Personal Finance

Make sure spending doesn't trip up your New Year's resolutions

Key Points
  • More than half of people who make New Year's resolutions spend on materials and supplies in pursuit of their goals.
  • Making a purchase won't necessarily help. Before you invest in gear, assess the habits you'll need to make or break to have that resolution stick.
  • Look for opportunities to reduce that up-front investment with used equipment, and free trials and classes. 
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How much are you willing to shell out in the hopes of making your New Year's resolution stick?

New survey data from software maker Quicken found that 56 percent of people who make New Year's resolutions spend money to stay on track – often hundreds or even thousands of dollars. (See chart below.) The company polled 1,036 adults in late December.

The potential payoff: Consumers in the poll who had invested in their resolutions were 25 percent more likely to have stuck with them for a year or more, said Aimee Young, chief marketing officer for Quicken.

Average resolution-related spending on materials and supplies

Spending Respondents
Less than $10033.33%
$100 to $50040.14%
$500 to $1,00013.95%
$1,000 to $2,0007.82%
$2,000 to $3,0002.72%
$3,000 to $4,0000.34%
$4,000 to $5,0000.34%
More than $5,0001.36%

Source: SOURCE: Quicken, 2018.

The tie-in isn't too surprising for some resolutions. Exercising more, for example, easily goes hand in hand with outlays for gym memberships, classes and fitness gear.

But Quicken also found that spending is common among people making financial resolutions such as paying down debt or saving money. Among those making financial resolutions, 51 percent said their resolution spending runs $500 or more.

(Presumably, that cohort might include people paying for budgeting software or a financial planning consult, as well as those making moves like buying a better coffee machine in a bid to eliminate their daily trip to Starbucks.)

From a psychology standpoint, it makes sense that consumers think shopping will help them stick to a New Year's resolution, said consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow.

"Usually resolutions require you to not do something: not spend money, not eat, not indulge yourself," she said. "That's counter to what people think of as a solution.

"We naturally gravitate toward doing things," Yarrow added.

Financial resolutions to ring in the new year
Financial resolutions to ring in the new year

Purchasing something makes people feel like they are making some progress toward keeping a resolution, and making a firmer commitment to it, said Yarrow, who is also a professor emerita of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

Yet that doesn't make resolution-related spending a good idea. The odds of keeping a resolution aren't in your favor. Commitment to New Year's pledges often wanes by mid-February, Yarrow said.

Done wrong, resolution spending could become an expensive reminder that you didn't meet your goals — one that can linger in the form of a credit card balance or even new debt in those form of recurring monthly gym membership payments.

Here's how boost your odds of success:

Assess your resolutions

"The first, most important step is that you outline your resolution and understand the steps you need to make it," said consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch. "Otherwise, you're just going to waste money."

Think about the core issues of habits you need to break or create to make your resolution work, she said. Buying something may not be the solution.

For example, signing that contract for a yearlong gym membership won't miraculously free up time in your hectic schedule to hit that group HIIT class, or be the magic bullet that gets you excited about exercise.

Reduce your up-front investment

List out all the purchases you think are important to reach your goal, Woroch said. Then divide those into needs and wants, and which items are required at the outset versus those that can wait.

Then be strategic about that up-front investment. Comparison shop, and stack sales and coupons.

Usually resolutions require you to not do something: not spend money, not eat, not indulge yourself. That's counter to what people think of as a solution. We naturally gravitate toward doing things.
Kit Yarrow
consumer psychologist

Consider buying used, at least at the outset. Woroch got an old spin bike for $150 when a local gym was updating its equipment; Facebook Marketplace, Nextdoor and other local sites often have cheap — or even free — gear that could help you get started for less.

Don't forget about free opportunities, either. Rotate through free trials at different fitness studios and gyms near you to figure out what you like before you commit to a paid membership, she said. If your aim is to learn a new skill, look for free classes at places such as your local library or specialty retailers. (Home Depot offers free workshops on topics such as installing ceiling fans, while Williams Sonoma's lineup of technique classes includes some no-cost options like knife skills.)

Reward yourself

Keep your initial investments small, and think about further goal-related purchases as rewards for sticking with it or achieving particular milestones, Yarrow said.

For example, if you can consistently make it out the door with your home-brewed coffee every morning for two weeks, then sure, get that better travel mug as motivation to continue the behavior. Made it to the one-month mark? Go for the better coffeemaker.

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