Who Are You Kidding? New Year’s Money Resolutions You Just Won’t Keep

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It’s the time of year to make resolutions, or at least it’s the time for journalists to write stories about making resolutions. This year especially, these resolutions involve better money management. But come on: If you didn’t figure out how to take care of your money this year—a year when everybody was scrimping and saving—you may be hopeless. Why should a little change in the calendar make a difference in your resolve?

When it comes to money, there are many worthwhile resolution-type goals you can set for yourself: A WalletPop post lists ten, including keeping a spending journal and aggressively seeking tax advantages to deduct as much as possible. The NY Times’ Bucks blog is doing a series of resolution posts this week, with different writers discussing their personal resolutions such as doing an overall better job at money management (pay off credit card debt, increase student loan payback, that sort of thing) or the simpler goal of canceling unused subscriptions and services. Kiplinger’s Personal Finance offers “4 Ways to Trim Your Spending,” with tips on technology that’ll help you track your spending, and little ways to cut back that don’t feel like cutting back (have two cell phones? Get rid of one). The WSJ offers a full calendar’s worth of resolutions for 2010, with Thanksgiving, for instance, being the season to make sure to use your gift cards.

All of these tips and goals have the potential to help you save money, or to use it wisely. But we all know that when it comes to personal finances, there are things we obviously should (pay off credit card bill) and shouldn’t do (eat out seven nights a week). It’s also important to know what kind of person you are, and what you’re really capable of.

The past 15 months or so has been a time of reckoning, when everybody felt the recession’s impact in some way, and when many Americans came to realize that their lifestyles could not be sustained—especially if you were one of the millions to lose a job. Chances are, you made some changes during this time period, and if the rising national savings rate is any indication, these changes helped you save more than you used to.

Now is the time to look back on whatever changes you made and evaluate whether you can make some part of the so-called “new frugality” a permanent part of your lifestyle. Make it a habit (not all habits are bad), and don’t turn back. Most people I know say that when they’ve tried to scale back—by cooking more at home, say, or buying store brands rather than big-name national brand foods, or even foregoing cable TV—they don’t really miss their old “lifestyle” nearly as much as they’d anticipated.

Most New Year resolutions are broken about before the morning-after hangovers subside. The truly dramatic life-changing resolutions are the hardest ones to keep. So do yourself a favor and don’t go over-the-top with an entirely revamped financial outlook. Instead, focus on taking whatever you learned from this past year and making good habits a part of who you are. The only result of unrealistic goals is that you’ll probably be depressed that you couldn’t keep them.

If you want to step up your savings efforts, test things out before committing yourself to what’ll ultimately be a failed experiment. You may discover that giving up Starbucks cold turkey leaves you depressed. Try making your coffee just twice a week at home: It adds up. Or move on to different savings territory and downshift into a cheaper plan for your cell phone bill, or shopping in consignment stores. Nearly everywhere you go and everything you do comes with the potential of spending money—and therefore there are also just as many opportunities to figure out ways to save.

Once you’ve tried a few things out, you’ll know which of the changes you can live with and make permanent without too much hassle. The best, easiest changes not only save you money, they make life simpler. Anytime you can eliminate one of your monthly bills (like by canceling unused subscriptions), there’s a double bonus: More money, less clutter.

And yes, I admit it: This story was about resolutions after all. You know those journalists. Hopefully, it was about resolutions that you actually have a prayer of keeping.

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