Making your money resolutions stick

Ring in 2016 with this financial checklist
Ring in 2016 with this financial checklist

Got resolutions? By the time New Year's Eve rolls around, every year about 40 percent of Americans vow to improve some part of their lives.

All well and good, but only 40 to 46 percent of those resolutions stick, according to research by John Norcross, a psychology professor at the University of Scranton and the author of the book "Changeology."

People "confuse fantasy with a resolution," and expect their motivation to remain strong and carry them through, he said. "Motivation and inspiration get us started for a week," and after that it's a different ball game.

Secret budgeting tool: A New Year's resolution

Fitness resolutions usually top the list, but personal finances come in second. In a recent survey 1,006 adults commissioned by Allianz Life, 44 percent intended to make fitness resolutions and 29 percent planned to make resolutions related to their finances.

Money resolutions can run the gamut, from starting or sticking to a budget to saving for a long-term goal. But nearly all of them require people to stick with a new behavior indefinitely, and that can be more challenging than a vow to lose 10 pounds.

"I think there is always kind of a theme of trying to do too much," said Katie Libbe, vice president of consumer insights at Allianz Life.

Failing at resolutions is not just disappointing, according to Joseph Grenny, author of "Change Anything." He conducted an online survey and found that 7 in 10 people said they lost $1,000 or more when they failed to keep a resolution. (That treadmill they purchased to lose weight wound up covered in dust.)

Make joy-based budgeting a New Year's resolution

Fortunately, there are ways to actually succeed this time.

The American Psychological Association recommends starting small and tackling one behavior at a time. It also helps to talk about your resolutions, and if you mess up, try not to beat yourself up.

"Don't give up completely because you ate a brownie and broke your diet," the association counseled.

Norcross divided the process of keeping resolutions into five steps. First, psych yourself up before the end of the year: make realistic goals and establish confidence that you can reach them. Then, in January, get going — limit your exposure to high risk situations (after Christmas sales, perhaps?) and track your progress. It is also a good idea to reward your successes, he said.

After the first few weeks, when determination is flagging, Norcross recommended creating supports like a buddy system and preparing a plan to deal with inevitable slips. And the more specific your goal are, the better, he said.

"Vague goals prompt vague behavior," he said. To change financial behaviors, "break it down into pay periods." Those steps could include committing to automatically save a certain amount or to enroll in automatic deductions for retirement plan contributions.

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People are hard wired to think short term: It was not that long ago that our brains had to focus on surviving the day. That mindset gets in the way of long-term goal setting like saving for the future, experts said. But Norcross has a way around that issue.

"Make a contingency contract," he said. For example, if you fail to save the $200 per pay period that you promised yourself you would, "then you suffer an enormous immediate consequence. There is no turning on Netflix for an entire week if you do that."

That kind of contingency, Norcross said, can encourage people to stick with resolutions since it leads to a near term consequence for bad behavior related to the future. It can also work both ways. "If you do" save what you promised, he said, "you can Netflix all this weekend."

Done right, resolutions can be an extremely effective way to change behavior, Norcross said. Even though fewer than half of those who make resolutions are sticking to them after six months, he pointed to research that found resolvers are still 10 times more likely to change their behaviors than those with similar goals and motivation who do not make resolutions.

Resolutions are clearly good for the health clubs that fill up every January. With college costs rising and middle class incomes stagnating, success with money resolutions could make an even bigger difference in Americans' wallets in 2016.

Now go get busy with that budget.