By now, you’ve probably compiled your list of New Year’s financial resolutions and are raring to tackle them, whether they include finally paying off that credit card or beefing up your long-neglected nest egg.
But let’s face it — how long is your motivation likely to last? Will you still be so gung-ho six weeks down the line? Six months down the line?
One way to help improve the chances you’ll make good on your financial goals is to set — but not forget! — as many of them as you can. Indeed, in Fidelity’s 2016 New Year Financial Resolutions study, 47% of people who most successfully stuck to their money resolutions last year said automation helped them stay the course.
And heck, if you can put your coffeepot and cat feeder into auto mode to make your life a little easier, why not do the same for your finances?
To help you get started, we’ve rounded up four financial tasks you should consider automating in the New Year so you can start building a solid foundation for your money this year.
1. Your Retirement Contributions
What’s that, you say? Your work offers a 401(k) retirement plan — and you haven’t enrolled in it yet?
If that’s the situation, consider signing up tout de suite — the longer you put off saving for retirement, the less time you have to take advantage of compound growth.
Ideally, you’d be able to contribute the maximum percentage of your salary that your employer is willing to match, but even starting with 1% is better than nothing. “Chances are, you won’t miss 1% of your salary,” says Cecilia Beach Brown, CFP®, with Annapolis, Maryland–based C. Beach Brown.
If you don’t have access to a 401(k) or simply don’t want to limit yourself to one retirement account, you can set up automatic contributions to an IRA, says John Piershale, CFP®, with Piershale Financial Group in Crystal Lake, Illinois. “Just be sure not to exceed the annual maximum limit of $5,500, or $6,500 if you’re age 50 or older,” he cautions.
2. Your Big Savings Goals
Besides retirement, you might have other major savings goals on your mind: Perhaps you need to plump your emergency fund back up after your hot water heater broke. Or maybe you're driving a clunker and know you’ll need a new set of wheels by the end of the year.
If that’s the case, once you’ve decided how much you can set aside from your take-home pay for savings, consider diverting a portion of your paycheck directly into a savings account — or set up an automatic monthly transfer from your checking account into savings.
“In my experience, people make much better progress saving when they have X amount of dollars automatically going to a savings account each pay period,” says Piershale. “When it's set up like this, they tend not to think about it and then don't miss [that money] — out of sight, out of mind.”
You should also consider keeping your savings and checking accounts at separate banks to avoid the temptation of an easy transfer back into your checking account to cover an impulse purchase.
“Those who wait until they have one lump sum to contribute to a savings goal often find that time never comes.”
“That way, you don’t see the [savings] balance when you log in to check the balance in your checking account,” Brown says. “If you can’t see the money, you are less likely to think of it as money that you can use to go out to dinner or buy that new sweater.”
And yes, saving $20 here and $50 there really can make a difference in the long run.
“Those who wait until they have one lump sum to contribute [to a savings goal] often find that time never comes,” says Bill Engel, CFP®, senior vice president at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. “It is easier, both practically and psychologically, to part with small sums frequently than to try to amass a large sum and write one big check.”
3. Your Debt Payments
One of the common aftershocks of the holiday season is the damage done by tapping your credit cards too often. Despite your best attempts at keeping your budget intact, all those last-minute stocking stuffers really can add up.
So what better time to reaffirm your commitment to paying down debt than now?
By automating your debt payments, you not only help ensure you’re staying on track with your personal debt plan, you’re also helping to avoid late-payment charges that result from forgetting to pay your bills on time.
If you want to make a little extra progress, you can also consider automating half of your usual payment amount every two weeks for 26 total payments a year, suggests Brown. “This will give you two extra debt payments per year without you really feeling the ‘pain’ of making the extra payment,” she says. “Your debt will go down faster.”
If you decide to go this route, just make sure both payments occur before your payment due date. “You don’t want to pay a late fee because your second payment for the month came in a day after your due day,” Brown adds.
4. Your Personal Flex Spending Amount
Ever long for the day when your finances were simpler — back when your parents gave you an allowance every Friday and you had to only make it last seven days?
You might be earning more than $10 a week now, but you can reclaim some of that simplicity even with more complex finances. “If you tend to spend money if you have it, or you want to make sure that you are saving toward a goal or paying down a large debt, automate your spending by setting up an ‘allowance’ for yourself,” Engel suggests.
One way to do this is to set up two separate checking accounts: One specifically to pay for fixed monthly costs, regular goal contributions, and non-monthly expenses like tax bills or annual insurance premiums; and one to cover flexible expenses, like eating out or the occasional online shopping splurge. You can either split up your paycheck between these two accounts, or set up a monthly or weekly transfer from your fixed to your flex checking account.
By calculating how much your flex spending amount should be per week, you’re also giving yourself an easier way to track your discretionary spending without having to account for every penny. Plus, this system can help make sure you have enough money to cover your important bills while still giving you leeway to enjoy that daily coffee run — which could help make meeting those financial resolutions a lot more enjoyable.
Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards Inc. owns the certification marks CFP®, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, CFP® (with plaque design) and CFP® (with flame design) in the U.S., which it awards to individuals who successfully complete CFP Board's initial and ongoing certification requirements.