Resolution #1: Save More
If your resolution for 2013 was to become a runner, you wouldn't start by lacing up your Sauconys for a marathon. You'd begin by walking or taking a slow, steady jog. "Start with something you can succeed at," suggests Florida State University psychology professor Roy Baumeister, coauthor of Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. "If you succeed at the first, it helps you do better at the second." So even if your goal is to stash away 10 to 15 percent of your pay, sequester 2 percent first. Live within those means for a couple of months, then nudge yourself up to 4 percent and so on. As you save, check your accounts periodically online to revel in the climbing balances. You'll be spurred to keep going.
Resolution #2: Spend Less
You can say "I'm going to cut my spending," but it's too easy to rationalize expenses. For a dose of reality, link your accounts to an online budgeting site such as Mint.com and let it show you — in glorious pie chart form — exactly where your money is going every month. Mark Muraven, associate professor of psychology at the University of Albany, also recommends "precommitment": creating barriers that reduce temptation. Examples: Take all but one of your credit cards out of your wallet, or unsubscribe from alluring email shopping blasts. And tone down what experts call "transformation expectations," the notion that buying a costly tablet computer or pricey luggage will change your life. People who ponder the impact of purchases spend about 20 percent less than those who don't, because they realize they don't need the fanciest item, says Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. Howell is also cofounder of beyondthepurchase.org, a free website that can help you analyze — and reform — your shopping behavior.
Resolution #3: Shed Debt
To bring down your credit card balances, write down the benefits of reducing your debt. No more gnawing feeling that you're throwing money away, perhaps. More money flowing to other financial objectives. Then consult the list when you have doubts. "People who feel they have to do something tend to get more fatigued and quit sooner than when they are doing something that they feel is important," says Baumeister. "It takes a lot less strength than if you have been nagged into it." Also, consider applying social pressure — to yourself. Weight Watchers works partly because you get emotional support from others in the slim-down struggle. Do you have a group of friends you go to dinner with? Inform them of your goal to use your credit card less. Some may want to join you. If you don't feel comfortable starting the conversation, the website stickk.com can help you set goals and court your friends.
You get the idea, then — it's as much about state of mind as dollars and cents. Keep that in mind as 2013 arrives.