If this really is the year you're going to get a grip on your finances, the first step is to take a snapshot of your household budget: » How to check it. Track your cash flow for at least a few months to see where your money is going. Use the worksheet at kiplinger.com/tools/budget, or sign up to use a free budgeting Web site such as Mint.com or MoneyStrands.com. » Where you should be. Lots of so-called experts offer prescriptions for how much you should allot to housing expenses, debt payments, groceries and so on. But the best budget breakdown for you depends on several factors, including the cost of living in your area, your stage of life and your goals. Once you take care of the necessities -- and that should include saving for retirement and college for the kids -- you'll have more freedom to divvy up discretionary income.

-- How to improve. People can often find wiggle room in their grocery bills by skipping gourmet grocers. And you may want to review your expenses for cable, Internet and cell-phone service. Try setting a target budget on Mint.com and using its new "Goals" feature to help you save for large future expenses.

Now it's time to size up your debt load:

»» How to check it. Add up your recurring monthly debt expenses, such as payments on your mortgage, credit cards, and student and car loans. Divide the sum by your monthly gross income, and multiply that amount by 100 to find your debt as a percentage of income (or use the calculator at bankrate.com/brm/calc/ratio-debt-calculator.asp).

-- Where you should be. Start with some typical guidelines for qualifying for a mortgage: Your housing payment should be 28 percent or less of your gross income and total debt should consume no more than 36 percent. Some experts set lower levels -- say 25 percent for housing and 30 percent overall -- to provide more cushion for emergencies.

» How to improve. Tackle the debt with the steepest interest rate, such as high-rate credit-card balances. Then focus on debts with lower interest rates. Transferring the balance on a high-rate credit card to one with a low rate may be worthwhile if you'll save money after paying the transaction fees.

Send your questions and comments to moneypower@kiplinger.com