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Q: I never keep my New Year's resolutions. But this year, I set a goal to save more money. How can I finally stick with it?
A: When we set money goals, our motivations are pure. A new year has just begun, we recently got engaged or we're trying to stockpile a down payment.
But we give ourselves too much credit.
"The No. 1 reason that people end up not meeting their goals is they try to do too much too soon," says Laura Morganelli, a financial adviser at Abacus Wealth Partners in Philadelphia.
Drastically cutting your spending and saving a big portion of your income might sound seductive in a dramatic, start-a-blog-about-it way. But saving a lot so suddenly is hard. You'll get discouraged. You'll fail, and you'll feel like a disappointment. A disappointment who still doesn't have any savings.
So dial it back a bit. Give yourself a break. Making realistic goals to save money doesn't mean you're lazy, just pragmatic; set yourself up for small wins, and they'll add up to bigger ones.
MAKE YOUR GOAL BITE-SIZED
Maybe you've heard your boss talk about S.M.A.R.T. goals. They're specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. A broad goal to save more money doesn't qualify. But saving $500 for emergencies by the end of June — that's more like it.
Why? Because hitting small milestones will encourage you to keep going. You won't lose heart if you have to skip a month of savings to pay a surprise parking ticket, because it doesn't take much effort to pick back up. Instead of completely reworking your monthly spending, you can make small changes. And once you hit small milestones, you're free to exceed them — or set new, loftier goals in the future.
Most people can spare $21 a week to hit that $500 savings goal in six months, for example. Perhaps you can cut back on takeout or cancel a gym membership in favor of online exercise videos. Schedule automatic transfers to your savings account so you won't forget.
This goal is realistic, and it's also the first step toward financial security. Setting aside $500 for unexpected costs, like a new tire or a dog's vet bill, means you can pay for them in cash, rather than letting them sit neglected on a credit card.
MAKE IT SOCIAL
The best of intentions can be derailed by unforeseen expenses.
Keep yourself accountable by sharing your plans with a supportive friend or family member, ideally someone with a goal you can cheer on, too. If it's uncomfortable to explain the specifics of your financial situation, leave out the details. You can share percentages — "I'm aiming to save another 1 percent of income for retirement this year" — or simply that you're saving more per month.
Brittney Castro, a certified financial planner and CEO of Financially Wise Women in Los Angeles, says she meets with her clients every three months. She recommends checking in with your chosen financial buddy on the same timeline. Tell each other whether you've kept to your plans, what prevented you from doing so if not, and how you'll get back on track.
MAKE IT FLEXIBLE
Don't lose hope if you fall behind. Fearing that you'll fail, in fact, can actually be a good sign, Morganelli says; it means you're paying attention, and that you want to succeed.
Take a realistic look at your expenses and adjust your savings goal if necessary. Maybe you didn't account for regular bus trips to visit family when you decided to save $100 a month. Try for $75 a month instead. Or consider ways to make extra money that you'll send directly to savings, Castro says.
There's a place for big, strategic thinking in your life. That's what encourages people to go back to school to pursue a dream career or to sell their possessions and travel the U.S. in a retro van. But when saving money, keep the focus small — squarely on where you are right now — so you'll make consistent, gratifying progress.
NerdWallet: How to save money https://nerd.me/how-to-save-money