You know it’s important to have something to work toward when it comes to your money.
Unfortunately, New Year resolutions are unlikely to result in long-lasting changes. According to research reported by the American Psychological Association, nearly 60 percent of people drop their resolutions six months in.
So what does that mean when you set money goals? Chances are, you will give up on your financial goal before it’s realized — unless you take steps to set financial goals you can actually keep.
1. Stop making a laundry list
It’s tempting to sit down and list all the things you want to accomplish, but a laundry list isn’t the same thing as setting an actual goal. It’s often unspecific — it might describe the desired result (say, pay off your credit card) but it doesn’t tell you how to get there.
When you set financial goals, get specific. According to research from the University of Maryland, specificity can help you better measure your performance.
Rather than listing something general like “save more for retirement,” set a specific goal: “I will set aside $100 a month for retirement.” That specificity gives you something more concrete to work toward.
2. Choose an attainable financial goal
You’ve probably read great stories about people paying off thousands of dollars of debt in short periods of time. While those stories are inspiring, they might not be realistic for you.
Instead of saying you’ll pay off everything in six months, create a plan that focuses on attainability. Be brutally honest with yourself about what it will take to move forward.
Rather than say you’ll repay $20,000 of debt in the next 10 months, make a goal that reflects your financial situation. Maybe you can realistically put $300 a month toward debt reduction. It might not make you debt-free in a year, but it will help you make a dent and you’ll feel progress.
3. Work on one financial goal for the year
I used to set financial goals with several aims, and I was always lucky to complete just one goal by the end of the year. When I modified the number of goals I set, things changed.
Instead of setting multiple money goals, I chose one thing to work on for the whole year. One year, I decided I wanted to refinance my home. There were preliminary steps I needed to take, so it wasn’t as simple as just getting it done in January. It was a year-long process.
Another year, I wanted to max out my Roth IRA contributions each month. I knew I needed to contribute about $450 a month. I couldn’t start that immediately, but I spent the year increasing my contributions by a little extra each month, gradually building to $450.
Figure out your most important money objective for the year, and focus your energy on that one thing.
4. Set incremental goals that build
My “one financial goal for the year” employed a secondary goal-setting strategy: increments.
Figure out how to make your goals incremental so you can build on your previous progress. The great thing about money is that it’s relatively easy to set financial goals that are incremental in nature.
Want to build your emergency fund? Make a goal to start small and then increase your savings throughout the year. Plan to get rid of debt? Slowly increase how much you put toward the goal. You can encourage yourself to look for new ways to save and apply those savings to paying down debt.
As you reach various milestones, the success you feel can motivate you to make greater efforts.
5. Create accountability
One of the best ways to stick to your financial goal for the year is to create some sort of long-term accountability. Research reported in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics found that long-term commitment contracts with real accountability resulted in lasting behavioral changes.
You can do something similar. Tell others about your money goals and ask them to check in with you, or find an accountability partner with similar goals. If you have a life partner, you can work on your financial goals together.
The idea that you have to report to someone — and possibly experience an immediate consequence — can help you stick to your goals.
6. Consider a theme instead of a goal
Last year was the first year in a long while that I didn’t set financial goals. Instead, I explored my life and purpose for a year. Before long, I realized that I had a theme.
I liked it so much that instead of setting resolutions for 2017, I’ve decided that my theme will be “grow.” This includes growing my business, which should help me financially.
This breaks the rule of being specific, but that doesn’t mean failure is imminent. To accomplish my growth theme, I’ll have to set smaller goals.
One of the things I like about the theme idea is that it leaves room for me to set goals, achieve them, and set new targets. Rather than getting me to set goals I’m not sure about, I can set goals that help me live by my theme.
7. Don’t limit yourself to the new year
Too often, we get so hung up on New Year’s resolutions that we forget something: We can set financial goals and improve all year long.
So what if you feel like a failure by February? No reason to let your finances languish for 11 months. Wake up tomorrow, set a new (better) goal, and start working on it.
Improvement should be a year-round process. While a new year is a great time to reflect and commit, don’t get caught up in it. Use it as a time for guidance, but never stop working to improve your financial situation.
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