Only 8 percent of people who make New Year’s resolutions succeed in achieving them, according to research from the University of Scranton. If your resolution for the coming year centers on saving money — whether you are increasing your retirement contribution, considering a life insurance policy, or even just spending less day to day — you’re going to want to beat those odds. The good news is there are ways to help maximize your chances of success.
Start by setting retirement or other financial goals that you can track, measure, and adjust as you go. It’s important to have a realistic picture of where you are financially and where you want to be so you can make a plan to get there, whether that means tweaking your investments or getting started on a simple budget. And, if the notion of retirement planning and money management makes you cringe, remember that wealth comes in many forms and financial professionals are there to help.
“Just like with anything else, the first step is to get started,” said Katherine Newey, financial advisor with New England Financial Group. “People have this taboo when it comes to talking about money. But effective goal-setting requires an honest look at where your finances are so you can figure out how to get them to where you want them to be.”
Set realistic financial goals
What does your ideal financial situation look like? For many people, being free of debt ranks high on the wish list, but a wish is not a goal. Huge resolutions like “become debt-free” sound grand, but it’s easy to fail if you don’t outline the how.
It helps to break it up into smaller chunks. Try setting smaller retirement or other economic goals that will eventually get you closer to being debt-free. For example, if you’re new to managing money, or you have a spotty track record, start with something simple, like building a budget or keeping track of where your money is going. (Related: Building your financial pyramid)
If you already have a budget in place, you may want to look at ways to rearrange it. Perhaps you’d like to pay off your mortgage faster by making extra payments or changing your payment schedule. If you’re one of the estimated 66 million Americans without an emergency fund, according to a Bankrate.com survey, you may resolve to get a savings account started.
Those who are more comfortable handling money and are willing to accept some level of risk in exchange for the potential to earn more money in the markets may want to learn more about investing, or get in touch with a financial professional to put together or revise their portfolio.
Keys to success: measurement, accountability … and dopamine
Breaking up goals into smaller, more manageable steps helps to make them more achievable. And it turns out your brain chemistry plays a part in helping you stay on track.
When you set a goal you can measure in the short term, it’s easier to see the progress you’ve made. Feeling good about achieving a milestone kicks your brain into reward mode, which in turn creates an incentive to repeat the process.
“This is why the cultivation of small wins can propel you to bigger success, and you should focus on setting just a few small achievable goals,” Monica Mehta, author and investor at Seventh Capital, wrote in a recent column for Entrepreneur magazine.1 “Setting the bar too high with goals can actually be counterproductive. Each time we fail, the brain is drained of dopamine making it not only hard to concentrate but also difficult to learn from what went wrong.”
If your goal is a long-term one, like having a certain amount saved for retirement but money is tight, try participating in your employer’s retirement plan, if they offer one, or consider opening an individual retirement account (IRA) if they do not. Contribute what you can, as soon and as often as you can – the earlier you start, the more time compound interest has the potential to help grow your savings.
No matter what your financial goal, you may find more success if you tell someone about it – which may feel daunting, if you’re inclined to keep your wealth and financial information totally to yourself.
“There’s such a taboo around money, as if people see wealth as something filthy,” said Newey. “We have so much wealth beyond money, like our time and talent. Money is just a resource, and seeing it that way can open up positive conversations about goals and ways to achieve them.”
The benefits of keeping the conversation open when it comes to goal-setting – financial or otherwise – is supported by a 2014 study by Dr. Gail Matthews of the Dominican University of California. The three main accountability tools that seem to point toward greater likelihood of achieving one’s goals, according to the research, are accountability, public commitment, and writing it down.
Matthews’ research showed that those who wrote down their goals, made their commitment known to a friend, and shared weekly reports of their progress were 77 percent more likely to succeed than those who did not.2
In the case of spouses and life partners, it helps, too, to ensure that both parties are involved in the household finances and retirement planning, thus ensuring your plans don’t derail in the off-chance life throws you a curveball, according to Newey. “Two people should be taking turns keeping track of the finances,” she said. “One of the most devastating things is when there’s a loss of the person who was managing the purse. The survivor is in a fog and devastated and that’s when they get behind the curve.”
So it might pay to reconsider if you’re planning to keep your money resolution secret, whether that means opening up the budget conversation with your family, telling a friend about your plan, or connecting with a financial professional for guidance.
Online resources for financial resolutions
If you need a hand improving your financial picture, there are resources available to help. One is MassMutual’s 5-10-15-20 Calculator. And there are other resources as well.
Time magazine’s MONEY New Year’s Resolution Generator is designed to help users zero in on their top money goals and may be helpful in finding ways to achieve them.
Budget-seekers also have access to several online programs that can help with financial tracking and planning. One of the most popular is Mint.com, which offers simple budget tracking for free with optional paid add-on services.
Every Dollar is another budgeting software option which, like Mint, works on both desktop and mobile devices. It’s designed to track spending, but also helps you keep some more specific goals in mind — things like building an emergency fund, paying off debts, and saving for the future.
Quicken is one of the oldest and most robust money-management programs out there, and while the use of its companion app requires manual syncing, it may be a good solution for those who are ready to move past the simpler budgeting tools.
Money goals: Embrace the journey
Remember that achieving goals is a process, not something that happens in one fell swoop – and life has this pesky habit of getting in the way. Try to build some wiggle room into your financial plan to allow for adaptations as needed. And if you’ve ignored your finances enough that it makes you nervous to take that first step, remember that financial professionals are there to help.
“The idea of ‘wealth’ is seen as filthy, but that’s such an erroneous thing,” said Newey. “Taking a wider view of the things that make you wealthy, like your time and your talents, can help you realize that money is just another resource to help you get to where you want to be.”
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1 Monica Mehta, “Why Our Brains Like Short Term Goals,” Entrepreneur.com, January 2013.
2 Dr. Gail Matthews, “Achieving Goals, Resolutions,” Dominican University of California, 2014.