3 money resolutions for 2016 -- and how to keep them

Most people who make financial resolutions want to save more, according to surveys by Fidelity Investments and others. But with any kind of New Year's resolution, the failure rate is high. The more you have to use your willpower, the more likely you are to revert to your old bad habits after a few weeks.

So how can you stick to your vows to save? By making just three decisions, and putting automatic systems in place so that no further effort is required.

Bump up your retirement contribution by 2 percent. Raises will average 3 percent this year, according to a Towers Watson survey. That won't be enough to change your life, but it could help you have a better life in the future if you put most of it to work in a retirement account.

So when you get that raise, head to your human resources department to immediately boost your contribution rate. No workplace plan? You can set up a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA with low or no minimums at Schwab, eTrade, TD Ameritrade, Scottrade, Betterment and Wealthfront, among others. Set up automatic transfers that move the contribution from your checking account every month or pay period.

Fund (or start) a Roth IRA. The Roth is such a sweet deal that if you can contribute to one, you probably should. You don't get an upfront deduction on what you put in, but the money comes out tax-free in retirement. You can withdraw your contributions at any time without taxes or penalties, but if you're smart you'll leave it alone to grow.

You can make a full $5,500 contribution if your modified adjusted gross income in 2016 is under $117,000 if you're single ($184,000 for married filing jointly).

A general rule of thumb is that if you have a 401(k) or other workplace plan, contribute at least enough there to get the full company match before contributing to a Roth. No match, or no plan? Consider dividing your contributions equally between pre-tax options -- the matchless 401(k) or a traditional IRA -- and a Roth. Having taxable and tax-free accounts will help you better manage your tax bill in retirement.

Adjust your withholding. The usual admonition against over-withholding -- that you're giving a tax-free loan to the government -- doesn't seem to carry much weight with interest rates so low. Who cares about giving up the pennies you could earn in a savings account?

The real cost of an oversize refund is the opportunity cost: what you could have done with that money that would have made a big difference. If you have credit card debt, for example, getting more in every paycheck could help you pay it off sooner so you're not paying double-digit interest rates. Or you could save more for retirement, scoring a 50 percent or 100 percent return in the form of a company match or setting up decades of tax-advantaged compounding.

Kiplinger has a three-step calculator that can help you figure out how to adjust your withholding. If your financial situation has changed recently -- you're making a lot more or less or you bought a home, for example -- you can use the more detailed calculator a tax preparation site, such as TurboTax, or the one offered by the IRS. Take those numbers to your human resources department, fill out a new W-4 and put that bigger paycheck to work.

  • Liz Weston

    Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a personal finance website, and author of "Your Credit Score." Email: lweston@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @lizweston.