Say what you will, we humans are creatures of habit.
In other words, we have a really hard time altering course once we're used to doing things a certain way. Once you're used to going to the movies every week, or having Chinese food every Thursday for lunch, or grabbing a handful of M&Ms from the jar every time you pass by reception, it can be really hard to change course.
And of course, the same goes for financial planning: We don't save, we don't budget, and we don't plan ahead.
It's not that you have a massive lack of willpower: it's just that we keep doing the things we do regularly because they've become automatic. And automation, used correctly, is a good thing. It's what keeps you brushing your teeth every day and turning the car off when you park.
So, instead of trying to force ourselves to be awesome 100% of the time, which requires a level of self-consciousness and willpower that pretty much no one has, the key to overcoming our bad (or nonexistent) financial planning habits is to help make them into an automatic process.
First: Add fun, not stress
Instead of forcing yourself into the unpleasant task of money management (I think we can agree it seems like it'll be unpleasant), set aside a fun habit-breaking time. You'll need 15 minutes and an activity you already like.
Whether it's a leisurely cup of coffee before the kids wake up on Saturday or a long run on the beach after work, pick an activity you enjoy. Then, just once a week, add financial planning time.
Grab your laptop, put your papers in the car, whatever it takes – tie the two activities together so that the usual fun thing accompanies the new, possibly less fun thing.
The key to this is picking a habit that's already well-established and that you enjoy. Once the habit of financial planning is well-established as part of your super-pleasurable habit of drinking expensive coffee or strolling through the mall, it will become a part of that pleasurable experience.
Even better, it will become routine. And when financial planning is routine, magical things happen.
Use your habit for good: Automate
Once you've started financial planning, you're ready for part two: harnessing the immense power of automation.
Think of it as giving your new habit a habit.
Financial planning, after all, isn't just about moving money around. It's about creating strategies to make your financial life easier – in other words, it's about finding ways to manage your money that help you to not have to think about money as much.
Think about it this way: Just like trying to consciously remember to tie your shoes and lock the front door is exhausting, trying to remember every IRA contribution, credit card bill, and budget line item is similarly burdensome. It takes up way too much unnecessary brain power.
So, put a spare 15 minutes to good use: Fill out the forms for your company's 401(k) plan and authorize the deferral. Or go online and set up an auto-debit to your brand new IRA or savings account. Or sign up for an expense tracking tool that will tell you when you've spent more than you earned.
With your new little habit, the sky's the limit: All you need is a consistent 15 minutes a week.
Make it a treat, and make it productive, and you're well on your way to financial success!