(ARA) - There’s no doubt the past few years have been difficult economically, but there’s no better time than now to finally take control of your finances. Everest College’s accounting instructors offer some expert tips on how to get your finances in order for the coming year and beyond.

“It’s never too early or too late to educate yourself about your finances and to take control of your spending and saving,” says Roxanne Phillips, accounting instructor at Everest College in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Patricia Underwood, accounting instructor at Everest College in Salt Lake City, which offers accounting degree programs, recommends four ways to help you get started:

Assess your finances

“Before you can make a plan for the future, the first thing you need to do is understand where you really are,” says Underwood. Start by making a list of all sources of income and expenses, including mortgage payments, rent, utilities, car payments and insurance and credit card payments.

“You can’t make a financial plan until you realize how much of your income is truly discretionary,” says Underwood.

If you recently experienced a significant change in your personal or financial life, then you may also benefit from consulting a financial professional. Even if you have to pay some money up front, a professional financial manager can help you identify possible tax breaks, or advise you on possible debt management strategies.

Underwood also advises you to get a copy of your credit report. “By law, you are entitled to one free credit report every 12 months. Getting your credit report at the start of the year can become a new financial tradition and will ensure you don’t forget,” she says. You should examine your credit report closely for any errors or fraudulent charges.

Organize your finances

After you’ve assessed your situation, make a monthly budget with concrete, manageable goals - you don’t have to be a certified public accountant to do it.

Specifically, design a monthly budget, set aside a certain time each week devoted to managing your finances and automate as many of your payments as possible. Moving to automatic deductions not only makes sure your bills are paid on time, but can also save you time and hassle.

If you are not sure how much you currently spend, then you should keep a “financial log” for one month, in which you record all expenses on discretionary items.

Start saving

“There is only one rule to saving - spend less than you earn,” Underwood says. The key to saving is to create and commit to a reasonable budget that includes manageable savings goals. Once you set savings goals, Underwood suggests you share them with relatives or friends, and schedule regular check-ins.

“You want to make yourself accountable for meeting your savings goals,” says Underwood.

To make the most of your saving, Underwood suggests you see if your employer offers a 401(k) as part of your benefit package, which allows you to deduct savings automatically and actually reduces your taxable income. Underwood also explains that if your employer offers a matching 401(k) option, you want to maximize your savings to take full benefit of the matched amount. “Matching benefits are essentially free money,” she says.

Deal with your debt

For many, credit card debt can seem overwhelming, but there are a number of steps you can take to feel in control of your payments again.

Underwood also urges you to consult debt consolidation companies, which gather debt from various credit cards under one umbrella account, and help you reduce monthly payments.

However, the most important piece of advice Underwood offers is to get informed. There is a number of accounting programs and informational websites available to get you started. “The more you know about your finances and your options, the better consumer and investor you will be,” says Underwood.