The best way to make managing your money seem like a natural extension of the rest of your life is to make it habitual — a regular part of your routine. That's true whether we're talking about paying all your bills on time, keeping track of your expenses, or having regular money discussions with your spouse.
But how do you do that? If you've ever tried to adopt a new habit (and who hasn't?) then you know: Some stick but some vanish as soon as the next sun rises.
Study after study shows that you have to have patience. On average it takes 21 days for a daily behavior to become a habit. A weekly or monthly behavior takes even longer. The difference between successful attempts and failures is that people who are successful do the following:
Keep a record.For new habits, a daily journal is the best medicine. Use the Journal on my Web site () to document your progress and record even the tiniest improvements. You’ll also find my Spending Tracker, another tool for good financial habits.
Organize your environment to help — not hinder.You want to keep things nearby that will help you reach your goals — and keep temptations as far away as possible. That may mean leaving your credit cards in a drawer at home if you can't think of a reason you'd need them that day. It also means setting up mechanisms to make your accomplishments come easier. For example, if you're trying to stick with a budget, keep a Post-It note on your pillow to remind yourself at the end of the day to enter your expenses in the Spending Tracker.
Don't set yourself up for a fall.
You can make tedious tasks nearly effortless. If you've hated research since the time you were young, you're probably not going to love spending hours online researching stocks. Don't fight this reluctance: Go with it. Instead of forcing yourself to pick a new stock or fund every time you have a few dollars to invest, schedule automatic monthly withdrawals from your checking account, and have the money deposited into a mutual fund that you can stick with for the long term. Likewise, if balancing your checkbook is what you dread, buy a software program that'll do all the actual figuring for you.
Reward yourself for good behavior.Just make sure that your rewards don't work against your ultimate goals. For example, if you're trying to save money, your reward shouldn't be spending an extra $30 at the Gap — it should be something free, like an extra-long soak in the tub. Likewise, don't punish yourself when you experience a setback. Let's just acknowledge right now that it will happen. A friend will come into town for a few days and you'll go on a little Visa bender. Give yourself a break and get back on the plan as soon as you can.
Seek out support.Often, working with another person — or group of people — can provide just the boost you need to get with the plan. Go to the Message Boards on my site and you'll find people with similar goals and interests who can keep you on the right path through a series of well-tested suggestions. I'll be in the Message Boards, too, answering your questions and offering support.
Keep going — even when you feel down (especially when you feel down).
By actually doing something over and over again, you'll gain a feeling of accomplishment — even power. That's why it's so important that when you find yourself feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by something, you do just what's required to help you conquer the problem. When you're feeling poor, you should sit down with a pad and paper and figure out just how much money your new habits are saving you. Two dollars a day saved by walking to work rather than taking the bus may not sound like much, but it adds up to more than $500 a year. Once you write it down, focus on how the accomplishment makes you feel. Concentrating on the change will make you feel energized. Think of it as insurance for how you'll behave tomorrow.
Jean Chatzky’s Bottom LineDon't let feelings of self-doubt get in the way. After all, it took time and practice to develop your current habits. It'll take the same time and practice to develop the ones you want to adopt for the future.
Jean Chatzky is the financial editor for “Today,” editor-at-large at “Money” magazine and the author of “Talking Money: Everything You Need to Know About Your Finances and Your Future.” Her latest book, "Pay It Down: From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day," is now in bookstores. Copyright ©2004. For more information, go to her Web site, .