5 financial resolutions that never work—and what to do instead

Set yourself up for success by avoiding these financial resolutions.

Whether you decided to put yourself on the path to better financial health this year or just want a better handle on your budget, it’s important to set yourself up so the money-saving goals you make come to fruition. Setting a few financial resolutions can be a positive thing, but they can also lead to a dead end if you’re too hard on yourself, unorganized or trying to accomplish everything solo.

Illustration of a giant dollar sign inside a metal cage.

Here are five financial resolutions that can be tough to stick to (and there’s no shame in that), and what you can do instead:

1. Cutting out all discretionary spending

Just like cutting out all sweets when dieting can backfire, so too can putting a freeze on all discretionary spending. Eliminating discretionary expenses can even trigger a spending spree, causing you to rebel against your own (pretty strict) rules. No matter how bad you’re trying to stick to your money-saving resolution, avoid making the decision to cut out all extras. “Regardless of how hard we all try, most people cannot completely cut themselves off from all indulgences,” says Justin Cupler, Assistant Editor and Brand Ambassador at a personal finance website.

Try this instead

When working on your financial resolutions, prioritize your budget and set aside a ‘splurge’ fund so you have some freedom to spend—within reason—on items that aren’t necessities. These can be like a treat or ‘cheat meal’ in your otherwise-strict diet so you don’t feel deprived and vulnerable to a spending spree.

After you’ve covered all of your basic living expenses for the month, take care of the not-so-important bills such as gym or club memberships and subscriptions. After that, you should have about 25 to 40 percent of your take-home pay left over, Cupler says. Put a small portion of that in your splurge fund for an upcoming shopping trip, vacation or something else you consider fun or rewarding. You can even make your splurge fund its own savings account for ease and convenience.

2. Setting unrealistic or vague goals

Saving just to save might sound good in theory, but without specific money-saving goals and the ability to track your progress, you can easily lose momentum. “When you arbitrarily start saving, you don’t budget your savings and eventually find yourself struggling to save anything,” Cupler says. “If you create a goal, you can budget around that and make sure you are always tucking at least that amount back,” he adds.

Try this instead

Figure out how much you can realistically save from month to month, no matter what other expenses might crop up. “Save a certain amount of money each month before spending on any discretionary expenses,” says Jimmy Lee, CEO of a wealth management services company in Las Vegas, Nevada. If you don’t have a figure in mind, you’ll be tempted to save only what is left over, which may not be sufficient if you aren’t conscientious about your spending all month long.

To make hitting your money-saving resolution even easier, you can also:

  • Mark your calendar with specific goals to reach by certain dates to help monitor your progress.
  • Be specific about what you are saving for—such as a beach vacation for spring break, a new car or new clothes for work—to help you stay motivated and keep your eyes on the prize.
  • Pay attention to all bill due dates and minimum payment requirements so you don’t hurt your credit score while working on your money-saving goals.

A man and a woman review their financial resolutions.

3. Going it alone

If you’ve decided to navigate the financial waters alone, you may end up sinking sooner than later due to lack of accountability. While you can set personal spending goals and put together a budget for yourself, it will be easier to reach your money-saving resolutions when you have somebody you can regularly check in with or even turn to for guidance.

Try this instead

Consider working with an accredited financial professional for hands-on help, such as a CFP® or a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). “These professionals can provide a wide range of personal finance guidance, such as how to create budgets, reduce your reliance on credit, pay off debts and build savings,” says Heather Battison, Vice President of Consumer Communications for a credit reporting agency.

You can also team up with a friend you trust who is trying to improve his or her finances so you can share your goals and keep each other accountable with your financial resolutions. If you’re in a position to invest, consider working with a reputable investment firm or financial advisor for guidance on how to maintain a healthy portfolio and invest at a risk that you’re comfortable with. You can also:

  • Use personal finance apps to keep track of your spending and find ways to cut expenses.
  • Read books or tune in to podcasts about money management and budgeting.
  • Attend budgeting and financial management workshops or classes in your area to get expert advice and guidance.

Too often, people decide to max out contributions but live paycheck to paycheck and begin to accrue debt with high-interest costs. It’s great to add money to your 401(k), but if your car breaks down or the roof starts to leak, you won’t want to make early withdrawals and assume the tax consequences.

Zach Conway, advisor at a financial planning firm

4. Maxing out your budget with retirement contributions

Conventional wisdom tells us we need to start saving for retirement early and max out our contributions every year; however, many people fail to address some other critical aspects of their finances, says Zach Conway, an advisor at a financial planning firm. “Too often, people decide to max out contributions but live paycheck to paycheck and begin to accrue debt with high-interest costs
Opens in a new window.
. It’s great to add money to your 401(k), but if your car breaks down or the roof starts to leak, you won’t want to make early withdrawals and assume the tax consequences,” Conway says.

Try this instead

Conway recommends first prioritizing contributions to an emergency fund and cutting monthly expenses. Next, it’s time to calculate how much you can afford to contribute to retirement. It’s also a good idea to make sure those assets are invested in a way that’s aligned with your age, goals and risk tolerance.

A man and a woman review their financial resolutions together, sharing a tablet computer.

5. Neglecting your credit score

While you’re busy building up those reserves to reach your money-saving goals, don’t overlook your credit score. You need to build and maintain a healthy credit score so you can qualify for lower interest rates on home and auto loans, Battison says. If you’re not paying your bills on time or are increasing your debt in order to build up your savings, you may consider reprioritizing in order to strike a balance.

Try this instead

While you are working toward your money-saving resolutions, consider ordering your free credit report online so you know where you stand. While you’re at it, make sure to check your report for any inaccuracies or discrepancies. Taking steps to boost your credit score could help you secure more attractive credit card offers and lower interest rates in the event you need to borrow money.

Bring on the financial resolutions

From cutting out one too many expenses to tackling your money-saving resolutions solo, there are several traps you want to avoid when you’re trying to get a better handle on your finances. Make your money goals smart ones that stick so you’ll be in a better position to achieve your financial resolutions this year.

Articles may contain information from third parties. The inclusion of such information does not imply an affiliation with the bank or bank sponsorship, endorsement, or verification regarding the third party or information.