If you find yourself having trouble paying the minimum on your credit card or you're visiting the ATM more often than Tabby's litter box, then it might be time to consider renovating your finances.

Taking a good look at where your money is going is a daunting task, especially if you're the type that tosses aside her bank statement like it's a Chinese restaurant take-out menu. But there comes a point when a thorough investigation must be made. Luckily, I've done some research so you can get started on getting your personal finances under your control.

Every personal finance guide will tell you the first thing you need to do is keep track of your expenses. This means you need to write down everything that you're spending your money on for an entire month. Get a notepad and start holding onto those receipts so you can list all the miscellaneous crap that is burning a hole in your pocket. The Self magazine and Snapple. The slice of pizza and nine beers. The cab ride home after the slice of pizza and nine beers. The bigger expenses—monthly rent or mortgage, utilities, gym membership, credit card payments, tuition loans—also must be included for each month. It's a bit of a chore but after a few days you'll start seeing your disposable (is it ever really disposable?) income buying patterns.

Next comes the obvious step of comparing the money you're bringing in to what you're handing out. The first time I did this I was depressed for a week. But it got me thinking about what I don't really need in my life anymore. For instance, I love the cinnamon scones from Au Bon Pain. I used to get one for breakfast every day on my way to work. Cinnamon scone @ $1.84 x 5 days of work = $9.00 a week. That's $468 a year. A box of Quaker Toasted Oatmeal cereal @ $4.89 x the entire week = $254 a year. That adds up to around $234 I could be putting towards my savings each year. Noticing the non-essentials that are sending money down the drain is a key step towards changing your spending habits and figuring out how you can be using your money in a more beneficial way.

Now comes the tricky part. It's budget time! When I was 12, my parents started giving me an allowance of $100 a month, to be spent on items my parents found frivolous, like the soundtrack to Grease. I was learning how to budget and I figured out pretty quickly how to save for the stuff I really wanted. There was no instant gratification anymore. I had to really consider what I was spending my money on and budget accordingly.

For help on creating a budget and sticking to it, go out and spend money on A Girl's Guide to Money by Laura Brady (Ulysses Press, $12.95). This book is very user-friendly and written for those of us who think store credit cards are a gift from the extravagance god. Fun and filled with great artwork (something that a lot of personal finance books tend to neglect) A Girl's Guide to Money proves personal finance does not have to be rocket science.

If you don't own a calculator, go to www.thebeehive.org where you'll find a nifty little tool to help you set up a budget. All you have to do is enter your income and expenses and it calculates how far over or under you are with your spending.

You may want to try reparenting yourself if you find sticking to a budget difficult. There is some psychology behind our views on money. For instance, if your cards are maxed out and you're still going on shopping expeditions, this may be a sign you may be valuing money in an unhealthy way. Usually the way we treat money goes back to how our parents valued money. If you feel you're overspending and can't afford to be doing so anymore, go to www.personal-budget-planning-saving-money.com. Here you'll find tips and questions to ask yourself when the shopping urge hits. And, if you really dig this reparenting thing, save up for It's Never Too Late to Be Happy: Reparenting Yourself for Happiness by Muriel James (Quill Driver Books, $12.95).

After figuring out your budget and creating a plan to live within it, it's time to get serious about your debt. Last year, I paid off my credit card debt with money I had in my savings account. I sent a big fat check to MBNA and am now using my one credit card on purchases that I know I can pay off in full when the statement comes. My credit card debt was tiny compared to the ordeal others face (around $8,000 for the average family), but nevertheless, paying off my credit card with its high interest was liberating. I felt like I was really sticking it to THE MAN as well.

There are 33 million Americans paying just the minimum on their credit cards. Don't be one of them. If you have money saved for a "rainy day," put it towards the credit card, and then only use the card once in a blue moon. For more on credit card companies and why you, too, should stick it to THE MAN each month, check out the transcript from a recent Frontline episode on the sucess of credit card companies and how you are paying for it.

Something else mentioned in the guides and the Frontline episode is getting your FICO score at www.myfico.com. This is your credit rating, used by moneylenders to find out if you're a good bill payer or a deadbeat. It will cost you around $45 but you should know what moneylenders think of you. To get some help if your credit rating is on the bad side, go to www.kobliner.com. This is author and personal finance whiz Beth Kobliner's Web site, based on her book Get a Financial Life (Fireside, $12.95). Her site has all the helpful content you might need if you can't afford the book.

A couple other books to browse through at your local bookstore:

Anything by Suze Orman. You've seen her specials on PBS (and probably flipped to another station) or on CNBC, but this former down-on-her-luck waitress knows money like nobody's business, landing on the New York Times best-seller list five consecutive times. At her web site, www.suzeorman.com, you can find advice and products. Her new book The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous and Broke is on sale for $16.47.

Debt Free by 30: Practical Advice for Young, Broke, & Upwardly Mobile by Jason Anthony and Karl Cluck (Plume Books, $14). Written by two guys who have been there and survived. Very helpful for anyone dealing with serious debt. There are many "real life" scenarios throughout the book. There's even recipes to get you to stop eating out all the time. You'll also find many Web sites aimed at saving on travel, bill paying, and even car insurance. (Note: The book was published in 2001 so you might find some of the Web site information is in need of updating.)

Here is a list of Web sites that I found helpful for financial renovation:

money.cnn.com "An interactive course on managing all your finances."

rightonthemoney.org Contains transcripts from the personal finance show seen on public television stations, including the program about how to make it as an independent musician.

paytrust.com The Web site formerly known as Pay My Bills, where you can get set up to have someone pay your bills for you, on time. You will have to pay for the service, but it's better than having to pay those miserable late fees.

quicken.com For those of you ready to branch out a little into the financial mainstream, this is the site for the software millions use to work out their money matters.

stretcher.com The Dollar Stretcher provides all kinds of information for folks who want to spend less. Sign up for the weekly newsletter.

Remember, knowledge is power when it comes to renovating your personal finances. The more you know about your spending habits and where your money is going, the better able you'll be at figuring out ways to control your money instead of letting it control you. You'll develop a much more positive financial outlook in the process, and that good feeling about money will carry over to other areas of your life. KA-CHING!

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