Habits and goals for 2017


Recently I saw an article headline to the effect of, “don’t do resolutions, make new habits.” I didn’t click and read it but I wish I had. My brain has kept coming back to the idea and I’ve been mulling it over ever since.

A resolution is defined as “a firm decision to do or not to do something,” and a habit is “a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.” On the surface they seem similar but a resolution is a decision, a habit is a practice. From what we know about psychology, it’s the building of the habit that would allow someone to keep the resolution. It would seem to me, they go hand-in-hand.

For example, I can resolve to quit smoking but the actions I would take to keep cigarettes out of my hands are habits. Since smoking comes with its own set of habits you need to create new ones and disrupt the old ones in order to let your synapses to make new connections. When I quit smoking many moons ago, I found I had to go without a glass of wine at dinner. Wine was a huge trigger for smoking so I set it aside entirely at the beginning in order to create new rituals, like having a cup of tea after dinner instead. That way I still had a pleasurable ritual, it was just a new one that was less triggering for the bad habit I was trying to break. Of course, many years later now I can drink wine no problem.

When it comes to finances, we all have small habits we can work on breaking. Maybe for you it’s the 3pm hike to the cafeteria for chocolate, or all the money you spend entertaining your kids on the weekends, maybe you eat out too much. For every one of us it will be different but we need to take the same approach to change: make a resolution to change it, and create habits to make it happen.

What happens when a resolution doesn’t become a habit? Failure. It’s fine and good for us to pay off our debt but if we can’t control the bad decisions that got us into debt in the first place, then we will end up right back where we were. Racking up debt and then paying it off is akin to living feast or famine: wouldn’t it be better to just have everything you need all the time? Why go from binging on spending money to not spending a cent when you can spend “enough” all the time? It seems like a lot less wild and uncertain way of living and you aren’t shelling out hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars a year on interest.

As I have mentioned before, even though we are debt free and do have some savings we have an aggressive plan to save money to buy our house and to buy back my pension in 2017. This is an incredibly tight goal for us; it requires us to make a plan – and then stick to it! Of course, we can draw on our experience with debt repayment to create the opposite plan: saving money instead of paying off. So we will start there.

Change your life in five minutes a week! (ha kidding, I’m no motivational speaker)

Make a comprehensive budget: You don’t start a roadtrip without a map and the same goes for any good plan. Your budget doesn’t need to be perfect but it does need to be a plan that can incorporate any roadblocks you encounter on your journey, so it needs to be flexible. My budget includes “spending money” but it isn’t broken up into sub-categories such as “eating out”, “movies”, etc. I don’t know how I will want to spend our entertainment budget say, in July, so leaving a chunk that is our play money is just good enough for my purposes and I can spend it how I want but when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Stay flexible: Keep in mind that a budget should be a guideline, it’s not etched in stone: if you find it’s too hard to stick to, rework it. If you think you could save more, rework it. You should be honest with yourself however: if you are still finding you are falling into the same patterns it’s not the budget that should change, it’s your mentality that needs to. Having said that, when you make your budget you should be realistic in your categories. While I can feed a family of four on $600 a month in our city, had I aimed for $400 I would have set myself up for failure. Setting oneself up for failure usually leads to throwing in the towel altogether, “I’ll just never get it right, why do I even bother?!” You will have to be honest with yourself to admit if whether or not you gave it an honest try, or did you set yourself up so you can say you “tried” when you knew you could never stick with it?

No one else is going to do the hard work for you, in fact no one else cares. The only people you are failing are yourself (and maybe your family).

Measure, measure, measure: Mr. Tucker and I have a chart on the back of our bedroom door that tracks our progress from debt to savings. It’s the last thing I see before I leave my bedroom in the morning and encourages me to think about our goals all day long. So on one hand it’s purely a psychological tool but on the other hand it’s an important chart that shows how we are progressing every month. To see an actual line that goes up every single month encourages us to keep at it, especially when we aren’t feeling it.

I also maintain a spreadsheet that tracks what we spend to ensure that I am staying within the amounts we’ve budgeted in our categories. I only need to really take a quick look on the weekends and update the numbers in my spreadsheet. The entire process only takes about five minutes but then I don’t have to worry about it.

I also like to add our savings progress from month-to-month in other areas (which is purely nerdy on my part). Although we are saving for the house and my pension, we also have education savings for the kids, car savings, retirement savings, and vacation savings. It’s not necessary as the bank generally keeps good records but I find it helps bolster my spirit to see that we have all the bases covered.

