Fattening Up Your 401(k) Will Be Easier Than Losing Weight in 2018

When it comes to sticking to your resolutions, the ability to automate financial tasks has made fiscal responsibility a more realistic goal.

Glasses for sale before 2018 New Year's Eve celebrations in New York.

Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

New Year’s resolutions have a notoriously low success rate—only 8 percent of people achieve their goals. Losing weight, drinking less, being nicer to the cat—all these aspirations fall away as the cold January days wear on.

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

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 is used, the average success rate is 61 percent for goals related to money and finance, says Jordan Goldberg, the company’s chairman. (For those wanting to lose weight, the success rate is a not-too-shabby 47 percent.) When the goal involves using both a referee and a financial stake, the success rate for financial resolutions is 87 percent (and a healthy 73 percent for pound-droppers).

The power of loss aversion (who wants to “lose” money to a cause he despises?) and the natural distaste for failing to reach a stated goal are built into stickK's model. The latter plays a powerful role on Wall Street. “It is the same aversion that leads people to hold on to losing stocks,” said Meir Statman, a finance professor at Santa Clara University and author of Finance for Normal People. In investing, “you can get people to realize losses [on stock holdings] if you make tangible the loss of tax deduction,” he said. “This is why people are more likely to realize losses in December and why many leave that task to advisers.”

But when it comes to reaching financial goals, the higher rate of successful New Year’s resolutions may be tied to a symbiotic relationship between human psychology and financial technology. Specifically, willpower—or the lack thereof—is taken out of the equation, said Statman. 

“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,” Statman 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 investing 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’ contribution every year—without the employee doing a thing.

There are more ways to automate savings outside of workplace plans. Digit 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 Officer 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.

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