Skip the New Year's Resolutions. Do This Instead

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  • Don't waste time making grandiose financial resolutions you won't keep. Instead, create a list of tasks you can complete throughout the new year.
  • The first step is to evaluate your previous year's financial activity; most banks make this easy by offering helpful tools and charts.
  • Figure out what you did well and craft new tasks to help you amplify those good habits. Do the same for the habits that need improvement. Tasks should be actionable to-do items you can reasonably complete within your means.

Even the best of intentions can't withstand the New Year's Resolution curse.

It often seems that the tradition of making a New Year's resolution is just as much about failing to keep the resolution as it is about making it in the first place. Usually it's because we've made these grand, sweeping resolutions that require massive life changes.

When it comes to your finances, for example, it's perfectly reasonable -- and even encouraged -- to set a savings goal for the new year. But you may simply be setting yourself up for failure if that goal is in the form of an over-the-top resolution to save more than is reasonable for your means.

Instead of declaring some grandiose resolution for which you'll need to upend your finances, there's a better way: setting tasks. You don't want to set resolutions, or even major goals. You want a list of actionable tasks that will actually make your financial life better.

Even better, it's easy. To start, all you need to do is spend a little time making use of the tools all of your financial providers offer.

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Pie charts is every flavor

To the data-obsessed folks (like me), one of the best parts of online banking is that it's gotten very easy to see the transaction data for all of your accounts, often going back years. If you're so inclined, you can even download your transaction history so you can create your own spreadsheets and graphs.

You don't need to be an Excel wizard to make use of this data, however. Many banks and lenders provide their own tools to visualize your personal finances.

My credit card issuers, for instance, usually provide a color-coded pie chart that shows the categories in which my purchases fell for the year (or other time periods). This makes it easy to see, at a glance, how much I spent on groceries, dining out, gas, etc.

Your bank also probably provides visual tools for seeing how your money moved. One of my banks offers an "Insights" page with charts showing the money coming into and leaving my checking account. It's not quite as pretty as the credit card pie charts, but it's still very useful.

See what you did well

With your full year of financial decisions in front of you, take a few minutes to look at the things you did well and celebrate any achievements. Did you pay off that one credit card that always seemed to have a balance? Were you able to hit a specific milestone in your savings account?

Many of us have this feeling of dread and stress associated with our finances. But while this may be perfectly justified for some folks, you don't have to let it dominate your every financial experience. Making note of your accomplishments is a good way to let go of some of that stress.

This activity also lets you see which habits are worth keeping.

Maybe you saved a notable amount of money through issuer portals on that new rewards credit card. Now you know to look out for more of these deals on other cards. Did your automatic savings account transfers help you reach a savings goal? Great! Keep it up -- and consider adding additional automated transfers to boost your savings even more.

Create a list of positive tasks

Along with seeing what you did well, of course, you should make note of the areas that could use some improvement. But this should be more than just an hour of shock and self-hate. "I spent how much on pizza?!" is a reasonable reaction -- just don't let it send you into a shame spiral.

Instead, it's about crafting a list of tasks for the new year that can help you quit unwanted habits. Does the data show you paid three late fees last year? Don't mentally berate yourself over it. Make one of your new year's tasks to set up automatic payments on all of your accounts.

Then move on to the next thing.

For some folks, it might help to think of it like you're helping a friend or loved one. (We're often much less likely to attack others than we are ourselves.) If your friend's finances looked like yours, what advice would you offer them for small ways they can make improvements?

Tasks should be actionable steps you can reasonably complete. "Stop buying pizza" isn't really an actionable task -- nor is it a reasonable goal for someone who really likes pizza.

"Keep a running tally of monthly pizza purchases" is a much better task. It's something you can do, it can help you spend less on pizza by letting you know where you stand -- and it is significantly more realistic than a pizza lover going cold turkey on the hot cheese.

Making your finances a priority in the new year is absolutely a great goal. But don't set yourself up for failure by putting impossible obstacles in your path.

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