Emerge from the red in 2011

For many Americans, the last couple of years have been trying at best. Talk of an economic recovery for many folks to this point has been just that - talk. However, as things do improve, as they inevitably will, consumers should resolve now to lower their debt in 2011.

"Losing weight and losing debt are two of the top 10 New Year's resolutions every year," said Joseph Montanaro, Certified Financial Planner with USAA. "But unfortunately, the resolve of consumers to stick to their plans typically thaws along with the weather when spring rolls around."

Montanaro notes that many consumers set goals that may be too ambitious, whether trying to lose weight or lower debt. Here are five tips that may help consumers reach their goals in 2011.

1. Start with a specific goal. It's great to want to eliminate all your debt and start with a clean slate, but if you're faced with the proverbial mountain of debt, the goal may seem daunting. So start small, and add incremental goals along the way. For example, if you want to pay down $20,000 in credit-card debt - and credit-card debt is what's known as "bad" debt because of the high interest rates you're paying - then set a goal to eliminate 20 percent of that total by the beginning of spring or summer. Then set new goals with each milestone you reach.

2. Put your plan on paper. "Budget" is not a four-letter word, so embrace it. One of the first things I advise consumers who want to get their debt under control is to establish a realistic budget, and stick to it. Put your budget on paper, and adhere to it every time you get paid. If you've budgeted an extra $100 each month toward your credit-card payment, then move that money immediately and check it off your budget.

3. Track your progress. There's nothing more satisfying than not having to pay interest to a credit-card company. The more you pay off, the more money you have each month for other expenses - or for those unexpected emergencies that occur from time to time. So set a target goal for where you want to be each quarter, and track your progress regularly. If you find yourself off track, you can take corrective action or alter your plan, if necessary.

4. Reward yourself ... in moderation. While keeping a focus on reducing debt undoubtedly will require some sacrifice, it's OK to reward yourself for a job well done from time to time. But keep in mind that moderation is the key. Maybe your idea of a reward is a night on the town. If so, avoid the five-star restaurant and enjoy something at a more moderate price point. In fact, "moderation" is a good way to start thinking about how your approach to spending should change after you pay down your debt.

5. Save like there is tomorrow. While many consumers are used to spending like there's no tomorrow, you should turn that philosophy on its head and start saving like there is a tomorrow. There are a few easy ways to get started. First, live within your means, which really means you should spend less than you earn so you have money left over. Second, with that extra money, consider increasing contributions to your 401(k) or IRA. And third, start saving more for everyday expenses and emergencies by setting up a monthly automatic transfer into a savings account.

Finally, if you're overwhelmed by your debt and don't know where to begin, consider enlisting the help of a financial planner who can help you. Make sure that financial planner has a CFP designation to ensure you're getting advice from a credentialed professional.

Eliminating your debt and keeping it in check is a great way to start the new year. With a plan in place and a disciplined approach, you can work toward a better financial future.

This material is for informational purposes. Consider your own financial circumstances carefully before making a decision and consult with your tax, legal or estate planning professional.

USAA means United Services Automobile Association and its insurance, banking, investment and other companies. Banks Member FDIC. Investments provided by USAA Investment Management Company and USAA Financial Advisors Inc., both registered broker dealers.

USAA Financial Planning Services® refers to financial planning services and financial advice provided by USAA Financial Planning Services Insurance Agency, Inc. (known as USAA Financial Insurance Agency in California), a registered investment adviser and insurance agency and its wholly owned subsidiary, USAA Financial Advisors, Inc., a registered broker dealer.

Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards, Inc. owns the certification marks CFP® and Certified Financial Planner TM in the United States, which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board's initial and ongoing certification requirements