New Year’s resolutions have become so cliché that the process of making them has become a joke. People settle for mundane goals for the year like “losing weight,” “quitting smoking,” and “getting out of debt.” These are great goals, of course, but most who think about these only when the calendar changes soon forget their plans, continue their lives as before, and lament their failure when they reflect as next year approaches.
Part of the problem is that these goals are not specific enough for anyone to take seriously. Gurus and bloggers write all the time that goals need to be “SMART” — specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based — as if it’s a new concept. This is a helpful way to look at your resolutions if you want to approach your life as a project manager. A better approach is to realize that time moves very fast, and with busy lives it’s better to make modest goals and focus on each small step that moves you in the right direction.
The most popular New Year’s resolutions are tiresome. It’s no wonder people don’t keep them. Few people can be passionate about losing weight or getting out of debt, and even if they are, it will take a lot of work to change the behaviors (or medical conditions) that caused the circumstances needing improvement. These can be multi-year goals, and if your entire success relies on completion within 365 days (366 in a leap year) you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Here are some different ways at looking at financial resolutions that are not only achievable within the year but are more interesting than what you may typically resolve to do. While there are twelve listed here, consider you’re more likely suited for success if you focus on one. The year will be over before you know it, but your resolutions should always be aligned with long-term goals for yourself.
1. Spend money on things that are important.
Your spending habits reveal what is important to you. If you spend more money buying video games than you spend going out with your girlfriend or wife, you have decided on some level that you favor your time with a computer game more than your significant other. The higher value each dollar has to you, with the importance of one dollar related to your level of disposable income, the bigger the importance of whatever you choose to spend that dollar on.
Look where your money goes. You may need to track your spending if you’re not sure. You’ve defined what’s important to you by your expenses. Your shelter (rent or mortgage) and food are obviously important and form the basis of your expenses, but beyond that, you can rate how important any activity is to you by comparing your level of spending. If you don’t like what you see, resolve to spend your extra money — after you cover necessary expenses and saving — on the things you want to be important to you.
2. Create something every month.
The culture in this country is one of consumption. We consume food, media, and resources. In order to consume, we spend money. This year, change your role in society. Become a creator rather than just a consumer. You can create something that other people consume or something that you consume yourself.
- Cook more often than preparing pre-created meals and dining out.
- Create your own adventures instead of watching movies and television.
- Write in a journal rather than reading a best-selling novel.
- Engage your mind creatively, taking photographs, making art, or performing music.
3. Learn a new skill.
This could be the year you focus on trying new things. The best new skills to learn would be those that are related to your interests and passions. Here are a few examples, but think about the things that make you happy and decide on a skill that enhances your attitude.
- If you’ve had a favorite vacation destination in mind in a foreign country, start learning the language and culture.
- If you like running but haven’t taken this type of exercise seriously yet, train yourself for a 5K race.
- Learn how to play the piano.
Many new skills can take more than a year to learn, but the idea is not to consider your year a failure if you don’t complete your mission. Keep taking small steps that move your life in the right direction, and whether you complete your goal within one year is less important.
4. Earn money from your hobby.
Turning your hobby into a business is a tricky subject. Consumerism Commentary started as a hobby, but after a while, it became apparent that writing could also be a business that generated income. In some cases, though, turning a hobby into a business can turn an enjoyable activity into a chore. This has to be a personal decision. If you like collecting coins, do you want to be a coin dealer? If you’re particularly skilled at photography, do you want to market yourself and compete with professional photographers? Perhaps you can keep your marketing to a minimum and work just for your friends and friends of friends.
Not everyone wants to start a business, but keeping your activities small can keep the business aspect of your hobby to a minimum. Strike the right balance between hobby and business so you still gain a maximum amount of enjoyment from the activities you enjoy.
5. Start a blog to track your finances.
I have first-hand experience about how helpful it has been to publicly track my own finances. This is a great way to maintain focus on any goal. By making your progress public, you are holding yourself accountable for your success. And if your goals are interesting to others, even strangers, they can join you in your quest and offer support — and more often, criticism — when you need it.
Rather than using a blog to track your success, allow the blog to be your success. Start a website using WordPress or Tumblr and write anonymously about the financial issues in your life. You don’t need to be a great writer, but if you continue, your writing will improve. Don’t be concerned about building an audience or earning money. Writing for its own sake helps clarify financial issues, particularly when you read what you’ve written over a period of time.
Tracking your finances in software like Mint.com or Quicken isn’t always enough. When you look at your finances with the intent of writing about them, your brain performs at least a minimum amount of analysis, and this is a step further than most people take with their finances.
6. Support local businesses.
Emily Guy Birken wrote recently about the 3/50 Project, an initiative that encourages consumers to spend $50 among three local businesses each month. Keeping your money local helps improve the economy in the community where you live, and it helps you build relationships with your neighbors near you and across your town.
Following an initiative can provide extra motivation for achieving a goal, but you can do this without an initiative as well. Supporting local businesses is a possible resolution that most people don’t consider. Usually, people resolve to save money, and that could mean shopping online or visiting big-box or warehouse stores. Spending money in these locations does not help a community thrive — at least, not directly.
The same is true about local community banks and credit unions. By moving your money away from big banks, you are taking a financial action that is more beneficial in the area where you live. This is a simple, achievable resolution for the new year.
