Your Money: Ditch the Resolution – Do a year-end review instead

U.S. one hundred dollar notes are seen in this picture illustration taken in Seoul
FILE PHOTO: U.S. one hundred dollar notes are seen in this picture illustration taken in Seoul February 7, 2011. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

January 2, 2020

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK(Reuters) – It is hardly a secret that people rarely stick to New Year’s resolutions – only about 8% of people actually make it to the finish line with their goals, according to studies from the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania.

So here is a better idea for your financial life: Before you look forward, look backward.

A year-end spending review is a far superior way to revamp your financial life. Instead of gauzy, improbable thinking about what you might do, you face the cold, hard truth about what you actually did.

“We can only manage what we measure,” said Sarah Newcomb, director of behavioral science at fund research firm Morningstar. “If you’re not even measuring your own spending, then basically you’re just flying blind.”

This is especially true for the holiday season, when money seems to exit our wallets at hyperspeed. Average holiday spending on gifts and travel was slated to exceed $1,000 apiece for 2019, according to the National Retail Federation. In fact, among those who took out holiday debt in 2018, 35% of us were still trying to pay it off this past fall, according to personal finance site NerdWallet.com.

“Use a big event like the end of the year as a catalyst to do something you should be doing on a regular basis,” said Dan Egan, director of behavioral finance and investing at Betterment.com.

If you have not been tracking your dollars, it can seem a daunting task. A few ideas on how to figure out where all that money went in 2019 – and how to do better in 2020:

* Open that annual credit-card statement

In the New Year, credit-card companies send out roundups of everything you have purchased in 2019. Typically, you might just ignore it. Don’t.

For one thing, the documents are useful for tax planning, since purchases are often divided into spending categories that can help identify deductions. They are also excellent for shock value, to force yourself to see how your cash was deployed.

If an entire year of spending is too overwhelming to digest, break that survey period into something smaller, like two months, advised Egan.

You can also focus on specific pain points, like pulling up your Amazon purchase history for 2019. Shocked yet?

“Take an honest look at what your life is costing you,” Newcomb said. “If some of those costs are frivolous and are purchases you regret, that is a valuable thing to take away.”

* Put fintech apps to work

A typical excuse for those who do not keep track of spending: It is too complicated and confusing. But with all the fintech apps now available, that excuse does not really wash.

“We encourage our clients to check their ‘You Need A Budget’ app every morning over a cup of coffee,” said Brenna Baucum, a financial planner in Salem, Oregon. “It takes only one or two minutes to sort their latest transactions. Then, after 30 days, they have some handle on where their money goes. Most often, the results shock them.”

Mint.com is a popular app and one game-changer, according to financial planner Salim Boutagy of Westport, Connecticut, is its “Trends” section, where you can see how your spending has shifted over the last few months or years.

* Calculate the unknown

In performing an annual spending review, one thing will probably jump out at you: The sheer volume of expenses that were totally unplanned and unforeseen.

“We’re all pretty good at estimating common expenses like electricity and phone and internet access,” said Morningstar’s Newcomb. “But we are very bad at predicting the size and frequency of exceptions.”

That might mean car repair, or home improvements, or medical bills, or last-minute vacations. When you see how much of 2019’s spending was a total surprise, then you can build a similar buffer into next year’s budget.

Once you have done your spending X-ray for 2019, it is time to rework what Betterment’s Egan calls your “Top-Down Budgeting.” That means setting broad guidelines – like committing to saving a specific amount every month.

“The point is not to be as austere as possible and deprive yourself of all joy,” Egan said. “The point is to get to a right balance.”

(Editing by Beth Pinsker; Follow us @ReutersMoney or at http://www.reuters.com/finance/personal-finance.)