Despite the fact that studies repeatedly show that most New Year's resolutions fail, Americans continue to set them. TD Ameritrade recently found that 9 in 10 Americans plan to make at least one resolution for 2012. "Have more fun" and "relax and reduce stress" were the most common goals mentioned, but money goals weren't far behind: Half of respondents said they wanted to reduce spending as well as save for an emergency fund, and 30 percent said they wanted to save more for retirement.
So how can you surmount the odds and achieve your financial goals? One key, according to goal achievement experts, is to break your goals into baby steps. That's because when people choose big, overwhelming goals, they usually fail, says BJ Fogg, director of Stanford's Persuasive Technology Lab. "Big leaps almost never work," he says. Instead, he says, "They need to break it down into baby steps that they can do."
For example, if you want to save more money, Fogg says you should first think about what that means in terms of a behavioral change. Do you need to start bringing your lunch to work? Avoid budget-busting restaurants? Set up an automatic payroll deduction that goes into a savings account? He recently launched a program, tinyhabits.com, to help people make small changes every day, which can then grow into a larger shift.
Goal achievement expert Kerri Salls urges clients to be as specific as possible when describing their goals. "I want to earn more money," for example, is a relatively vague resolution. "Dig deeper to make it more specific," Salls suggests. Do you want to get a second job? Get a raise? Earn a new commission? Describing the method will make it easier to know what you have to do.
Salls also says focusing on motivation—why you want to achieve your goal—can also help. "It's not usually about the money itself. What will the money be used for? Do you want to be able to take more vacations or retire?" she asks.
If you're still brainstorming for your own 2012 money goal ideas, here are five suggestions, all of which can be broken into smaller steps and customized:
1. Boost your credit score—especially if you're planning a big purchase that requires a loan, such as a home or car, in the near future. To do that, FICO, a company that calculates credit scores, suggests that you avoid opening new lines of credit, since that can hurt your credit score, and avoid charging close to the total available credit on your cards. That's because maxing out cards can also have a lasting negative impact on your credit score.
2. Fill out your emergency fund. Three or six months' worth of expenses is no longer enough, especially in a sluggish economy in which a lay-off could turn into an extended unemployment stint, urges Catherine West Olivetti, an attorney based in Hilton Head, S.C., and an expert on recovering from financial distress. She urges people to store up at least 12 months of expenses in their emergency fund. "The reality is that it takes longer to find a job than many people realize," she says.
3. Give yourself a career audit. Career coach Ford Myers urges anyone looking for a job in 2012 to first look closely at what they really want. He suggests writing down a description of your "ideal employer" and perfect job description. He also urges a closer look at your external appearance, attitude, and professional strengths, to see if a few tune-ups could increase the chances of impressing at interviews.
4. Adopt healthier habits. According to eHealthInsurance.com's resident expert Carrie McLean, smokers pay more for health insurance. For women, premiums go up 23 percent on average per month, and men's premiums go up by 13 percent. Meanwhile, obesity also leads to higher rates; people with a body mass index that qualifies them as obese pay an average of 23 percent more each month for their premiums, compared with those with "normal" body mass indexes.