By Ilana Polyak, for State Farm Good Neighbor Magazine
In the waning days of the current year, it’s not uncommon to promise yourself you’ll do better in the new one. And if you’ve ever hit the gym in January or February, you’ve seen New Year’s resolutions in action. But as grass is green, behavioral changes are often short-lived: there’s a much shorter line for the elliptical machine in March.
But when structured correctly resolutions – made any time of the year – can be a powerful way to embark on new behaviors, says Gary P. Latham, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto. “The New Year is a good starting point but it can be any time of the year,” he says. “If you’re a student September id s good time, too.”
Unfortunately, people typically jump on without having a clear sense if what they are trying to accomplish. “The goal for weight loss or saving money is often too vague,” Latham says. “Then it’s impossible to track your progress, so it’s easy to just give up.”
The power of specificity
At the end of 2014, with one more semester to go before earning his undergraduate degree in marketing, Frenchon Byrd was feeling the financial squeeze. The Janesville, Wisconsin, single dad of three teenage girls employed a common tool to free up money in his budgets: some specific resolutions. First on his list was eating out less. “I’d come home at 5:30 and it was past suppertime, so it was just easy to go out to eat,” says Byrd, 45.
To make good on his promise, he invested in a few cookbooks and even took cooking class. Since his daughters, ages15, 16, and 17, like pizza, once a week they do a pizza night, and each girl makes her own. They have Mexican-themed dishes another night.
Byrd is excited about how well this resolution is going, even if “I’ve had a few not-so-successful dishes; I’m just starting out.” And he doesn’t beat himself up if the family still goes out for dinner from time to time.
Byrd also resolved to cut the cable cord, saving about $100 a month. He also uses more coupons online through website FatWallet, where he is a social media marketing intern.
“I wanted to stop spending money senselessly, and I feel like I’m doing that,” he says. “Maybe I’ll find something else to tackle next year.”
A fresh start
Unwittingly Brd gave himself a good start by tackling just one thing and having an action plan. That’s because in the excitement of making changes, people often tackle too much too fast.
“They set very big targets for themselves,” says Abhishek Varma, assistant professor of finance at Illinois State University. “To stick to your resolution, you need to find the simplest thing you can.”
Take money, for instance: if you want to learn about investing, forget about becoming a financial whiz, Varma says. Instead take an introductory course on investing basics at a community college, or spend 30 minutes a week education yourself about the markets. Rather than resolving to buy a new home, make it a priority to grow your down payment fund by $3,000. The more specific your goals, the more actionable they are, Verma says, and the more likely you are to see them through to completion.
In that vein, avoid creating a list with too many resolutions. “I say no more than three to five, not 35,” Latham says. “When you have to many you start to procrastinate, and cherry pick which ones you want to do rather than focusing on the critical few.”
If you need inspiration for establishing financial resolutions right now – today – here are a few to try.
Start an emergency fund
Saving is a lofty goal, but make sure you cover the basics. A good place to start is emergency savings: more than quarters of Americans don’t have a rainy-day fund and are unprepared for financial disaster. Ideally you should have three to six months of expenses on hand to take care of any emergencies.
“If you have money in an emergency account, emergencies stop happening,” says John Lopez, clinical assistant professor of personal financial planning at the University of Houston. “They’re a financial inconvenience, but they’re no longer emergencies.”
Sound too high? Start smaller. Working toward a goal of just $1,000 takes care of most unexpected outlays such as replacing your tires or fixing a tooth. To build up this cash cushion fast, consider these three steps:
1. Sell you stuff. Your closet is probably full of perfectly good clothes you haven’t worn in a year or longer. Let someone else enjoy them by listing them on eBay or Craigslist.
2. Pick up extra work and direct all your income from it to your emergency fund.
3. Put 15 percent of any money you receive into this account. “If Grandma sends you $100 for your birthday, put $15 away,” Lopez says.
Get out of debt
The average in-debt household owes more than $15,000 on credit cards, a 3 percent increase from the year before. In fact, one in four people have more credit card debt than they have in emergency savings.
To make headway on this goal, it has to be specific to your situation. “I wouldn’t say I’m going to get out of debt,” Verma says. “That goal is too big, and you might not even pursue it. But if you say, ‘I’m going to lower my debt by 20 percent and not take on any more debt this year,’ that’s very different.”
One method for paying down debt is called the snowball plan. It calls for paying off the cards with the smallest balance first. As soon as that’s paid off, tackle the card with the second biggest balance. These early wins are encouraging and build confidence.
It’s hard to make any progress on your financial goals if you don’t know where your money goes, Lopez says. He asks his students to keep track of all their spending for the three-month-long semester.
“Many of them have no idea where their money is going,” he says. “Doing this exercise is a huge eye-opener.”
Some categories of spending are easy to pinpoint because they occur month in and month out – rent, utilities and food, for example. But others are impulse purchases you may not notice, Lopez says. “Those impulse purchases create money leaks and can undue your financial well-being.
“A lot of times my student tell me they didn’t want to be bothered to write it down,” says Lopez. “That’s the classic example of an impulse purchase.”
Rev up your savings
You probably know that starting your savings program as soon as possible is one of the most important financial decisions you can make. And yet many people still don’t put money aside for the future. Some people think they don’t make enough money to save, while others are so worries about making the wrong investment, they choose inaction.
Again, Verma says, make this as painless as possible and easy to do, and you assure yourself greater success. If you find the idea of saving anything at all too painful, start small, even 1 percent of your salary. For someone earning $40,000, that translates to a little more than $33 a month.
“If you miss [saving during] those years between 22 and 32, you will live to regret that decision,” says Deborah Bauer, Peter and Molly Powell Distinguished Senior Instructor of Finance at Lindquist College of Business at the University of Oregon. “It’s very difficult to make up for that time.”
To boost your likelihood of following through, put your investments on autopilot. If you do not have to consciously set money aside – something many people find painful – you’re more apt to do it. Build on this success, and continue to add another 1 percent from time to time.