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Don’t Let Resolution Fatigue Win


The following is a guest post from William Cowie @ Bite the Bullet Investing.

You still remember those New Year’s resolutions to spend less so you can invest more, right? You’ve kept a tight leash on your finances, holding off on buying new clothes, and throwing away all those catalogs you receive in the mail without even opening them. You’ve kept your eyes on the prize: building that early retirement fund. Great!

But lately, have you caught yourself wavering just a little? Your coworker set her cup of Starbucks on your desk for a meeting and you can’t forget that aroma. Hmmm…

And with a season change upon us, are those spring collections catching your eye with bigger hooks than you bargained for?

(Joe: Not really. I have no desire to buy new clothes at all which is great because it’s helping me keep to my 2013 No New Clothes challenge.)

You’re right, of course. That expensive coffee does smell good. A new season just naturally calls for a change in wardrobe, a new golf club, new fishing lures and… hey, your car payments are going to end soon, so you can afford that “something” with a few bucks to spare.

And so, do you find yourself asking, “Why not? Seriously, will this one little thing really make that big a difference? How long should I deprive myself? What for?”

Welcome to Resolution Fatigue

resolution fatigue

If it’s any consolation, you’re not the only one.

You’re not alone, we all go through it. And it’s not just money. I’ve noticed the treadmills at my gym aren’t as crowded as in January. The attendant, when asked, confirmed it. Happens every year, she says.

Even though those things winking at us are all attractive, you were also right when you made that resolution to find ways to retire by 40 (or 50, or whichever date you chose).

So, if you were right about both, how come you’re now conflicted?

Here’s why: your mind is grappling with two competing pleasures: the pleasure of those goodies now, or the more distant pleasure of a funded retirement, with similar or better goodies, later.

Your mind tells you the smart thing is to stay the course, keep spending under control, keep whittling down the debt, and keep putting the rest away for RB40/50/xx. You started the year off well, and you had good momentum.

But suddenly your momentum is wavering with the changing season. And it’s hard to get it back. Somehow, the sense of urgency that came with the New Year is gone.

So… what can you do to regain that momentum? Two things:

1.  Remember the students!

Students? What students?

A while ago some scientists conducted an experiment with students from a famous Northeastern university. In it, they asked them which they would prefer:

  • (a)  $40 a year from now, or
  • (b)  $41 a year and one day from now

Which one would you take?

Most students preferred the $41, figuring an extra dollar is nice to have, and waiting only one extra day was worth it. Clearly, a very rational way of thinking.

Then the same students were offered a second choice:

  • (a)  $1 today, or
  • (b)  $2 tomorrow

Which one would you prefer?

Given their preference shown in the first test, we’d expect them to again elect to defer the windfall for one more day to get an extra dollar.

We’d be wrong. Nearly all of the students opted for $1 today. These are the same people who argued, quite rationally, that waiting one day for an extra dollar is the smart and reasonable thing to do.

But when it comes to today vs. the future, reason flies out the window.

This experiment and variations of it have been repeated numerous times with different people. And it produced the same outcome every time. What it tells us is all of us, as humans, have a very hard time maintaining a reasonable, rational perspective when it comes to immediate gratification.

The advertising agencies know this of course, and we know they know it. And even though we know they know it, we still look at their catalogs and websites… and we still let them get us anyway.

Why? Because we’re human.

So, does being human count against us? Yes, but we can make it count for us.


2.  Remember the poop!

A short while ago, Mr. RB40 shared with us about the day he spent with Baby RB40, and a great perspective on happiness. That’s the prize, but it’s a prize in the future.

And so, just like our innate human nature trips us up by making us lose perspective when we compare future pleasure and present pleasure, that same innate human nature can get fired up with a reminder that those long term goals are worth short term sacrifices.

It is worth waiting an extra day for an extra dollar. Or freedom. Or having a special day with someone special.

It is worth reminding ourselves about the true prize: freedom, freedom to do the things that have meaning and value in our lives.

It is worth hanging on to our resolutions, be they from this year or years past.

We’re heading into the part of the year when “resolution fatigue” sets in. If you can keep your motivation strong for the next month, your chances are good you’ll see it through to at least Thanksgiving, when the next offensive to spend money will be launched.

William Cowie is a longtime RB40 reader and runs the Bite the Bullet Investing blog, dedicated to help everyone get better at investing, any investing. You can pick up his free Investing Basics series here

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons



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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • My Financial Independence Journey March 27, 2013, 2:36 am

    It also helps to set resolutions that are achievable. I don’t make resolutions like “get fit” anymore. Instead, I’ll say “go to the gym 3x per week.” Then I can track that and see if I’m on target.

