Forget Resolutions: Make This One Financial Habit Instead

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Every New Year, millions of people make new financial resolutions.

Spending less money is the most popular financial resolution. Others include paying down debt and saving for retirement.

As we all know, however, most New Year’s resolutions fail within weeks. (Just 8% of people say they’ve achieved their New Year’s goals.)  

This is especially true for financial resolutions. They’re usually too big, or too vague to succeed.

Even worse, they tend to rely on willpower, which is highly unreliable, even for people who say they have excellent at self-control.

Financial Habits > Financial Willpower

Spending Money Worry

“We repeat about 40% of our behavior almost daily, so if we change our habits, we change our lives.”

Gretchen Rubin, The Science of Willpower

Studies show that rather than relying on willpower for New Year’s resolutions, it’s better to focus on developing new habits.

Some habits provide exponential benefits above others. These are called keystone habits:  “a behavior or routine that naturally pulls the rest of your life in line.”

Keystone habits are the most important habits you can make. They’re different from regular habits because they have ripple effects that help change your behavior in unexpected ways.

As Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit:

  1. Keystone habits support other habits
  2. Keystone habits provide “many small senses of victory”
  3. Keystone habits give you confidence and motivation to do more

“When researchers look at how people change their habitual behaviors, they find when some changes occur, it seems to set off a chain reaction that causes other patterns to change as well. The power of a keystone habit draws from its ability to change your self-image.”

– Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Keystone Habits and Money

Spending Habits Money

Certain keystone habits are necessary for long-term financial success. Without these habits, financial goals and resolutions are simply wishful thinking.

Examples might include spending less than you earn, automating savings, and always paying your credit card balance each month.

However, one financial keystone habit supports all others. And it makes financial success much more likely.

That keystone habit is tracking your spending.

Financial advisors and personal finance writers agree: tracking spending is the first step toward a more informed, confident, and intentional financial life. That’s true regardless of your income, credit score, or debt.

Or, as Business Insider writer Libby Kane writes, “The best first step you can take to improve your finances is to track your spending.”

Why is tracking spending so important?

“Understanding your spending is the first step to gaining more control over your finances. It’s the foundation on which you can build a rock-solid budget, responsible saving habits, and a foolproof investment strategy.”

Why You Should Track Spending Before Making a Budget

Close, detailed awareness of your spending will transform your relationship with money. It will help you see where your money goes. And it will trigger better spending and saving habits.

  • You can’t know how much money you can realistically save each month if you don’t know how much you’re really spending, and where your money is really going
  • You can’t set a realistic debt payoff goal without knowing where your money is going
  • You can’t make an effective budget without understanding your spending
  • And it’s simply very easy to spend more than you mean to unless you track it

Making financial resolutions without understanding your spending creates a cycle of failure. And as Ramit Sethi notes, “Failing at our resolutions has implications…we start to distrust ourselves.”

How to make a new keystone habit of tracking spending

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“I encourage people to think: what’s the smallest step that they could take that is consistent with their goal? And not necessarily worry about whether they believe it’s sufficient.”

– Kelly McGonigal, The Science of Willpower

1. Take tiny, specific steps

Take tiny steps with frequent wins to create your new keystone habit of tracking spending.

Starting very small is the best way to build a new habit. Small, achievable short-term steps accumulate over time and become automatic faster than large changes. And they build momentum toward long-term goals:

The smallest step toward creating the keystone habit of tracking spending is simply to look at your spending at least once a week.

This step may seem too small, but as BJ Fogg says, “trust the process.”

(Read more about how to easily track spending below.)

2. Write down when and where you’ll review your spending

Deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success. —Heidi Grant Halvorson, Columbia University

One of the most powerful tools for achieving any goal is to write down a very simple plan about when and where you’ll take steps to work on it.

Research shows writing down an intention with a “when and where” formula doubles a person’s likelihood of achieving their goal. It goes like this:

“I will ____ on [DAY] at [TIME OF DAY] at/in [PLACE].”

For example, “I will open my transactions to look at my spending for five minutes on Thursday morning before I go to class.”

Some people (like writer Carl Richards) review their spending just once per month. But if you’re trying to make a new financial keystone habit, that’s too infrequent.

The most important thing is writing exactly when and where you’ll review your budget and spending.

3. Choose a trigger to reminds you to look at your spending

It’s also helpful to create a trigger that reminds you to take action. For most people, a digital weekly reminder in iCal, Outlook, or Google Calendar is effective.

You might also follow BJ Fogg‘s advice and set an environmental cue. This could be a wall calendar (Jerry Seinfeld style) or stickie notes on your fridge.

4. Plan for setbacks and mistakes

Money In A Busy Household

According to Kelly McGonigal, the number one reason people fail to stick with new habits is that they don’t have a plan for failure.

If you anticipate failure, you can more easily rebound and get back on track.

This is even true when it’s harder than expected to meet your goals.

A simple way to make a backup plan by writing it down in this formula:

“If ____, then ____.”

For example, if I haven’t shown up to look at my spending on Thursday, then I will look at my spending on Sunday after dinner. 

It’s also helpful to know that missing a single day of showing up has little impact on your long-term success.

If you consistently default to your backup plan, consider that your new plan. If you never want to look at your budget on Sunday, but find it easier on Tuesday, then update your plan accordingly.

5. Team up and find a partner for your goal

Track Spending Together

One of the things I always encourage people to do is to not try to do things alone and to start outsourcing their willpower a little bit.

– Kelly McGonigal

Many people find keeping their goals is easier (and more fun) when they’re working with a friend or partner.

This study showed that “people who wrote down their goals, shared this information with a friend, and sent weekly updates to that friend were on average 33% more successful in accomplishing their stated goals than those who merely formulated goals.”

You’ll get positive, motivating social support from your partner.

How to Track Your Spending

It’s simple to track and review spending if you put everything on one credit or debit card.

However, if like most people, you use multiple credit cards and bank accounts, it’s ideal to use a personal finance tool that consolidates all your spending in one place.

Tiller Money will import everything into Google Sheets or Microsoft Excel, which you can open on any device. Many of the most financially engaged people use spreadsheets to track their spending. Others use apps. Read why we think Tiller Money is the best tool for tracking spending.

Other tools like YNAB, Quicken, or Pocketsmith can also help.

Above all, look for a service (or services) you’ll actually use.

Sooner or later, as you win the habit of showing up, you’ll start to do things with your budget. You might update some of your earlier assumptions. You might decide to categorize some expenses. This might happen in the first month. It might happen on the 11th.

Plan on showing up to look at your spending at least once per week.

If you consistently look at your spending, eventually you’ll begin to spend less – and spend smarter.

Here’s to happy tracking and powerful new habits ahead!

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