- Make your goals specific and commit to a detailed plan. Using physical reminders like notes around your house, labels on accounts, or calendar reminders can keep you on track.
- Schedule time to make financial decisions.
- Have a plan for avoiding common money pitfalls like loss aversion. You may be able to sidestep it by working with a financial professional.
- Automate as much as you can to make financial housekeeping easier and to stick with your plan.
Going into 2022, Americans feel optimistic about the future and their finances. Six in 10 say they’re hopeful about the future and more than 7 in 10 are confident that their finances will improve next year, according to Fidelity’s 2022 New Year’s Financial Resolutions Study.*
Setting goals and making a plan to reach them can be critical to improving your financial picture. The good news is that you may be able to stack the deck in your favor with some psychological know-how.
Psychologists and behavioral economists have studied people's behavior around money for decades. All that research has turned up some steps you can take to help support your goals.
1. Pre-commit: Make your goal very specific
For instance, let's say your goal is to make 2022 the year you get physically fit. One way to help support that goal is by making a very specific plan and reinforcing it with supporting actions.
Here's what that means: If your goal is to go to the gym every day at 8 a.m., set an alarm to remind yourself to go to bed on time and wake up early, set out clothes and shoes the night before, and have coffee or water ready. There's less opportunity to think too much or bail out once you've smoothed the way for success.
Tax refund pre-commitments fit into this category. "Research shows that when people commit to saving early (before they've gotten the money) they do it. It's more difficult once the money is in hand and there are bills to pay. By pre-committing, it doesn't feel like free money—it's already going to something," says Huma Khan, director of behavioral science at Fidelity.
Fidelity can help you create a free plan based on what matters most to you. Learn how we can help you take action: Set a goal, make a plan, live your life.
2. Earmark money for specific purposes and give yourself a physical reminder of your goal.
A recent study found that putting cash into a sealed envelope and writing the purpose on the envelope made it harder for people to spend the money on something else.
"It's harder to take the money out and use it for something else. There's a mental and emotional hesitancy," says Etinosa Agbonlahor, director of behavioral science at Fidelity.
You can use an envelope, a box, or even a bank or brokerage account. Many banks or financial services firms let you label your accounts and that can help reinforce your decisions as you spend and save.
3. Schedule time for finances
If you're waiting for the perfect time to feel ready to do some financial housekeeping, it may never come.
"If you want something to happen—put a date on it," says Nathan Young, Ph.D., behavioral research scientist at Fidelity. "People are bad at forecasting when they would feel good but making an appointment with yourself can help you pre-commit to doing the work you may have put off."
4. Know your money personality
Are you an adventurer who constantly searches for the next hot stock to buy or are you a creature of habit who likes to stick with what has worked for you in the past? Both have positive aspects but there may be downsides. Knowing your tendencies toward money can help you rein in risky behavior and play to your strengths.
Learn more about yourself: Fidelity's Money Personality Quiz
5. Know your money preferences and learn to work around them
As we navigate the world, making decisions and choosing our paths, our thoughts fall into predictable patterns that can cost us money or lead to bad choices. Our innate preferences are sometimes called biases and they are automatic reactions that we don't always think about carefully—and that can be costly.
For instance, loss aversion and anchoring are mental shortcuts we use to make decisions but they often have little basis in reality. Take anchoring, for instance: You walk into a store planning to buy a coffee pot and the first one you see costs $800. That's a steep price for a plain coffee maker but you find one that costs $200 and that seems like a deal once that $800 figure is in your mind.
The best way to avoid these mental traps is with knowledge and planning before you reach a decision point.
In the case of anchoring, "Have a range of costs you're willing to pay as you're going into the store," says Andy Reed, Ph.D., vice president of behavioral economics at Fidelity. "Think about your preferences before making choices—that way you won't be as influenced by anchors and the set of options."
To learn more about mental shortcuts and how to short-circuit them, read Viewpoints on Fidelity.com: 6 biggest pitfalls for investors
Loss aversion is another potentially expensive bias. The fear of losses can be more motivating than potential gains and avoiding losses at all costs can be, well, costly. For long-term investors, the stakes are high—investing appropriately for your time frame and financial situation can be critical to meeting retirement goals or paying for a child's education.
There are ways to combat this one too. Staying focused on your goals, understanding the history of the stock market, and tuning out anxiety-provoking news can help. Getting professional help with your investments can be reassuring as well.
Whether you're working with a financial consultant or using a professionally managed investment option like a target-date fund or a managed account, outsourcing the decisions to a professional can help you avoid making emotional mistakes.
6. Put saving and investing on autopilot
Automatic saving is the practice of contributing money to your investment accounts on a regular basis through direct deposit from your paycheck or recurring bank transfers. The idea is to establish this routine of saving and investing regularly with no extra effort on your part.
Making it automatic can help keep your savings plan on track no matter what else is going on in your life. Not only can you make saving automatic, you may be able to make investing automatic as well. That can help you avoid tinkering with your investments or trying to time the market as it ebbs and flows.
Not all investments offer automatic investing but hands-off options do tend to—like robo advisors and other managed accounts. Also, at Fidelity, you can set up automatic investments into funds you already own in your brokerage, retirement, 529 savings, or other eligible retail Fidelity accounts.
Building great habits doesn't happen overnight but a little planning can set you up for success in the new year.