The new year is well underway, and you’ve already lost momentum with your New Year’s resolutions. No surprise: One survey found that last year only half of people who set financial goals managed to keep them. Once you slip, it’s easy to give up for good and tell yourself you’ve failed. But don’t be quick to punish yourself. “It’s hard to get things perfect right off the bat,” says Yasmin Ghodse-Elahi, a behavioral scientist at U.S. Bank.
The first thing to do when you’ve lost momentum, Ghodse-Elahi says, is to “give yourself some grace.” Chalk up what has happened as a valuable learning experience. “It can be helpful to think about working on a goal as a skill. With patience and practice you can improve,” she says. Conduct a post-mortem to pinpoint what got in the way of success. Armed with that intel, you can deploy these strategies for making a reboot of your resolutions a success.
It’s helpful to pick a specific date to push the reset button, according to research conducted at University of California, Los Angeles. This day serves as a demarcation line between the frustrating past when you didn’t stick to your goal and the future opportunity to get it right. It can be the first of the month, your birthday, your pet’s birthday — whatever resonates for you.
Maybe the problem was that you relied too much on your willpower. Spending a dollar today can feel more rewarding — at least in the moment — than saving that dollar. Maintaining the discipline to save over weeks, months and years is a tall order.
“Rather than relying on your own strength and willpower alone, put structures in place to help keep yourself on track,” Ghodse-Elahi says. A good one is automation. Maybe it’s setting up a monthly deposit into your emergency fund or recurring contributions to an IRA. If you don’t have to think about it, you’re less likely to forget to do it.
Or maybe on reflection you realize that your willpower couldn’t stand up to impulse buys. Ghodse-Elahi suggests instituting a cooling off period when you shop. Leave items in your cart for 24 hours when you’re online. Upon return, you may realize you don’t want or need it anymore.
Plus, unsubscribe from marketing emails and texts, Ghodse-Elahi advises. Not seeing enticing deals is a whole lot easier than exerting the willpower to ignore them.
Did the thought of restricting yourself from spending money feel worse than having less savings? Abdullah al Bahrani, an associate professor at Northern Kentucky University, says you may have run into a behavioral tic known as loss aversion. When you internalize “not spending” as a painful loss, that can lead you to overspend.
The key, Al Bahrani notes, is to make a bigger effort to focus on what you are gaining. Remind yourself frequently that saving can lead to owning a home, going on a vacation, buying a car — or simply achieving financial security.
Your kryptonite may have been that you couldn’t relate to your goal’s time frame. When you think about money, how far in the future do you think? Days, months, years, decades?
Rebuild your goals to better dovetail with where your head's at, suggests behavioral economist Sarah Newcomb, author of Loaded: Money, Psychology and how to Get Ahead Without Leaving Your Values Behind. “Set goals that are right at the edge of your mental time horizon — or just beyond it,” she says. “If we go too far, we disconnect because it doesn’t feel real.”
Say your mental time horizon is paycheck to paycheck. A retirement that is decades away might be tough to grasp. Instead, focus on what you want to achieve two paychecks from now. Maybe it’s putting $100 into your IRA. As you build momentum, you can start extending your time frame.
Even if you are good with a longer-term goal, bake in frequent milestones to celebrate. “It’s fine to have an ambitious goal, but you may find editing it to include smaller milestones helps,” Ghodse-Elahi says. Have a two-year plan for paying off your credit card balance? Great, but also mark every month you see the balance falling. “Seeing progress is motivating,” she adds.
If you’ve lost steam on a goal, you might find it motivating to push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you’re a big picture person, focus on the details. If you prefer the nitty-gritty, take a more holistic approach.
One study found that big-picture people who followed a financial goal that was very detailed saved more than those who didn’t have a focused goal. And detailed-oriented people who set a fuzzier goal, such as simply saving as much as possible, saved more than those who stuck with a specific plan. “The idea is to break out of your habitual way of thinking,” Newcomb says.
When a goal is too easy, we give up because we aren’t motivated. Too hard, and we quit because, well, it’s too hard. “You might need to recalibrate your goals if you were too ambitious,” Ghodse-Elahi says. Find a middle ground for your reboot: Set a challenging goal with a release valve if you run into a problem.
For instance, resolving to save money by not eating lunch out during the work week has no wiggle room. But if you consider yourself on track if you eat lunch out only three days a month, you are psychologically building in goal resilience, whether you use those three “cheat” days or not.
And don’t underestimate the power of sharing your goals with others. “There’s this sense that talking about personal finance is taboo, but that’s a missed opportunity,” says Al Bahrani. “We can benefit so much from the support of friends or family.”
As the saying goes “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” And that goes double for your New Year’s Financial resolutions. Remember — just because you didn’t stick to a goal doesn’t mean you’re not capable of achieving it. Take a step back, take stock, and start again.