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Secret budgeting tool: A New Year's resolution

Looking for a magic bullet that will help you stick to a budget and stay on track with saving?

Easy, says a new survey released Monday by Fidelity Investments: Make a financial New Year's resolution. About 51 percent of the survey respondents who made financial resolutions a year ago said they feel better off financially, compared with just 38 percent of those who did not.

"That focus on the goal actually helps to improve the outcome of the behavior," said John Sweeney, executive vice president for retirement and investing strategies at Fidelity. "I'm going to save X percent of my salary, or I'm going to pay off my debtthose tend to be very motivating activities."

Sweeney said Fidelity has seen similar results when clients work on financial planning: The very act of planning, he said, seems to lead to better spending and budgeting behavior.

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January calendar page
Tom Grill | Photographer's Choice RF | Getty Images

The effectiveness of financial resolutions is the good news in the survey, which was conducted in October with 2,014 respondents. The bad news is that fewer Americans plan to make them: just 31 percent have financial resolutions in mind this year, down from 43 percent a year ago and 42 percent in 2012.

Americans may be feeling complacent after two years of stock market strength, Sweeney said. "In periods where you have have some run-up in the market, like we have had, people are feeling more confident, so the urgency to change your behavior is less," he said.

Sure enough, 41 percent of respondents overall said they are in a better financial situation than a year ago, up from 26 percent last year and just 19 percent in 2012.

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That said, survey respondents who are making financial resolutions are making quality ones. For example, they are slightly more likely to make long-term saving resolutions this year than they were at the end of 2013: 57 percent of people planning to make a savings resolution will focus on long-term goals, up from 53 percent. And resolving to save more has been the most popular financial resolution since Fidelity began conducting the annual survey in 2010.

The Fidelity survey focuses on resolutions about concrete money behaviors, so it does not make clear whether Americans are resolving to become more financially literate. That alone could help them behave better with money: Recent surveys have shown that Americans have only a limited understanding of the financial issues around retirement, for example.

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"Knowledge is power, and the more you know about your finances the more impactful the financial resolutions you make will be," Sweeney said.