How to keep your New Year's resolutions
Three ways to finally follow-through on your financial goals.
(Money Magazine) -- Say it with me: "This year I'm going to put more of my salary in my 401(k)." Easy enough, right? More like easier said than done.
An estimated 77 million adults in the U.S. say they're likely to make financial resolutions this year. Yet, according to the results of a recent Money/ICR poll, only about one in four who've made such promises in the past have fully kept their word.
And let's face it, even that's probably optimistic.
So why is it so hard to stay on track? Alas, it seems that we're wired to devalue long-term rewards when they involve immediate costs.
"It's the story of the boy who goes to bed at night resolving to get up before dawn and run two miles in the cold," says Meir Statman, a behavioral economist at Santa Clara University. "When the alarm rings, it is very hard for him to get out of his warm bed. It's almost as though the boy who made the promise is not the same boy who has to wake up in the morning."
When we make a resolution, adds Statman, we have a difficult time anticipating how we'll feel or behave in the moment that we must put it into action. Just as the run seems like a better idea at 5 p.m. than at 5 a.m., it sounds quite reasonable to say you're going to save more money until you're standing in front of the Best Sweater Ever at Neiman Marcus.
All that said, there are tricks to making resolutions stick, behaviorists say. The most important: Downplay the up-front costs by making the goal realistic, routine and socially binding.
Make a plan
First step: Take your resolution from nebulous to concrete. Consider exactly what you're going to do, by when and how.
Just as you can't gorge for 51 weeks of the year and then lose 20 pounds during the 52nd, you won't be able to reach a big financial goal at the last minute. Thus the need for a schedule.
Figure out how much you need to set aside each month to reach the total amount you want to save or pay off this year. (Breaking it into smaller parts like this will also make it more manageable.)
Write down the whole plan, advises Harvard economist David Laibson. Maybe even tack it to the fridge so that you can't conveniently forget.
Try to turn your normal inertia into an advantage by locking in the work. For example, set up a monthly direct deposit into a mutual fund or sign up for automatic payment of credit cards. If the money never passes through your hands, you'll hardly miss it.
And once these checks are established, you'll likely be too lazy to cancel them. This is one of those rare cases when sloth pays off.
Have someone hold you to it
Sometimes you need more than just your own conscience to police your resolutions. Tell a friend or family member what you plan to do, and create a consequence for yourself if you fall short (ideally something more distasteful than fulfilling the actual resolution).
Promising your spouse that you'll wax the car if you don't meet a financial goal gives you a good reason to follow through: You'll be on shine duty if you don't.
"If your commitment has an enforcement mechanism built in, you're far better off," Statman says. Accountability works. And if it doesn't? Well, there's always next year.