When we think of investments, we often forget that the best place to make an investment of money or time is in ourselves. So if you’re in a job you might want to change as the economy improves or if you feel a major lifestyle change in the offing, it makes sense to consider these kinds of investments:

Commit to an annual business plan – even if you don’t have a business: Even if it starts with a pro and con list that focuses on what you want to do with your life, come up with a list of solid goals for the year and how you plan to accomplish them.

If you want to make a career change, do your research: If you’re planning to stay in your field or make a complete change, one of the most detailed yet neutral resources for investigating career fields and their salary and hiring forecasts is the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook. This extensive online resource not only lists major career groups, but the leading occupations in it, educational requirements, and most important, salary data. If you haven’t been in the job market for a while, this kind of research is a good way to reset your knowledge of your industry and whether its hiring prospects are bright.

Get some advice: If you want a new job, to head back to school or plan to take a year off, it makes sense to get tax and financial advice. A financial planning professional can help you evaluate your current benefits package and retirement savings or talk through what you should be looking for at your next job if you’re unemployed.

Plan for a return to school: Going back to college – even community college – can be a major investment. If you’re going to have to finance your education yourself, it’s necessary to have a plan and knowledge of federal, state and local loans, grants and scholarship programs. Additional information on Federal Student Aid and Tax Credits is available at www.fafsa.ed.gov and www.irs.gov. It is important to understand the eligibility criteria and limits associated with each program.

Invest in new equipment: We’re not talking about machine tools here. Whatever your job or interest, there’s usually equipment to support it. For example, if you’re planning to learn new skills that involve a computer or software, now may be the time to invest in those items. Think about how this equipment will boost your productivity and the time it will take to earn back what you paid. If the numbers work, go for it.

Network: It’s important to get face-to-face with people in the field. You don’t want to do a job search on your employer’s time, but if you can get away at lunch or after work to attend networking functions, it’s worth your time for two reasons. First, you might meet your next boss there. Second, simply by talking and getting to know people already doing the job you want, you’ll get a ground-level view of whether the industry is right for you and which employers are the most popular. You’ll also get an idea of which companies to avoid.

Consider timing issues at your current employer: If you are up for a salary review soon, it might make sense to hold off on interviews until you have a better idea of what you’re worth in the marketplace. Also, you might want to use up any money in your flexible benefits accounts for medical appointments, glasses or dental work before you leave.

Plan to maximize your take-home pay at the next job: This is where a call to your tax or financial planner comes in handy. Some fringe benefits may be taxable, which means your real take-home pay might be less than you expected. To the extent that you get to negotiate your benefits on your way into a job, do it in a tax-smart way.

Decide what you’ll be doing with your 401(k) and other retirement funds: You may not want to make any moves for awhile, but it’s good to talk with a financial planner about whether you’ll be moving that money to private accounts. Also, make sure you know when you can enroll in the company 401(k) and other retirement offerings at your new employer.

Secure your insurance: You might wait a few months to a year for new health coverage to kick in at a new job. You might need to buy private insurance until then or go onto a spouse’s health plan in the meantime. Also, consider separate disability coverage if you’ve not done so – company coverage goes only so far, and if you are laid off or leave to start a business, you should have coverage of your own that you should buy while you’re still earning a salary.

Lose some weight, upgrade the wardrobe: We don’t like to admit it to ourselves, but appearance matters – sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Potential employers, clients and business partners like to do business with someone healthy and presentable, and that’s why paying attention to oneself really does matter. It matters for another reason as well. Increasingly insurers are taking a dim view of obesity and will still tie the cost of health insurance and other policies to your weight and overall health quality. Make 2011 the year you make this happen.

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