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Apply pressure, firmly

One of the smarter people I know – and a very successful investor – told me recently that he prefers to go to the public library instead of buying a book. It’s not because he’s saving money, although that’s an added benefit. It’s because, with a library book, he faces a deadline to finish it.

As a species, we tend to procrastinate and create excuses. There’s always a distraction which threatens to postpone or discard a goal. So, if we can “nudge” ourselves toward a goal, we tilt the odds toward success.

Here are a few tricks that increase the chance you will achieve your financial goals:

  • Automate your savings, including annual increases. Make an election to contribute a portion of each pay check to your retirement plan. Even better, many plans allow an automatic annual increase. If your plan doesn’t, promise yourself to bump up the % you defer each January. If you have maxed out your retirement plan contributions, automate additional monthly contributions to a savings or brokerage account.
  • Use a mutual fund that automates your stock/bond mix. For example, buy an all-in-one fund with a 60% stock mix or a “target date fund” that changes the mix gradually as you near retirement. The benefit: you won’t be tempted to sell stock when the market falls.
  • Bribe yourself to achieve a specific goal. Create one specific goal for the year, put a financial reward into an account you won’t touch, and only transfer it into your checking account once you achieve the goal. The goal could be updating your estate plan (wills, powers of attorney, etc.) or shopping to make sure your home and auto insurance is still a good deal.
  • Bribe yourself to follow a budget. Commit to creating a budget, checking it monthly against actual spending, and taking steps to adjust spending if you are above target. The bribe: take yourself and your spouse, partner or a friend out to dinner as a reward every quarter … but only if you achieve this goal.
  • Hire an independent planner. I’m biased. But hiring an independent financial planner is like hiring a personal trainer at the gym. Yes, it costs money. But if you hire someone good and actually follow their advice, you’ll almost surely have more “financial muscle tone”. 

We’re only human. That creates challenges, because we can easily find ourselves off-course. But it also creates opportunities, because a few simple tricks can “nudge” us in the right direction.

Oh, and before I forget … I put the word “nudge” in quotes because one of the seminal books on how to influence human behavior is called “Nudge”, by Thaler and Sunstein. It’s really worth reading … from the public library.

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