You don't need me to tell you that we're living in uncertain economic times.

One day, stocks are plummeting and home foreclosures are skyrocketing; the next day, things seem to be looking up.

But whether the economy is good or bad, expenses keep rising. There's the mortgage and the car payments to deal with and all of your other necessary expenses.

But what about the big-ticket items? Something like a busted water heater often hits without warning and with the potential to blow a giant hole in your finances.

The secret for handling a big money decision isn't to grab the credit cards. Instead, you need to anticipate these expenses, divide them into manageable pieces and make them as routine as paying the phone bill. Here's how it works:

Define the Goal

The first and biggest step is to figure out what your next big money decision will be. You may not be aware you have any, but the truth is you have several to choose from. Do you think big medical expenses could arise in the next several months? Is your car beginning to show its age?

Let's say, for example, your refrigerator is slowing down. It's still running and cooling, but you anticipate that, at 12 years old, it has about three more years left. Anticipating this gives you something very valuable: time to start researching and saving.

What style and size refrigerator do you need? About how much will it cost? Are there options you should consider? Brands you should avoid? Look into it now.

Identify the Terms

If you start saving for the new refrigerator right now, you'll have about 36 months before you need to buy it. Let's say you determine that the new refrigerator you want will cost about $1,600. Divide the amount of this goal by the term of 36 months. The result is about $45. You'll need to save $45 each month, or $10.50 a week.

Make It Regular

View this as a regular bill you must pay and it will quickly become as ordinary and predictable as your mortgage or car payment.

Make It Automatic

Set up an automatic savings plan at an online site such as Smarty Pig. That's a safe online savings bank with protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and it's quite a lot of fun, too. Of course, you'll be able to make unscheduled deposits any time you want, but you'll gain peace of mind knowing that money is regularly going into the account.

Start With One Goal

If your mind runs at all like mine, you're thinking of several savings goals you want to work on simultaneously. I understand your enthusiasm, but I know from experience that it's best to start slowly. If you have additional funds, use them to reach one goal before starting on another. In time, as you become adept with managing big money decisions, you'll be able to handle several at a time.

Mary Hunt is the founder of and author of "Debt-Proof Living." Questions, comments and tips can be sent on her website.