NEW YORK – This time, you really mean it.
Despite the best intentions, financial resolutions are often forgotten before the holiday decorations come down. That’s because New Year’s resolutions tend to be grandiose and require daunting lifestyle changes.
To break out of the inertia in 2011, focus on easy first steps that get you rolling in the right direction. That could be as simple as heading to the library to read about credit scores or sticking an envelope in your pocket to save receipts.
The key is to build momentum by identifying tasks you can accomplish right away. Here are four ways to get started on a richer 2011:
1. Zero in on specific goals
If you want tangible results, don’t make vague resolutions.
“The stereotypical resolution is not specific – it’s ‘I need to do more of this or less of that,’ ” said Sheryl Garrett, president of the Garrett Planning Network of certified financial planners, based in Shawnee Mission, Kan.
By defining a clear goal, you’ll be able to envision a more concrete path for achieving it. So if your resolution is to pay off a $10,000 credit card balance, set a goal you know you can easily achieve. That may be socking away $35 in each of the next four weeks. Measurable goals and deadlines are powerful motivators, but allow for some flexibility to make adjustments. That will decrease the likelihood that you abandon a goal at the first sign of a setback.
Visual reminders can also make resolutions more tangible. This might be a picture of your dream home or an inspirational saying tacked up on the refrigerator.
2. Size up your situation
To accomplish any financial goal, you first need to understand your current situation. That means tracking spending to see where money is going.
This doesn’t have to be a complicated undertaking. Free budgeting websites, such as Mint.com, are easy to set up and crunch the numbers for you. Or you might feel more at ease with a more basic approach, like a spreadsheet. People are often most comfortable simply jotting down purchases on a notepad.
“When you write it down, you feel it, you think about it,” said June Walbert, certified financial planner for USAA. “It’s easy to stay organized and know what’s going on.”
You’ll probably need to track expenses for at least a month, but start by committing to a week. Once a picture of your spending patterns starts to emerge, you’ll have more confidence about the necessary changes to reach your goals.
3. Get to know your subject
Resolutions often fail because people are intimidated by the unknown, said Laurie Hensley, a certified public accountant in Ithaca, N.Y. For example, people may not stick to saving for a down payment on a home because they’re mystified by the mortgage application process.
To get more comfortable with a topic, Hensley suggests checking out some resources online or flipping through some books or magazines the next time you’re at a bookstore. Don’t be shy about picking up the “For Dummies”-style books either. Another option is to bookmark some personal finance websites or even set one as your homepage to get into the habit of thinking about your resolution.
“People need to get familiar with the topic so it doesn’t scare them,” said Hensley, who also teaches personal finance management at Cornell University.
Check out the event listings at a community college or center; they often have free or low-cost talks on relevant personal finance topics.
4. Enlist guidance and support
It can be reassuring to have someone sit down and walk you through the basics.
Even if you don’t have the money to hire a financial planner for ongoing advice, it can be worthwhile to pay for one or two sessions. The fees will vary, but expect to pay upward of $100 an hour. If you think your questions are relatively simple, try stopping in at your local bank branch for a free consultation with a personal banker or investment adviser.
Depending on your goal, an informal support network could be all you need. If you’re married, getting your spouse on board will make it easier to commit to new habits. If you have kids, win them over to your cause by emphasizing the payoff rather than the sacrifices they’ll need to make.
“Don’t go it alone. If you’re single, find a friend who has a similar issue and buddy up,” said Walbert of USAA. “Make it team financial management.”
It’s easy to find support outside your circle of friends and family now too, with websites such as MeetUp.com providing users a forum to connect with like-minded individuals.