We still have 25% of this year ahead of us. But many people have already started to turn their attention to and pin their hopes on 2021. We all would love to turn the page and start fresh. We also thrive — in theory, if not in practice — on new year’s resolutions.
As temperatures have started to cool in Washington, DC, I’ve thought often about this dynamic. The topic took on particular importance to me after I read this recent Wall Street Journal essay. Julia Carpenter wrote in a wonderfully honest and personal way about how the pandemic has “derailed” her financial goals. And she concluded on a hopeful note, noting that a friend advised her that “2020 doesn’t count.”
Carpenter’s essay also cited Marissa A. Sharif, who is a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Sharif has studied a concept called the “fresh start effect,” in which, Carpenter wrote, “starting anew, with renewed vigor, can mobilize us and rocket us back into goal-setting form.” Turning back to her own circumstances, Carpenter said:
“Surrounded by my pricey candles (I still haven’t burned down many of them) and the trappings of a quarantine-era lifestyle, I take some solace in her advice. This year didn’t turn out the way many of us had planned. For a lot of us, 2021 can be a fresh start.”
Over the course of a year, life wears on us. We face unexpected challenges. We revert to bad habits. We’re periodically stressed, tired, and/or distracted. And then we end the year in a blur of holiday commitments and time-sensitive work responsibilities.
But think back to the first few days of almost any January. We often start the year with an especially positive mindset. We have good intentions. We’re motivated. And we’re eager to make new progress on our goals. We may know, on some level, that this perspective likely won’t last. Even a brief window of opportunity can make a big difference for our finances, though.
We may automate extra income to our savings account. We may start to track and review our spending. Even just reflecting on what we hope to achieve in the months and years ahead can offer benefits. We may set ourselves on a new path; we may stop heading in a direction that we wish to avoid. Many people struggle to devote time and energy to their personal finances. These few days and weeks can play an outsize role in how we manage our finances.
I fear that January 2021 won’t offer us this same opportunity. Many people will end this year already struggling to keep their heads above water financially. And our ability to manage our financial decisions — and stress — may deteriorate before improving. The pandemic still rages, with the winter months awaiting. The election “season” threatens to preoccupy and frustrate us for an extended period of time. And holiday craziness will follow only weeks later. Despite the uncertainty that still surrounds us, we can anticipate these events. As a result, Julia and many others are depending even more than usual on a fresh start in the new year.
But how will we respond when the calendar says ‘January 1’ and we don’t feel any different? We’re already battered mentally. For the year ahead, what will we use as the impetus for making tough changes? Time has felt like a futile concept for much of 2020. Next year, what will prevent January from “suddenly” becoming April or later with little-to-no financial progress?
This dilemma may seem insignificant in light of everything else we currently face. Many people are just trying to make rent and keep the lights on. In this context, working on long-term financial planning feels like a luxury. But we all need to reevaluate and address certain aspects of our finances in the months ahead. For those in a privileged position, perhaps that means focusing on unique opportunities that exist. Others may decide to make difficult lifestyle changes or modify long-term goals they previously set.
There is no perfect or one-size-fits-all solution to this situation. But without a little mental preparation, we face unexpected frustration in January. Instead, we each can take a few basic steps to ensure that this dynamic does not catch us by surprise. We simply can’t afford more months without financial action.
At the most basic level, we need to acknowledge that we can’t control when our collective predicament will become easier. We can’t wait for that clean break, that perfect fresh start. We need to look elsewhere for the motivation to hit the reset button on our finances.
If we accept this reality, we can think through what possibilities do exist. We can begin to focus on what we can control. I’m not going to pretend that anyone with a demanding job or homeschooling their kids will soon gain extra time or clarity. Instead, we can help ourselves by identifying those points in the day or week when we do have some energy. When do we have even a little time to devote to these questions? What can we tweak in our lives (maybe a social media break?) to generate the optimism and purpose required to focus on our money?
This year certainly calls for extra compassion and empathy. We shouldn’t judge ourselves or others negatively for not achieving goals that we set earlier this year. The world looked quite different in January. But we also must confront the reality that the calendar change to 2021 may not offer the boost that we need at this point.
Instead, we need to start working on new financial strategies now. Maybe not today, and likely not all at once, but in incremental steps. Any momentum that we can create in our rare moments of quiet or calm will be invaluable. Such momentum can help us to battle the new sources of stress and concern that may arise in the weeks and months ahead. On December 31, we should rightly celebrate the hope and potential that next year may hold. But for our personal finances, any “new year’s” resolutions should be well established by that day.
Kevin Mahoney, CFP® is the founder & CEO of Illumint, an independent firm in Washington, DC that offers financial planning for Millennial parents. He specializes in navigating the new financial decisions that arise during our 30s and early 40s, such as repaying student loans, buying a house, saving for college, & investing for the future. In addition, Kevin also leads a financial wellness benefits program for Millennial employees around the country, including group speaking engagements.
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