Be Resolute with Your Resolutions

Jean Chatzky
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Posted: Jan 06, 2012 12:01 AM

If you're like most Americans, you're full steam ahead this week, ready to tackle your New Year's resolutions. And -- again -- if you're like most, the resolutions topping your list relate to your finances and your health.

-- Blab about it.

If you shout your goals from the rooftop, telling all of your friends and family that you're going to lose 40 pounds this year or pay off your $5,000 in credit card debt, you're much more likely to do it. Why? Because you don't want to have to admit failure. Having to go to the gym or skip the cheesecake or transfer that $50 a month into savings is painful when you'd rather be sleeping in or going shopping. The idea is to make it even more painful to not follow through with your goals. And having to tell everyone you've failed next December will be pretty painful.

-- Succumb to peer pressure.

I know -- all your life, you've heard you shouldn't. But this is a case where peer pressure can actually work in your favor. Stephan Meier, a professor at Columbia University, recently published a paper on a large study he and two colleagues conducted in Chile. They found that peers are an incredibly important motivator.

"It is even enough if the peers just send each other motivating text messages congratulating when the individual meets his or her goal and encouraging -- but slightly disappointed -- if the individual didn't stick to the goal," Meier says. "With such weekly follow-up messages for savings, we were able to almost double savings for people in Chile."

This goes hand in hand with the first point, but I'd take it a step further by finding a buddy who will work out with you or have a movie night at home when your other friends are out for a pricey dinner.

-- Make it automatic.

This is easy for your savings: You simply set up your checking account so a portion of your paycheck is transferred into savings each pay period. It's out of hand, out of mind, and out of your favorite store's cash register.

It's slightly harder for health goals, but not impossible: Forming a habit and making it automatic is simply a matter of repetition. If you get up and go to the gym every morning before work, before long you'll be dressed and out the door before you have a chance to change your mind. The same goes for cleaning up your eats: I know you've heard that if you start to eliminate fatty or sugar laden foods, you stop craving them. I'm here to tell you that it's true.

-- Consider the consequences.

For both of these goals, not clearing the bar has a big impact: It could mean carrying debt into 2013. It could mean working well past the age you'd prefer to retire. It could mean medical issues and higher health care costs. (I saw a stat from eHealthinsurance.com late last year that said health insurance policyholders in the "obese" body mass index category pay 22.6 percent more in monthly premiums on average than those in the "normal" BMI category.)

Part of what keeps us from meeting our goals is that we're not forward-looking -- we prefer to live in the here and now, and we almost think of our future selves as completely different people, says Meier.

"But if you sit down and realize you may be biased toward now, you can be aware of it," he says. "Then you can write down all the things that are going to happen in the future, and force yourself to think of the long-term consequences."

-- Don't be too hard on yourself.

Studies have shown that we may not be able to tackle two big goals at one time. We simply may not have enough willpower to go around. If you find that's the case, then focus on one area -- health or wealth -- at a time. Once you fall into a pattern there, and you've made your changes second nature, move on to your next goal. And in both cases, it will help to break down your resolutions into smaller, manageable pieces. So instead of aiming to lose 40 pounds this year, you aim to lose a half-pound to one pound per week. Instead of paying off $5,000 in credit card debt, you aim to pay off around $400 in debt a month. Meeting these smaller benchmarks will give you the momentum you need to reach your larger goals by year end.

With Arielle O'Shea

(Jean Chatzky is financial editor of NBC's "Today" show, a contributing editor at More magazine and the author of "Money 911." She recently launched the JeanChatzky Score Builder in partnership with smartcredit.com. Check out her blog at jeanchatzky.com and follow her on Twitter @jeanchatzky.)