Keep your eye on the prize: If there is one thing I want to impart on people it is that the point of budgeting should always be to free yourself from worrying about money. You create it, you control it. It’s not your boss, it’s your servant. Setting up your plan, enacting it, and periodically tweaking it until it works for you is all part of freeing yourself from worry about money all the time. It’s great to have things set up so that you don’t have a financial Sword of Damocles hanging over your head. We’ve all had the experience of worrying if something will bounce. Why live like that when you don’t have to?

The point of budgeting should always be to free yourself from worrying about money.

Deal with the psychology: do you spend a lot of money on your kids because you feel guilty for being so busy during the week? Do you eat out a lot because you are too tired to cook on weekdays? Every choice we make has an underlying psychological trigger and until we recognize them we can’t change them. Maybe your real goal is just to spend more quality time with your kids or eat healthier, quicker meals. When we sit down and actually think about what we are trying to achieve we will realize that there is more than one way to accomplish those goals. The key is to sit down and break these goals into smaller, achievable parts so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by how much work they are.

Right now it is winter where we live so instead of taking the kids to an Edu-tainment centre and blowing $100, maybe going sledding or strapping on some skates for an afternoon at the park rink is a better way to connect. There is also no rule that says you can’t do the same thing every weekend. The skating season is so short that even if you only skated for half of it, you’d never get bored. So make a plan to sharpen those skates or dig out your sled this week and go outside this weekend. Same goal achieved, less money spent.

If eating quicker, healthier food is your goal maybe spend a lunch hour googling recipes that can be made in under 30 minutes is in order. Once you do that, you will also probably realize that if you take an hour and pre-prep some stuff on the weekend you can have a meal on the table in even less time. Also, we need to get out of this foodie culture mentality. Not every meal needs to be a grandiose affair that would impress Julia Child. Even a simple tomato mac’n’cheese with a salad is a simple, easy and healthy meal that almost everyone will eat. Save your fancy cooking for Sunday night dinners. If you are really struggling with eating out, buying pre-prepped food (like Loblaw’s Blue Menu line, or frozen meals from Trader Joes) and just adding vegetables is still a step in the right direction. I love cooking but I don’t want to sweat over a stove at 5:30pm on a Wednesday. Anything I can do to get a decent meal on the table in record time means there is more time to hang out with the family.

Gamify your change: Place bets with your partner or a friend to see who can bring a lunch to work every day in January instead of eating out. Partner with someone who also wants to get more exercise and make a deal to meet every day for a 30-minute walk, the first one who misses buys lunch. If you want to read more books, use the Goodreads community to keep you on track as you compare yourself to friends. There are a myriad of ways you can keep track and for some people making it public or taking advantage of technology is a good way to help them become successful. Even trying to beat your best by marginal increments is better than nothing. Maybe this month you agree not to spend money on alcohol, or maybe soda is your Achilles heel. Choose a goal and go for it. Switch to selzer or cups of tea instead.

One of my favourite ways to gamify my budget is to see how little I can spend out of our discretionary spending. There is no rule that says you have to spend it all, maybe you will discover you need even less than you thought.

Use scaffolding: None of us will wake up tomorrow just being the people we want to be. Using a series of small steps to eventually achieve a larger goal is called scaffolding. The idea is to build on smaller successes to encourage you to tackle increasingly more difficult challenges. The Couch-to-5K system is based on this idea: by using walk/run system where you increase the running portion every week allows you to build the strength and encourages you to continue.

Enlist a cheering squad: seek out other people who are trying to achieve similar goals and ask them to root for you and to make concessions. Tell them you still want to hang out but that you are trying to and that you would appreciate their support. Meet your friends for coffee instead of expensive dinners. Conversely, get rid of anyone who you know will try and sabotage your goals. If you have a friend who insists in only hanging out at bars, maybe spending less time with them when you are trying to reduce your alcohol consumption or rein in your budget is the best move. Spend more time with friends who have similar views on things. Host a board game night for other families in your neighbourhood instead of going out to paid entertainment.

In the end, making resolutions and changing habits is going to be work, so you may as well set yourself up for success, and yes, it means saying no to yourself. I can’t tell you the amount of times people have said something to me like “I am just not good with money,” or “I can’t budget,” but whether or not you enjoy it is irrelevant: money is a reality of life. We would never accept someone saying “I am just no good at working, so I just don’t do it.” You can either take control of it or you can let it control you. That’s a choice you make every day, with every decision. So you will have to decide if you want to live in a world where you hold the reins and you are achieving the goals you set out for yourself or if you are just going to let things go the way they have been. My guess is that if you are reading this you want to enact some kind of change – and I know I do too – so maybe after the dumpster fire of 2016, we can work towards a 2017 of success.

(Now I just need to teach myself how to apply this to a regular exercise habit!)