We have seen what an uncertain economic environment looks like. Although U.S. economists predict an upswing, they say "the economy still faces headwinds," reports USA Today. And although we should expect some turbulence ahead, we can proceed more confidently  by being proactive. Let's take basic steps to make it a good year money-wise.

Have you made any financial rearview mirror reflections lately?  Look back to examine how you fared last year and the last few years. What troublesome circumstances could have been avoided with better financial planning?

Why not make the necessary changes for a good year ahead? Here are four ways to make some headway toward a fiscally sound year.

Get on a budget.

We know how learned behaviors can be hard to overcome. But with an efficient money management system and routine in place, it gets easier.

Know where your money goes and the dollar amount every month. Begin with budget-related worksheets. Kiplinger.com and other Web sites have basic worksheets. Or make use of personal budget software. It doesn't have to be complicated to get started.

It's important to be smart about spending. Examine income and outgo. What changes need to be made to make the difference positive? Ideally, you want to subtract expenses from income and have money left over. Based on income, develop a realistic spending plan. If poor spending habits are not changed, money problems will continue.

A church leader told me she learned some truths about helping certain needy families. She observed that the people always asking for handouts continue to have money problems. Instead of desiring to be self-sufficient, many of them want to remain dependent on others and on the government. They aren't willing to get out of their dependency rut and face up to their financial quagmire.

Get out of debt.

Easy access to credit made people feel richer than they really were. Total U.S. debt has doubled from what it was ten years ago, reports The Wall Street Journal. Households have "barely made a dent in their debt burden" with it falling only 3% from the 2009 all-time peak.

Debt is a source of worry for many Americans. A recent survey shows that 22% of Americans in debt worry four hours or more a day about money problems. Another 63%  worry one to three hours a day about money (Source: FreeScore.com).

But worry doesn't necessarily change things. Leadership expert John Maxwell describes how change happens. He says, "When it comes to change, people change when they hurt enough that they have to, or when they learn enough that they want to."

Turn worry into action by making a list of creditors, monthly payments, balance due, and interest rates. When listing credit cards, put them in order of highest rate to lowest rate.

Examine your credit card use. Many people spend money they don't have by using credit cards. They rack up large balances and struggle to pay them off.

Credit card debt is likely the most costly debt for families. They pay much more than the original cost of purchases, with interest and fees. Interest rates can jump easily. Credit card companies will charge $39 for late payments. So once you're on a spending plan, work to eliminate credit card debt.

Leave the credit card at home to stop making impulse purchases. Use cash, checks, or a debit card.

Instead of making only the minimum payment toward the card balance, double the minimum amount. Pay off the balances as quickly as possible. Continue tackling debt by systematically paying down other obligations. As you cut down on what you owe, you'll have more available to save.

Grow an emergency fund.

Set aside funds for the unexpected events. Financial planners generally recommend setting aside three months' to six months' costs of living expenses. The loss of a job or time off work can cause havoc when living from paycheck to paycheck. There are  automobile repairs, home repairs, medical bills, and other expenses.

If you presently don't have at least $1,000 in an emergency fund, start now to work toward that goal. It's important to have adequate cash available. 

Having an emergency fund can ease the situation when there's no regular income for a time. This fund can prevent families from turning to credit cards to pay the bills.

This savings fund can stave off reaching into 401(k) accounts for living expenses. If you're younger than 59 ½, you're looking at a 10% penalty by taking money out of your 401(k).

Save for future goals.

Once an emergency fund is set up, save for short- and mid-term needs in money market or other liquid accounts. These savings may be for transportation, education, or a down payment for a home.

Where do you see yourself financially one year, five years, or ten years from now? What are you doing this year to work toward your goals? Remember that your outlook determines your outcome.

Focus also on long-term investing. Start by putting 5% or more of your income in a retirement savings plan. Simplify the process and transfer money automatically from your paycheck to savings. If your employer offers a retirement savings plan such as a 401(k), contribute the maximum amount that will be matched. Then put extra money into a Roth IRA, where investment earnings can grow tax-free.

Whenever possible reduce investment fees. Lower investing costs with index funds, sending the least possible amount to Wall Street. Jack Bogle, Vanguard mutual funds founder, says, "Indexing wins whether markets are efficient or inefficient." He adds: "Smart investing boils down to two simple rules: 1) Ignore fads. 2) Stop trying to beat the market" (Money, January/February 2011).

"Slow and steady" wins the race in investing. Be patient and in time you'll be profitable.

If you can not save a small amount now, it's likely it won't be any easier in the future. Making deposits now into long-term accounts brings more confidence and security to your future.

Plan what you want your reality to look like. Plan for a better year ahead.

February 2, 2011

Copyright (c) 2011 Deborah Nayrocker. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint required.

Deborah Nayrocker is the author of The Art of Debt-Free Living and Living a Balanced Financial Life. Her Web site is www.artofdebt-freeliving.com