Jonathan Clements

I PROMISE TO BEHAVE better tomorrow. What happens when tomorrow becomes today? All bets are off.

Our broken promises might involve money, such as committing to spend less, save more and pay down debt. Or they might involve some other aspect of our life, such as committing to eat healthier, exercise more and drink less.

All this highlights our irrationality. We may not be experts in nutrition, physical education and money management. But we have a pretty good idea of how we ought to behave. The challenge: getting ourselves to do it. When the moment arrives, our resolve falters and, soon enough, we’re ordering French fries.

How can we get ourselves to stick to our promises? Try four strategies:

  1. Make it public. If you announce to friends and family that, within the next 12 months, you plan to save enough to make a house down payment, it’ll be that much harder to let the matter slide.
  2. Reveal all. Ask a friend whether you can discuss your financial situation with him or her, including sharing your account statements. Knowing that somebody else will be looking at your finances will likely spur you to clean up your act.
  3. Remove temptation. This evening, if you don’t want to have a drink or eat dessert, it’ll be a whole lot easier to show some backbone if you have neither booze nor ice cream in the house. Similarly, if you want to limit how much you spend at the mall this weekend, leave the credit cards at home—and instead bring cash equal to your shopping budget.
  4. Commit today for tomorrow. This is the reason I love 401(k) plans and automatic mutual-fund investment plans. You agree today to invest on a regular basis. Once that commitment is made, it quickly becomes a good habit that you’re unlikely to abandon, if only because of inertia.

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