Illustration of a person being knocked over by tumbling credit cards

At the start of each year, many people decide it's time to get a better handle on their finances. They aim to stick to a budget, pay their credit card bills on time, and establish other money-smart practices.

Problem is, doing so isn't always so easy.

In 2018,  fewer than half of Americans said they closely tracked their spending or had a budget, according to the latest consumer financial literacy survey from the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, a nonprofit that oversees a network of agencies offering advice to consumers struggling with debt.

And 25 percent of survey respondents said they had a hard time staying current with their credit card payments.

“People are experiencing mounting financial pressure," says Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the organization. "Consumers are saving less than last year and relying more on debt to cover their expenses." 

If you're looking for ways to do a better job of staying on top of your finances, here are some suggestions. 

Don't spend more than you have. If you rely on a traditional budget to figure out how much money to spend every month, you have to forecast what your expenses and your income will be. Because both can change, you could end up spending more than your income. 

Jesse Mecham, founder and CEO of You Need A Budget, says a better method is to limit your spending to the amount saved in your bank accounts. 

“We want people to be in a situation where a dollar spent today was earned at least 30 days ago,” Mecham says.

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Mecham says to start by allocating each dollar in your bank account to expenses you have to pay for the month. 

If you find you don't have enough money, you know you'll have to spend less in the future. This simple exercise can help you get ahead of your credit card bills instead of always playing catchup.

Start fresh each month. Tracking every detail of your credit card charges on a daily basis can be tedious, particularly if you charge on your card a lot. Mecham says a better approach is to set aside some time on a monthly basis to run through the charges.

He also suggests changing your credit card due date to the last day of each month and paying your entire statement balance that day. By doing this, you’ll start the next month with a clean slate and a zero balance, making it easier to keep tabs on your spending. 

Mecham says you should keep an eye on your balance throughout the month to make sure you’re on pace to stay within your maximum spending limit. If after two weeks you’ve already spent 80 percent of your spending limit, then you’ll know you have to scale back for the remainder of the month.

Create a credit card payment plan. A common way consumers try to pay off debt is by paying a little extra whenever possible. Kristen Euretig, a certified financial planner and founder of Brooklyn Plans, calls this the “sprinkle effect” and says the approach isn’t likely to make a significant improvement in reducing debt, and could be discouraging over time. 

A better option? Euretig says to create a payoff plan that targets certain card bills first. “It could be the ones with the highest interest rates or those with the smallest balances to build your confidence,” she says. 

For the rest of your credit card bills, make sure you pay at least the minimum due by setting up autopay. “That way even if a bill slips your mind, you won’t get slapped with a late fee or dinged for a late payment on your credit,” Euretig says.

Set up payment reminders. Because paying on time is important, there are a number of automated money management tools that can alert you to make a payment. 

Mint.com, for example, has a tool that can either send a reminder to your phone or email a few days before a bill is due or send an alert the day the bill is due, depending on your preference. You can also use Google Calendar to set a reminder pop-up or email.