How to Make Habits, Not Resolutions, This Year

financial-advice-new-jerseyDo you feel like you are losing steam with your resolutions already? Studies show that people start to drop out at the two-week mark. So we wanted to help you out. Before you lose all your motivation, take these steps to create good financial habits that will last all year long – minimal effort required.

Around 45% of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, according to a University of Scranton survey published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, and yet just 8% achieve them.*

By February, only 64% of people are still sticking to the goals they set out to achieve. Six months into the year, that number drops to less than half.*

The problem? It takes 66 days on average to form a habit, let alone achieve a goal.

So this year, don’t make resolutions—create habits. By focusing on habits, you will adopt simple, sustainable behaviors that will put you on the path to achieving bigger and better goals in 2015 and beyond.

1. The Resolution: Save just a little more.

Good financial planning happens through careful consideration of dollars in and dollars out, as well as being aware of your goals. By setting savings goals, you’ll make it easier to actually get there.

Is your goal to buy a house in five years? Do the math to see what you need to save in your ideal neighborhood. Calculate how much you need to save on a monthly, or even weekly, basis to accomplish that, and then set up auto-deposit so that the money goes directly into your savings account before you have the chance to spend it.

If you have goals but don’t know your cash flow, then start there. Spend the month of January writing down everything you have to spend: your rent or mortgage, utilities, transportation and food. Then, save the rest.

The Habit: At the start of the New Year, review your goals and automatically increase whatever you’re saving by 2% to account for inflation, says Dan Egan, Betterment’s Director of Behavioral Finance and Investing. Although inflation might vary from year to year, the Federal Reserve tries to keep inflation as close to 2% as possible.

2. The Resolution: Fund your IRAs.

Did you max out your IRA for 2014 ($5,500 if under age 50)?

If not, then try to max it out by Tax Day: April 15, 2015. If you can afford to fully fund your IRA in one contribution, do so as quickly as possible; it will give the most amount of money the most amount of time in the market.

However, if one large contribution to your 2014 IRA isn’t possible, consider contributing a fraction of it each remaining month from now until April. For example, if you want to reach the maximum contribution limit by the latest possible deadline (Tax Day), then you have from January to mid-April—three and a half months—to hit it. That’s approximately $1,375 a month.

Once you’ve fully funded your 2014 IRA, start funding your 2015 IRA immediately and aim to max out by December 2015. If you can fund the full $5,500 all at once, do so. If not, you have from mid-April to December—almost eight months—to reach it. That’s approximately $685 a month.

If you have already maxed out your 2014 IRA, start saving toward hitting the maximum for your 2015 contribution. Again, if you can max out your 2015 IRA in January 2015, do so in order to give your money the most time in the market. If not, aim to max out by December 2015.

The Habit: Using the examples above, determine how much you plan to contribute to your IRA each month in 2015. Then, fund your IRA as if it were a required monthly bill—set up auto-deposit so that the money comes directly out of your bank account each month. Bonus: Set a monthly calendar reminder to contribute any spare money you have left over from your budget.

3. The Resolution: Save half your raise.

One of the problems that people have with saving is that it usually means giving up some consumption now, Egan says. For example, let’s say you’re making and spending $4,000 a month (after taxes). You decide you want to start saving an extra $1,000 a month, so you cut your spending down to $3,000. “You’re going to feel that,” Egan said. “You’re going to have to go out to dinner less, you’re going to have to spend less. So, in that case, saving feels bad.”*

Now, imagine on the other hand that you’re spending $4,000 a month and you get a raise to $5,000 a month. Here’s an opportunity to save more without feeling bad about it—without reducing your consumption.

The Habit: Every time you get a raise, consider increasing your savings by about half of it. So, if you get a $1,000-a-month raise, spend $500 and save $500.

Keep in mind that your spend-to-save ratio will depend on how much you’re already saving, Egan said. If you’re already saving a lot, then you could save 20% and spend 80% of your increased income. If you’re saving very little, save 80% and spend 20%.

4. The Resolution: Save your bonus.

If you are fortunate enough to get a bonus consider it an opportunity to save more without reducing consumption. But, the amount of your bonus that you save, of course, depends on what percentage of your expected income comes from it.

For example, if you’re a commissioned-based employee and this bonus is what you’ve been waiting for all year, you’ll likely want to save most or all of it.

Some questions to ask yourself include: Have you maxed out your tax-deductible accounts for the year? Do you have an adequate safety net set aside for emergencies? Are you on track with your other savings goals.

The Habit: If the answer is yes to any of the above questions, then go ahead and spend some of it, maybe 30%. “I think it should feel like a bonus,” Egan said. “It should feel like you’ve been appreciated.”*

To avoid temptation to spend the whole thing, make the decision of what you’re going to do with this windfall before you get it. “Take whatever amount of the bonus that you want to save out of your pocket completely,” he said, “and then have fun with the rest.”*

* Source: Betterment