7. Sell or give away your stuff.
This could be the year you focus on decluttering your life. When I moved into my current apartment a few years ago, I seemed to have so much space available. I fell into the typical habit of expanding the way I live to fit into my new environment. If you look around your living space, you can probably find a number of things you don’t need. Here are just a few suggestions of where to start:
- Look through your closet and give away the clothes you no longer wear.
- Sell your old games, electronics, movies, and books on eBay or Amazon.com.
- Organize your papers and shred old documents you no longer need to keep.
This sounds like a good weekend project rather than a New Year’s resolution, so to make this worthwhile, consider running through this process on the first Sunday of each month. Each time, you’ll find more to eliminate. If unchecked, “stuff” can take over your life. If you have so much it’s burdensome, your possessions can own you rather than the other way around. Reduce and eliminate your dependency on things that take up space.
8. Spend more time with activities that make you happy.
I mentioned above that you can determine what’s most important to you by following the money. The same thing is true about time. If you were to analyze every waking minute of my day, you’d see that I spend most of my time working on my business and most of the rest of that time with my girlfriend. Or that’s what I’d like to believe. I, for one, spend a good portion of time entertaining myself with movies and television. Productivity nerds would fairly criticize me, but I do find value in resting my brain by allowing a local grumpy doctor solve medical mysteries so I don’t need to or by watching a clever con game unfold.
But buy spending my time this way, I’ve traded my enjoyment in creativity, like photography and music, for sitting in front of a television. Decide what’s important to you and schedule time to dedicate to those activities. I’m not a fan of keeping a schedule, but when you can schedule activities you enjoy rather than scheduling corporate meetings, you will end the year happier and more fulfilled.
And the reason we make resolutions at all is because we are unhappy with something in our lives. If we can spend more time on enjoyable activities, we won’t be nearly as unhappy.
9. Volunteer with an organization that matches your values.
Until the government decides to offer a tax deduction for volunteer work, this potential resolution won’t have a direct effect on your finances, but it could inspire you in ways that do affect your money. The first step is creating a mission statement for your life. In fact, defining your mission can be a complete resolution itself for the year, as defining a meaningful mission requires thoughtful self-reflection that goes beyond the confines of a lunch break at work.
Once you have an accounting of your values and life goals, it’s easier to determine what organizations share your view of the world. Spending time with these organizations and the people who share your philosophies can be rewarding. Often, the reward is through personal satisfaction and pride but there can be a financial aspect, as well. You may decide that you want to use your wealth to improve life for a community, or you may decide that you would like to motivate yourself harder to build your own wealth to help you complete your life’s mission.
10. Be happy with what you have.
The drive to want more for ourselves creates motivation to move forward, to earn more money, and to improve our financial habits. When there’s a mission behind this drive, a purpose in life, it makes that motivation more meaningful. Your should also stop wanting for a moment to consider that if you are reading this article, you were most likely lucky to be born in a situation or community where wealth-building, education, and even sanitation are possible. The “pursuit of happiness,” along with life and liberty, concerned the founders of the United States, but happiness is easily within reach.
Resolve to consider all the positive things in your life: your family, your wealth (no matter how bad your financial situation is, it could be worse), your friends. Consider the opportunities you’ve been given that helped you achieve what you have so far as well as the work you’ve put into shaping your life.
11. Don’t settle for low-quality relationships.
Unfortunately, there are often people in your life who bring you down. You don’t want to surround yourself with yes men, but if you look at your extended circle of friends, chances are you have a few with whom spending time makes you feel good and a few who often dampen your mood. While you don’t want to eliminate relationships with people from whom you can receive kind criticism, it is beneficial to reduce time with people who consistently have a negative attitude.
I’ve discovered this over a long period of time. I’ve always held onto friendships, regardless of the quality, because I believed that every close connection was as important as another. Perhaps I grew up, or perhaps I just had less time to spend with people. Perhaps there have been a few events where I had placed faith in a friend and had been disappointed, and another friend advised me I shouldn’t have such “high” expectations for my relationships. There are enough great people in the world not to have to settle for mediocre people in your life. If you feel you are consistently lowering your expectations, it may be time to spend time with others — as long as you are doing as much as possible to be a good person, yourself, in your inter-personal relationships.
This is the age of Facebook. People brag about how many “friends” they have, and it’s more of a thrill of collection than an enjoyment of real connections. Resolve to enhance the quality of your relationships rather than quantity. Although this goes against most “networking” advice for professionals who want to advance their career, it’s an approach for people who want to advance their life.
12. Let go of your grudges.
Just like it will benefit you to reduce your exposure to people with negative attitudes, consider expelling the negative feelings you’re harboring towards others. I don’t believe that positivity in itself brings about wealth — you can’t increase your bank account by just thinking about how nice it would be to have a bigger bank account, regardless of what New Age aficionados tell you — but letting go of thoughts that prevent you from accepting opportunities and greeting the world optimistically will help put you in a better position to take advantage of good things that come your way.
The above resolutions are not specific. You can use them — or better, just one or two — to guide your thoughts and attitude for the coming year, or you can use them to create a basis for measurable targets that come December 31 you can say you reached. Some tie directly into your finances, and others are related laterally. All of them can help you go beyond the typical neglected resolutions like “losing weight” and “saving money.”
Do something worthwhile and meaningful with your self in 2012.