Fund, set up by the United Way of Western Connecticut to provide support services to the families and the community affected by the Sandy Hook school shooting. Or make a donation to the American Red Cross Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. Planning a closet clean-out? Donate to Goodwill (make sure to get a receipt for your donation so you can make the deduction on your tax return). If you do decide to give to charity in the upcoming days, make sure that the charity is legitimate by following the suggestions given in the previously published KCL article “Charity Watchdog: How to Evaluate a Charity and Give Wisely.”

Check your credit score

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau recommends that all consumers check their credit report once every 12 months. Get a free copy of your credit report once every 12 months from AnnualCreditReport.com, the only authorized source under federal law that provides consumers with free credit reports from the three major national credit reporting companies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion). While other websites such as FreeCreditReport.com (you know, the one with the catchy jingle) promise free credit reports, they may require you to sign up for “free trials” that eventually charge you or require you to purchase other products or services that aren’t needed.

Set financial goals for next year

Set aside some time to review your 2012 finances and identify financial weak spots (i.e., throwing money out the window on late fees for bills or spending more than one-third of your available credit limit on your credit card). Write out a detailed action plan to strengthen these weak spots in the coming year and also set any additional financial goals you or your family may have for 2013. Generally, the best goals are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. An example of a SMART financial goal is: Establish a $1,500 emergency fund by the end of 2013  by depositing $125 from each monthly paycheck for the next 12 months into a savings account.”

To make reaching financial goals even easier, there are plenty of free financial goal planning and budgeting worksheets available online, such as this worksheet from docstoc.com. You may also want to consider signing up for a free Mint.com account and then using the site’s handy goals feature. Enter how much money you need for your goal, set a target date to accomplish your goal and then link your goal to your specific accounts so that it’s easier to stick to your plan.

Use it or lose it (your health care FSA, that is…)

Do you have a health care flexible spending arrangement (FSA)? If so, call up your provider or look over your paperwork to see if you have any funds remaining in your FSA for the year. If you do, ask your provider what your “spend by” date is. Is it December 31 or do you have a grace period until March 15? If your “spend by” date is December 31, start spending now! If you don’t spend the money in the account by your “spend by” date, you lose that money. Rollover does not exist in the FSA world. Here are some ways to spend your remaining FSA funds by the end of the year:

  • Make an appointment for annual exams with your primary care physician, dentist, gynecologist, or other health health care providers who you have not seen this year.
  • Buy another pair of prescription glasses or sunglasses or medical aids or devices (i.e., orthotics for your shoes).
  • Buy eligible medical supplies such as disposable contacts and contact solution or syringes and test strips.
  • If you are considering LASIK eye surgery, get your qualifying eye exam in before the end of the year.
  • Get a massage or acupuncture, if such treatments are eligible.