Resolve to strengthen your financial security

We often joke about failing to make our New Year's resolutions stick, but evidence shows they can help improve our financial health. A recent survey by Fidelity Investments shows that for people who made a financial resolution at the start of 2014, more than half (51 percent) now feel they're better off financially. In contrast, only 38 percent of those who didn't make a financial resolution now feel they're better off.

The Fidelity study also indicates that it's not as difficult as some might imagine to stick to financial resolutions. Of those who made one for 2014, nearly three-quarters (74 percent) realized at least half their goal, and almost one-third (29 percent) achieved their financial goal completely.

These are the three most common financial resolutions identified by the Fidelity survey:

  • Saving more (55 percent of those making a financial resolution)
  • Paying off debt (20 percent)
  • Spending less (17 percent)

One concern the Fidelity study found is that fewer Americans are considering financial resolutions for 2015 (31 percent) compared to 2014 (43 percent). One explanation might be that a large number of people surveyed (41 percent) are feeling better off this year compared to last year. But perhaps they're being complacent?

Another recent study, this one by the Principal Financial Group, shows consistent results. Forty-six percent of workers surveyed late in 2014 consider themselves financially healthy, up from 39 percent in the previous quarter. This study found the top financial resolutions for 2015 are similar to the Fidelity study: paying off debt (28 percent), saving regularly (24 percent) and reducing spending (20 percent). By contrast, 65 percent of workers in the Principal study plan to make a financial resolution for 2015, a much higher figure than that of the Fidelity report.

Want to do all you can to ensure you stick to your resolutions? Researchers from Stanford and the University of California, Santa Barbara, found that the words you use to express your resolutions can influence your success. These researchers recently published a paper on self-affirmations that discusses how expressing your core values can help you achieve your goals. When your resolutions are threatened by the inevitable temptations to go astray, self-affirmations help strengthen your defenses, and they've been found to create effects that can last for months or even years.

Other studies have also shown that self-affirmations can help women lose weight and help economically disadvantaged children improve their academic performance. Since it's likely these goals are harder to achieve than financial resolutions, this research gives us helpful insights into boosting the power of our financial resolutions.

When expressing your New Year's resolutions for 2015, try describing each of your goals as one of your core personal values. Make these goals part of your identity. For example, you might say "Managing my finances responsibly and building a secure future are very important to me." Then saving more, managing your debt, or spending less become specific action steps you might take to support your core values and achieve your goals.

The Fidelity study also summarized some of the methods people use to help them stick to their resolutions. Surprisingly, the most effective motivator may simply be willpower. Here are the top five:

  • Self motivation or feeling encouraged by progress you've made (64 percent)
  • Seeing or calculating the bottom-line benefit to you (54 percent)
  • Expressing smaller, more attainable goals (49 percent)
  • Having a reward if you reach your goal (48 percent)
  • Using automatic saving programs (39 percent)

Other strategies to boost your motivation include seeing a picture of what you might look like in your 60s, 70s or 80s, and setting up reminders and constant triggers.

No matter what stage you're at, virtually everyone can benefit from resolving to improve their financial situation. Try taking your resolve one step closer to success by tapping into the power of behavioral science to help you achieve your goals.

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    Steve Vernon helped large employers design and manage their retirement programs for more than 35 years as a consulting actuary. Now he's a research scholar for the Stanford Center on Longevity, where he helps collect, direct and disseminate research that will improve the financial security of seniors. He's also president of Rest-of-Life Communications, delivers retirement planning workshops and authored Money for Life: Turn Your IRA and 401(k) Into a Lifetime Retirement Paycheck and Recession-Proof Your Retirement Years.