I’m not big on resolutions, especially where money is concerned. It’s easy to vow to spend less or save more. But with our culture around New Year’s resolutions, when you slip up — which most of us will do — it’s easy to give up. Then the “wait till 2016” attitude kicks in and another 340 days go by without progress.
This is not to say I don’t believe that January is a great time to reflect, or to take a crack at your financial to-do list. It’s just that money is complex. Irrationality and emotion, inertia and time can thwart the best laid plans. Vague declarations of financial perfection shouted over a glass of bubbly rarely last the month.
In 2014, I wrote about the McGuire family’s money matters — from taxes and charitable giving to credit cards and insurance. You’d think revealing your financial shortcomings and subsequent improvement strategies in a newspaper would keep you on track. If sharing a goal with peers tends to help people stick with challenges involving willpower and discipline, surely declaring it in print for all to see would be a powerful incentive.
You know how in dieting, people say it’s the last 5 pounds that are the hardest to shed?
That’s how I feel about our finances. We have many of the building blocks in place — emergency savings, retirement funds, manageable debt and a newly funded 529 college savings plan (we’re admittedly a bit behind here).
Yet we failed to achieve several of the financial tweaks we ID’d in 2014. Did we get additional life insurance, keep better track of discretionary spending and manage not to go overboard during the holidays? Here’s how we fared.
Mixed bag at holiday time
Frustrated by the annual cycle of overspending at the holidays, I planned to spend less, rely on rewards points for purchases, make charitable donations instead of buying more stuff, and make gifts for teachers. How’d I do?
Paying with points was a success. This was the first year I purchased almost all presents online, and the ability to pay with rewards points from Chase and Discover at Amazon.com turned this idea into action with ease. I used Discover’s shopping platform, recently rebranded “Discover Deals,” to make purchases at retailers such as the Gap and Lands’ End. This earned me additional cash-back bonuses I can use for spending throughout the year.
I also managed to donate more to charity this year than last despite ignoring my plan to give freely throughout the year. I did this by donating money to organizations that matter to relatives. I think it’s a personal and thoughtful gift for people with few needs. The fact that each of these donations also increased the family’s charitable giving tax deduction is icing on the tax bill.
My holiday giving strategy failed in two ways. Convenience trumped going local, as work travel and illness overshadowed my best intentions. I did make teacher gifts this year, but not with the kids. I baked after bedtime because that was when I found the time. So much for getting the kids involved in thanking important adults in their lives.
Living with a B-word
Yes, a budget. In August I wrote about how recent raises increased our pay but didn’t add up to extra money at month’s end. We were spending without scrutiny and were bewildered by the slip in our normally frugal ways. After much research and several recommendations from readers, we forked over $60 to buy software from YNAB — You Need a Budget. While we’re still working on consistently tracking our spending, especially when paying with cash, we’ve managed to reduce the number of mediocre restaurant meals eaten with a side of desperation, and started saving for summer vacation. In January!
Insurance and advice: Victims of inertia
I also wrote about how many families are sorely underinsured as life marches on, ours included. And that despite my money savvy, financial choices seem to get harder as the kids get older and years go by. This prompted me to question my DIY proclivities and explore the growing number of affordable financial adviser options for families who aren’t wealthy but are in solid shape.
Inertia: 1, Protection: 0, Planning: 0. I signed up for a couple of free financial planning services and spoke to a Vanguard adviser, but I wasn’t confident that any of the services were much better than picking index funds and sticking with them. No option I explored seemed able to ease my mind about the trade-offs we’re constantly weighing about how to structure our lives. And I’m not sure I’m ready for the fees of a full-service Certified Financial Planner.
As for life insurance? We still need more. Comparison shopping and cholesterol testing competed with kid activities and, honestly, our Netflix queue. It’s one to add back to the to-do list.
Kara McGuire is a personal finance expert and consumer strategist for CEB. How do you reach your money goals? What could we have done differently? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.