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Try making your financial resolution a project

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Originally published: January 2, 2003

I’m not making any New Year’s resolutions. And I’m not writing a column about making New Year’s resolutions. Looking back over the nearly 15 years of writing this column, I realized that I start every year by giving people advice about how they should rearrange their financial lives in the New Year.

Have you ever noticed that the people who tell you to make resolutions only give advice about stuff that is easy for them to do? For the nearly 15 years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve started every year with a suggested list of resolutions about getting organized, evaluating your investments, gaining control over your spending, and generally managing your money better.

I can do those things, so they’re easy for me. But I never suggest resolutions about exercising more or remembering the name of everyone you meet or eating a salad every day. Because those things are tough for me.

I know I’m out of sync with my resolution not to tell you to make financial resolutions. Visa just sent me a press release with “tips” for my annual New Year’s resolution story. They informed me that 50 percent of the people making resolutions this year will make money-related resolutions, far exceeding the number of people who say they’ll make promises about dieting, exercise or quitting smoking. And, in fact, the press release informs me that 30 percent of those financial resolutions will deal with making a budget.

The problem is that it’s easier for financial experts to tell you how to manage your money than it is for you to do it yourself. After all, if everyone could manage his or her own money as well as the so-called experts, we wouldn’t have 1.4 million bankruptcies and $7 trillion down the drain in stock market losses.

OK, well maybe that doesn’t hold true for the stock market. Before you listen to an “expert,” maybe you should ask for a peek at the expert’s portfolio. In fact, I wonder what the “stock market experts” are resolving this year? Maybe not to make forecasts?

Projects, not resolutions

I’ve come to appreciate that I’m just not a resolution-making-type of person.

The problem with resolutions is that they’re so huge, and potentially life-changing, that I’m intimidated by the challenge of thinking them up in the first place, and then by the challenge of regularly altering my habits to keep them.

Instead, I realized that I’m a “project person.”

If I decide to take on a realistic project with a specific set of simple goals and challenges that must be met, I can accomplish anything. That’s how I’ve managed to write my books, or please my editor by getting my column in on time (mostly) every week, as well as keeping a busy schedule. Each is a task that I decided I really want to do. And I find it a great reward to make a task list --and check off the things that are finished.

Tips for project people

If you’re a project person, there are a few basic rules. Tackle a project that you want to do--not one that someone says is good for you.

Then set realistic goals for the project, or markers along the way, so you can take pride in your accomplishments. Be willing to do the work and to seek help. And then, just keep moving toward the goal.

I’d tell you about my project for the spring, but it doesn’t matter what I do. The only project that matters is yours.

Just in case you’re one of the 50 percent of people thinking about making a financial resolution this year, my advice is: “Don’t!” Make it a project instead.

And if your financial project is something like setting up an online bill-paying system, or scrutinizing your investments, or writing out a budget, paying down every credit card, or using Quicken to track your finances, make it a project that you really want to do. Keep it simple. Get some help if necessary, so you understand the path to reach your goal.

And don’t announce it. Just do it.

When you reach your goal and check off that project as done, you’ll feel very accomplished. And you’ll be ready to tackle the next project.

Nothing succeeds like success. And that’s The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser and is on the board of directors of McDonald’s Corp. Send questions via e-mail to She appears weekly on WMAQ-Channel 5’s 4:30 p.m. newscast.

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