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Financial apps can make it easier to keep your new year's resolution to save money

Financial apps can make it easier to keep your new year's resolution to save money
The success rate for financial resolutions tends to be higher than for goals such as losing weight. (Carlos T. Miranda / AP)

New year's resolutions have a notoriously low success rate — only 8% of people achieve their goals. Losing weight, drinking less, being nicer to the cat — all these aspirations fall away as January wears on.

Success spikes, however, when the resolution has to do with money and finance.

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This trend showed up in research by the goal-setting website StickK. Users create a commitment contract for a personal goal and can have a "referee" (usually a friend) verify their progress. They can also add a financial stake, such as pledging an amount to be automatically sent from their credit card on file with the site to a cause they detest if they fail to meet their goal.

When a referee and a financial stake are used, the success rate for financial resolutions is 87% (and a healthy 73% for those wanting to lose weight).

The higher rate of successful new year's resolutions for financial decisions may be tied to a symbiotic relationship between human psychology and financial technology. Specifically, willpower — or the lack thereof — can be taken out of the equation, said Meir Statman, a finance professor at Santa Clara University and author of "Finance for Normal People."

"When it comes to diet or exercise, you have to muster self-control every time you are hungry, face a steak or dessert, and every time you have to get out of a warm bed to go to the gym," he said. "With financial resolutions, you can set up a 401(k) or IRA and have payments go into it automatically."

Many people underestimate how big a role inertia plays in blocking decision-making, says Dan Egan, director of behavioral finance and investments at New York-based online investment adviser Betterment, which automates many financial tasks for clients. "Automation is a way of making a decision once and having it permanently overcome that inertia," he said.

Across the country, many workplace savings plans are automatically enrolling workers, with some also bumping up workers' contributions every year — without the employee doing a thing.

There are more ways to automate savings outside of workplace plans. The Digit app uses an algorithm to track a user's cash-flow patterns to time the movement of small, almost unnoticeable amounts of money into savings. Betterment has a tool to manage cash flow automatically. Qapital allows users to create customized "if this, then that" rules that link with apps and move a set amount of money into savings based on certain conditions. Users can automatically save whenever they go to the gym, for example, or even whenever President Trump sends a Twitter message.

Digit Chief Executive Ethan Bloch's advice on setting financial goals is first to reflect on the prior year, analyzing what went right, and wrong, with your money.

"Do something — take a walk, or sit down and write it out — where you put your perception of reality in front of you," he said. "We are so constantly switching attention and distracting ourselves, especially from painful things, and we don't even know we're doing it."

Once you've chewed on 2017 and gotten your fiscal priorities straight, Bloch advises, set only one goal.

"I've been spending time with executives at some of the highest-performing technology firms on the planet, and this is the recurring theme," he said. If you set five goals, you're giving yourself five ways to fail. But choose the right goal, and it might just give you some leverage eventually to catch the other four.

Woolley writes for Bloomberg.

swoolley2@bloomberg.net

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