    I don’t really get fatigue from investing. But maybe that’s because I’m very actively involved in investing. So saving money is kind of like spending it. Except spending money on lattes, I’m spending it on high quality dividend paying stocks.

    I think if I was paying down debt or just saving money in a 401k, I would probably be a lot more subject to savings fatigue.

    • retirebyforty March 27, 2013, 9:04 am

      Work out 3x per week is a great goal. I’ll add that to my goal.
      Seeing money coming in is a great incentive and I don’t think you’ll get tired of dividend investing. 🙂

    • TheGooch March 30, 2013, 12:57 pm

      That’s my goal, too. There was a time when I went 5+ days, but it seems to more difficult now.

      Achievable and measurable goals are the best.

  • [email protected] March 27, 2013, 4:33 am

    Very clear and new insight, William. Great post!

  • JC @ Passive-Income-Pursuit March 27, 2013, 5:30 am

    Another reason resolution fatigue sets in is because too many people don’t set concrete and measurable goals. Instead of setting a goal to save more money this year, the goal should be to save a certain amount of dollars. That lets you have a bar to set it against and you can easily create visual stimuli to remind you of your goal and keep you on track.

    Reaching FI at a really early age is constantly in my mind, of course that’s because while my job is easy and I wouldn’t mind doing it forever because the pay is nice, I can’t stand being gone from home and family as much as I am. Every day I’m working I’m reminded that I don’t get to wake up next to my wife and that is a huge benefit to reaching FI.

  • Greg March 27, 2013, 5:50 am

    Reminds me of being in Costco the other day just before dinner. Every aisle, I am eyeing up more things I don’t need, so I make sure to get in, get out, and on to the next task!

  • Greg March 27, 2013, 8:33 am

    Regarding that study…

    If I was offered $1 *delivered* to me today or $2 *delivered* to me tomorrow, I would choose the $2. There is not much difference in the amount of effort to receive either of those. If I have a choice between receiving $1 in person, or returning to the place of study to receive $2 tomorrow, I’m taking the $1 today because I don’t want to (a) bother having to return tomorrow and (b) risk the chance of the money not showing up tomorrow. As the saying goes, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

    When you consider these transaction costs for receiving $1 or $2 tomorrow, it may be in the subject’s best interest to choose $1 today. I’m interested in the details of the study to see if they made the transaction costs the same for both options.

    • retirebyforty March 27, 2013, 8:35 am

      I would probably take the $1 as well. A bird in hand and all that. The extra $1 isn’t worth my time. Maybe if they use $100 vs $200 instead…

    • [email protected] March 27, 2013, 9:53 am

      My thoughts exactly. I sure as heck wouldn’t waste the gas money to return tomorrow…

    • William March 27, 2013, 7:32 pm

      The study provided for delivery for all 4 scenarios, ie no transaction cost differential. And it has been repeated numerous times, all with the same result.

  • SavvyFinancialLatina March 27, 2013, 8:55 am

    I try to look at my goals every six months or every 3 months if possible. I am very goal oriented, I actually love goals!

    It’s also good to give yourself rewards 🙂 Let’s say I reached my savings goal: I can buy myself a new dress 🙂 I love new clothes 🙂

  • Brick By Brick Investing | Marvin March 27, 2013, 12:34 pm

    In order to curb my resolution fatigue I apply something I do with my diet, a cheat day. Every month I put a little bit of money aside in our “cheat day” fund that we use when we feel the urge to make an impulsive buy. We find that this works fairly well for us.

  • Rich Uncle EL March 28, 2013, 6:14 am

    It’s nice to be reminded to stay on track with all the goals we have in life. I celebrate every achievement with my family as a way to make them a part of the success. Hopefully they can be as goal oriented as I am in the future.

  • My Multiple Incomes March 28, 2013, 8:20 am

    very insightful William! It’s not very easy to maintain our resolution/goals, but if we really want to work towards its fulfillment, we can. Having new year’s resolutions is like going on a diet, it is often very easy to just give in, but we know what’s going to happen if we do.

  • Mike March 28, 2013, 4:50 pm

    I think we all are guilty of this! We still are surrounded by everything that has to take place today! Never mind that we have to work for those things that we want to have for ourselves. This is something that my generation sucks at (and I am equally guilty of it to (btw I am only 25 but already starting to find alternatives for earning money and stuff)).

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