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3 Research-Backed Ways to Actually Hit Your Money Goals

Kali Hawlk

We all have ideas about what we’d like to accomplish with our money—whether it’s to pay off debt, fund an emergency account or save up enough to start a new business. You probably even made a New Year’s resolution to make serious headway on that goal. How’s that working out for you?

Data shows more than 40 percent of us abandon our resolutions after just one month, which begs the question: What are we doing wrong when we set financial goals, and how can we create ones that are actually achievable?

Fortunately, it’s not quite as hard as it seems. Here are three simple—and research-backed—ways to finish what you start.

Set goals you actually care about.

Think of it this way: You probably wouldn’t be very successful at marathon training if you only did it to beat your friend’s time—not because you actually enjoy running. Similarly, if you’re trying to save for a down payment just because your brother bought a house, you’re not likely to cross that finish line either.

“According to self-determination theory, it’s vital that goals you create for yourself come from within, not from what others are doing, thinking or saying,” explains Derek Lawson, a Certified Financial Planner in Kansas. “People who develop intrinsically motivated goals are likely to follow through with them.”

Write it down—then buddy up.

Up your chances of success by writing down your goal and finding an accountability partner.

In a Dominican University study focusing on successful strategies for achieving goals, just 43 percent of people who simply thought about their goals had made significant progress six months later. That number jumped to 62 percent for those who wrote down their goals and shared them—and to 76 percent for those who went as far as sending weekly reports to that friend.

Just make sure whatever you jot down is specific, says Certified Financial Planner Inga Chira, an assistant professor of finance at California State University. “‘I want to be better off financially’ is not good enough. Writing ‘I want to pay off $5,000 of credit card debt and save $3,000 for emergencies’ is much better.”

Lawson recommends using social media to stay on track—particularly if you can find friends or groups of people with similar aspirations.

Focus on one big goal at a time.

Once you’ve gained some momentum, it may be tempting to add a few new goals to your list. Might as well capitalize on your newfound motivation, right? But that could steer you into “goal competition” territory, Lawson warns. That’s when too many goals compete for your limited time, attention, energy and willpower—thus making it tougher to accomplish even one goal.

So double-down on your most-important goal, breaking it up into mini milestones—for example, first aiming to save $500 in your emergency fund, then $1,000 and so on—which researchers say keeps you engaged and motivated along the way. Once you’re done, apply that same energy to the next-highest priority goal, and repeat.

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