Have you fallen off the financial wagon with those money resolutions from January? These nine steps will get you back to where you need to be.
If so, join the club. “Whenever you make any kind of resolution or habit change, you usually have to do it more than once before it sticks,” says Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist, partner in an asset management firm, and co-author of “Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders that Threaten our Financial Health.” “It’s not that you’re a bad person or lacking motivation. It just may be that you need multiple restarts on this particular financial resolution.”
So if you’ve fallen off the financial wagon, banish the guilt trip. Pick yourself up and try again. Here’s how:
1. Revisit your motivation.
To stick to a tough goal, it has to be important to you, says Klontz. Try to remember the initial reason you wanted to pay off your credit card debt or increase the savings in your kids’ education fund. “Jot down and regularly review why it’s important to you — whether it means less stress, a better relationship with your spouse because you’re not fighting about it or the satisfaction of being able to fund a certain goal,” says Klontz.
Even better: Find a picture or image that captures how you feel about hitting that financial goal and post it in a prominent place. Klontz says our emotional brain favors pictures over words. Seeing an image of your goal will immediately reconnect to you how you’d feel if you achieved it.
2. Ask: ‘What’s my specific next step?’
Sometimes people give up on financial goals because they don’t yet have the confidence or information needed to achieve them, says Klontz. For instance, do you need to read up on credit repair before you can decide your next steps toward improving your credit score? Do you need help uncovering why you continually binge-spend — perhaps from a financial counselor? If so, look for a referral through the Financial Therapy Association. Get some outside help before you set your goal again, and you’ll have a much better chance of acing it.
3. Get clear about spending patterns.
Whether you’re having trouble saving more or paying off debt, you first need to know how you’re spending your money each month, says Theresa Wan, certified financial planner and certified financial analyst at Treesa Financial Planning in Dumont, New Jersey.
Use this knowledge to determine where in your budget you could cut back and free up money for savings or debt-payoff. Many of Wan’s clients use Mint.com to track expenses and monitor their personal budget goals. Wan uses a simple spreadsheet and hand-enters her expenses in just a few minutes every day. Her spreadsheet is a Google Doc both she and her husband can access anytime. “The key is to use any tracking system that works for you — and stay with it,” she says.
4. Make it smaller.
Maybe your original goal was to put $100 a month toward your credit card debt. You did that for a month or two, then couldn’t stick with it. “Ninety percent of the time, it’s because you bit off more than you could chew,” says Kimberly Foss, president of Empyrion Wealth Management in Roseville, California. Maybe it’s more realistic for you to pay $50 or $25 a month toward your debt, even if it takes longer to achieve your goal. If so, go ahead and shift your resolution midyear. “It’s much smarter to start small and succeed at it than to try to do too much and fail,” says Foss. “Those small successes make you feel good and your momentum builds.”
5. Focus, focus, focus.
If you’ve been trying to pay off five credit cards but are losing steam, you might be better off focusing on paying off just one card at a time, suggests Wan. Pay as much as you can afford on the one card, and make minimum payments on the other four accounts. How do you choose which card to focus on? Some experts advocate paying off the one with the highest interest rate because that will retire debt the fastest. Others suggest paying off the smallest card so you quickly feel a sense of accomplishment. “I say if you can realistically pay off a card within a year, focus on that one. However, if it’s going to take you several years to pay off any of the cards, focus on the one with the highest interest rate first,” says Wan.
6. Get a goal buddy.
Being accountable to someone else — whether it’s your spouse, friend or even a Facebook group — is a great way to renew a resolution, suggests Foss. If you’re trying to save for a new car, for instance, set a monthly date to check in with your goal buddy. He or she can ask how you did on your savings goal that month. If you fell short, your buddy can ask you why, and what you can do to improve your progress next month. It’s helpful, but not required, to have a goal buddy who is trying to accomplish something similar. That way, you can share success strategies.
By the way, if you’re paying off debt and are private about sharing exact financial figures, you can simply use percentages, says Foss. For instance: “As of this month, I’ve paid off 25 percent of my goal.”
7. Find a mentor.
Identify someone who is already where you want to be with your financial resolutions, and ask if you can buy them coffee and pick their brain. “People usually love to share advice on things they’ve done well,” says Klontz.
8. Reward yourself — a bit.
Giving yourself a pat on the back for sticking to your goal for a few months can be incredibly motivating and help you stay on plan, says Foss. For instance, once you pay off a credit card, consider allowing yourself to use some of its reward points or cash back to treat yourself to a gift card or small purchase. However, Klontz suggests you keep your “part-way to goal” rewards modest. “Celebrating too big, too early can trick your brain into saying, ‘Hurray! I’m done!’ and you might not work quite as hard on completing the rest of your goal,” he warns.
9. Harness the ‘power of three.’
According to Foss, studies show that the human brain can only successfully handle three major tasks or goals at a time. If you gave yourself a half-dozen financial imperatives back in January, you simply overwhelmed yourself. Go back and choose the three — and only three — financial goals that are most important to you. Give yourself time to accomplish them before adding anything else to your to-do list. After all, there’s always next New Year’s!
See related: Healing your inner financial child, 6 tips to keep your family from busting your budget, 6 fears that keep people from financial advice