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Keep Your Financial New Year’s Resolutions with Behavioral Economics

by Emily Guy Birken

In the first few days of January, it seems as if the New Year is nothing but potential. You tell yourself that this year is the one when you’ll finally get out of debt/maximize your retirement savings/save up for that trip to France. And yet, most New Year’s resolutions are broken—according to the Wall Street Journal, 88% of resolutions fail.

That depressing statistic shows just how difficult it is to truly change ourselves and our habits.

However, there is some hope. The study of Behavioral Economics gives us some insight into why we fail at resolutions and what we can do to really make this year different. Here are some tips for making sure that you keep your commitment to your New Year’s resolutions:

Behavioral Economics

Make one goal and master it!

1. Resolve to do less. According to Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan, authors of the forthcoming book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, having too little time can lead to bad decisions. They describe time management as being like trying to pack a suitcase. If you have an empty schedule, it’s like having an empty suitcase. It’s very easy to add in a new commitment. But if your suitcase/schedule is full, you will have to decide what to take out in order to add something new, which can cause you stress and worry.

In addition, having your schedule so full means that you end up having tunnel vision on whatever project happens to be in front of you. By focusing on what you have to do now, you don’t have time for thinking about your long-term goals. This is why you can so easily be on top of all the deadlines at work, but still have neglected to start contributing to your retirement fund. You “don’t have time” to worry about the future.

The solution: resolve to take on fewer obligations for a year. See how it affects your ability to do all the things in your life well.

automate your finances

Remove barriers- automate it!

2. Take the decision out of your own hands. We all know that the difference between our resolutions on January 1 and our motivation on February 1 can be oceans apart. We may have the greatest intentions of sending extra payments to our credit card each month, but something tempting can (and invariably will) come up between the moment of decision and the moment of action. Behavioral economists refer to this difference as the restraint bias—our belief in our ability to be virtuous in the future is tends to be seriously overblown.

The solution: Automate your decision, so that you cannot deviate from it later on. That means setting up extra credit card payments to be automatically deducted from your account on payday, so you can’t be tempted to spend it elsewhere.

what the hell

Don’t let one slip cause you to fail!

3. Avoid the “What-the-Hell” Effect. One of the big problems with resolutions is that we tend to think of them as all-or-nothing. If you’ve decided to stop using your credit card while you are paying it off, you may feel like you’ve failed if you put your dinner out on the card. And once you’ve spent a little money, why not keep going? You’ve already ruined your resolution, why not got shopping?

Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as counterregulatory behavior—more commonly known as the “What-the-Hell” effect. Once you’ve broken your resolution once, you may think, “what the hell, I may as well go hog-wild.”

The solution: Forgive yourself for slip-ups. The real basis of this effect is feeling like you have to be perfect. When you fall off the wagon, you make yourself feel better with something forbidden, which just makes everything worse. Instead, simply think about any slip-up as a momentary aberration from your overall goal—one that will not ruin your goal unless you let it.

Another way of handling this is to re-label your resolution as a goal. While a resolution is all about changing yourself, a goal is something any flawed individual (which we all are!) can work towards.

The Bottom Line

Sticking to your New Year’s goals is all about knowing yourself and making new behaviors as easy as possible to adopt. Giving yourself the time to focus on the big picture, taking choice out of your hands, and allowing yourself the room to occasionally stumble can all help you to reach your goals this year.

Photo Credits: creepyed, Brett Jordan, Alex E. Proimos.


Published or updated January 3, 2013.
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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Jane Savers @ The Money Puzzle

I have budgeted extra for emergencies and maintenance because that is where my plan fell apart last year.

I use a zero budget (all money transfered to bills or select savings accounts as soon as it is deposited in my account) and that helps to keep my on track. If there is money in the bank that is not assigned to something it suddenly turns in to a chinese food delivery on a Friday night after a long day at work.

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