By Nathaniel Sillin
Most people have at least one bad financial habit. Whether it's impulse shopping, forgetting to pay bills on time or putting off building that emergency fund, balancing what you want to do and what you "should" do is never easy. The new year is the perfect time to identify potential financial weak points and replace bad habits with productive ones.
Start by identifying your bad habits. Sometimes a bad financial habit is easy to identify. For example, there might be a growing stack of bills in the kitchen that you willfully ignore. Others may be subtler, or perhaps they've become so ingrained that you do them without thinking twice.
Not sure where to start? Looking through your previous months' expenses can help you identify expensive trends or one-off purchases that are part of a larger theme. Online or paper bank statements can make this particularly simple. If you have a budget, you likely already compare projected spending with actual spending on a monthly basis, if not, this might be a good time to start.
You might recognize a few of these common bad financial habits in your life:
Paying bills after the due date.
Paying only the minimum required on bills.
Ignoring bills and letting them go to collections.
Putting off saving for retirement or for a rainy day.
Impulse shopping or "retail therapy."
Not keeping track of how much debt you have.
Taking on debt to pay for something you don't currently need.
Ultimately, all of these lead to spending more than you earn and in some cases, bad habits can have a cascading effect.
Try to figure out what's driving your behavior. You might need to figure out what triggers your behavior and the reward you perceive afterward before you can change a habit. However, triggers and rewards aren't always obvious.
For example, you might buy big-ticket items when they're on sale because you want to feel like you're accomplishing something by "saving" so much. Perhaps you could foster a similar feeling of accomplishment by investing the money in a tax-deferred retirement account and calculating how much it'll be worth after years of compound interest.
Aim for these healthy financial habits. What habits should you try to adopt? Budgeting is certainly a worthy activity, but also consider the following mix of behaviors and specific objectives that can help keep your finances in order.
Pay bills on time. In addition to avoiding late-payment fees, making on-time payments is one of the most important factors in determining your credit score.
Make paying down debt a priority. Rather than accruing interest, make a point to pay down debts as quickly as possible.
Build and maintain an emergency fund. Having three to six months' worth of living expenses in savings can help cushion the blow from a financial or personal setback. You could start with a goal to put $1,000 aside and then build towards the full emergency fund.
Save for retirement. You can put aside a percentage of your income for retirement and invest the money within a tax-advantage account, such as a 401(k) or IRA. Find a comfortable contribution amount to start with, and then try to increase it at least once during the year.
Plan your large purchases. To help prevent impulse shopping from draining your budget, resolve to wait at least one day before buying anything that costs over $100 (or whatever amount makes sense for your budget). If you know there's a large purchase coming up, start saving early by setting a little money aside from each paycheck.
You might consider asking others for input during this process. Especially if you're having trouble identifying a bad habit or finding the motivation to change, sometimes an outside perspective can help.
Bottom line: Make a resolution to replace your bad financial habits with healthy ones this year. Start by identifying the habits you want to change and trying to figure out the trigger and reward that surround the behavior. Then, try to replace that behavior with something positive. After identifying and trying to change your personal financial habits, you might want to consider the financial practices you share with a spouse or significant other.
Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs. To follow Practical Money Skills on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PracticalMoney.