If 2020 taught us anything, it was that unexpected events can interfere with even the best new year’s resolutions. But that’s no reason to give up on achieving your financial new year’s resolutions in 2021. Whatever the new year brings–a return to normal life, learning how to live with COVID-19 and all its societal implications, or something new and unexpected–there are methods you can use to improve the probability of sticking to your financial goals.
Here are our top 10 hacks to help you keep your personal finance goals in the new year. Most of these steps can also be applied to non-finance resolutions like health or career goals.
1. One at a Time
Our society glorifies multitasking, but the evidence shows we do much better dealing with one task at a time–particularly complex tasks like fulfilling personal finance resolutions.
In “How to Have a Good Day,” economist Caroline Webb notes that we can drive and chat with a passenger at the same time when driving along a quiet stretch of road. But as soon as that simple task becomes more complex, such as having a car suddenly pull out in front of us, driving becomes a complex task that requires conscious attention.
Likewise, tasks like creating a budget or building a plan to improve your credit score require conscious attention. Drawing on research from behavioral scientists, Webb suggests grouping or ‘batching’ similar tasks into consecutive time slots. In other words, it’s better to work on personal finance tasks one after the other than go from personal finance to something else and then back to personal finance several times in the one day.
2. Be SMART
S.M.A.R.T is a mnemonic tool used by project managers to help people set and achieve goals. It may also prove useful in helping you achieve financial goals.
S.M.A.R.T stands for:
- Specific. Be clear about what you want to achieve.
- Measurable. Quantify your goal with a number or numbers.
- Achievable. Ensure the goal is realistic.
- Relevant. Ensure the goal is worthwhile and that now is the right time for it.
- Time-Bound. Set a deadline for achieving the goal.
These are not S.M.A.R.T goals:
- I plan to get out of debt.
- I plan to save money.
- We plan to get this mortgage off our back.
These are S.M.A.R.T goals.
- Paying off 50% of your credit card balance in 6 months.
- Setting up a $20 direct deposit from your salary to a savings account every month.
- Planning to pay down an additional $300 on your mortgage each quarter.
3. Share with Others
Let’s be honest: it’s harder accomplishing a New Year’s resolution when you keep it to yourself.
Sharing your goals with a trusted friend or relative means there’s someone else there to make sure you stick to your goals. (Obviously, broadcasting your personal finance goals to hundreds of people on Facebook or Twitter is taking it a bit far!)
Taking it a step further, you may want to create joint resolutions with someone. If you’re married, in a long-term relationship, or have a business partner, then it’s only natural you would share financial resolutions with that person. But even if you’re living the single life, there’s a good chance someone close to you has similar goals.
It doesn’t have to be super personal. It could be something as simple as both aiming to earn 10% more income this year or both setting savings goals. These tasks can suddenly feel a lot easier when you have someone at your side.
4. Gamify Your Goals
Gamification is the application of typical elements of game playing (e.g. point scoring, competition with others, rules of play) to other areas of activity, typically to encourage consumers to engage with a product or service.
Here are some ways to gamify your personal finance goals.
- Download an app specific to a personal finance goal, like SmartyPig for savings accounts.
- Download a gamified productivity app like Beeminder that challenges you to keep your own custom-made goals.
- Create your own game where you reward yourself for achieving certain financial goals (e.g. if you save $100, you get to spend $20 on something you want).
5. Perform Mental Contrasting
In “How to Have a Good Day,” Caroline Webb discusses the importance of reinforcing your intentions before the day begins. These lessons can easily be applied to pursuing New Year’s financial resolutions.
Webb’s first step to reinforcing your intentions is mental contrasting–as in, thinking honestly and realistically about what’s likely to get in the way of achieving your goals, so you can address the obstacles head-on.
Mental contrasting was born from the observation that American POWs in Vietnam who were realistic about their predicament–as opposed to those who were blindly optimistic or blindly pessimistic–were most likely to survive. Today’s behavioral psychologists have shown that being realistic is a great strategy for turning intentions into actions–in career endeavors, academic performance, relationships, and presumably personal finance goals too.
- What is most likely to get in the way of you achieving what you hope to do?
- What can you do to reduce the chance that this obstacle derails you?
6. Use Mental Cues
Another technique Webb recommends for reinforcing your intentions is the use of mental cues, or what she calls ‘priming the pump’. Every one of our thoughts, feelings, and actions corresponds to a network of neurons firing electrochemical signals in our brain. This is why we might associate a particular song with a particular place, for example.
Priming the pump basically means training ourselves to create physical, visual, or mental cues that push us towards acting on and achieving our goals.
- What cues can you use to remind yourself to stay on track?
- Are there words or phrases that will help remind you of your intentions?
- How can you make your surroundings a good metaphor for your intentions?
7. Visualize Achieving Your Goals
The third and final way to reinforce your intentions is through visualization, or what Webb calls ‘mind’s-eye rehearsal’. Science has shown that our brains activate in much the same way when we’re visualizing it as when we’re experiencing it for real. Therefore, when we take the time to visualize ourselves handling a situation well, we’re effectively giving our brain the chance to rehearse–and as they say, practice makes perfect.
Before sitting down to pursue your financial goals, take a moment to visualize it going exactly as you hope.
- What will you be doing to overcome the challenges in your path?
- How will that look and feel?
- Can you recall a time in the past where you behaved exactly as you wanted in pursuit of a similar goal–and can you bring that vividly to mind?
8. Automate What You Can
When it comes to achieving or not achieving our financial goals, we are often our own worst enemies. Fortunately, there are lots of personal finance apps that automate routine tasks–taking some of the load off your shoulders and setting you up for financial success.
- Mint brings all your accounts and bills into one place, so you can conveniently manage your finances from one dashboard
- Acorns sets aside money from each paycheck and invests it for you
- Toshi shows you your financials flows, so you don’t have to spend time tracking everything yourself
9. Reward Yourself
Money isn’t the end goal in life; it’s merely a means of getting you to life goals like buying a house, taking vacations, or paying for college tuition. Disciplined spending is obviously key to saving for big financial goals. However, rewarding yourself whenever you achieve small financial goals is a good way of reinforcing positive financial behavior and keeping you interested in your goals.
The important thing to remember is that the reward should be proportionate to the goal you achieved. If you just hit a savings goal–like sending $50 per month to a savings account by direct debit–then your reward should only amount to a small percentage of the money saved. That way, you get to enjoy the immediate benefits of reaching a financial goal while also staying on track for your long-term goals.
10. Be Flexible – and Prepare for the Unknown
Setting financial goals is all well and good, but what if something unforeseen happens–like, say, a global pandemic? If your financial circumstances suddenly change, that doesn’t mean having to throw away all your financial goals. But it might mean having to adjust. If you have S.M.A.R.T goals, then you may want to change the deadline or specifics to reflect the new reality. You might also make adjustments to your spending activity to help stay on track.
Remember, changes to personal circumstances are often temporary. It doesn’t mean you have to lose sight of the bigger picture.
Sticking to Goals Is Simpler Than You Think
When it comes to setting and achieving financial (or other) New Year’s resolutions, what works for one person might not work for another. So, remember: be realistic (or Achievable, as in the A in S.M.A.R.T) and select a method of pursuing your goals that works for you.