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 By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®, Rutgers Cooperative Extension,

At the end of every year, many people start thinking about what they’ve accomplished and the goals that they want to achieve during the following year. Research indicates that one of the best ways to stick with goals (e.g., New Year’s resolutions) is to set boundaries. In other words, draw a “line in the sand” and develop personal policies to help say “no,” resist temptation, and stay on course.

How can people set boundaries?  Consider this analogy from the world of NASCAR Motor Sports. Ever since a car wreck nearly killed hundreds of spectators in the grandstands at Talladega in 1987, when a speeding car went airborne, races at Daytona International Speedway in Florida and Talladega Super Speedway in Alabama have required drivers to use “restrictor plates.”  According to the official definition on, a restrictor plate is “A flat device with holes drilled into it designed to limit the amount of air that enters the engine.  This effectively limits the horsepower of the engine and slows the cars down.”

Like Talladega race cars, people also need “restrictors” to slow them down so they can stick to their financial goals.  In other words, cues to limit spending because they’ve “had enough.”  Individuals need to develop, and enforce, their own restrictors.  If someone tries to restrict another person, they will usually resent it and rebel.  Looking for some specific ideas?  Consider the following examples of financial restrictions:

  • Spending no more than $500 on holiday gifts and parties.
  • Charging no more than $300 per month on a credit card for new purchases.
  • Spending no more than $100 a week at the supermarket.
  • Buying a “new used” car, instead of a new car, to reduce the cost.
  • Depositing 5% of gross income in a 401(k) or 403(b) plan via payroll deduction (to “restrict” income)

Another way to set boundaries is to change your response to inevitable temptations. According to research cited by productivity expert James Clear, the words “I don’t” are a much more effective response to temptation than the words “I can’t.” In one study, respondents were divided into two groups. When faced with temptation to eat chocolate candy, one group was told to say “I can’t do X” and the other was told “I don’t do X.” Those that used the words “I don’t” succumbed to temptation to eat candy bars much less frequently (36% versus 61%).

A notepad with New Year written on the left side and Goal, Plan, Action written on the right side

USA-Reiseblogger/, CC0

In another study cited by Clear, there were three groups of respondents who were working on a wellness goal, a control group that was given no specific strategy, a group that said “I can’t miss my workout today,” and a group told to say “I don’t miss workouts.” The control group, “I can’t” group, and “I don’t” group had 3 out of 10, 1 out of 10, and 8 out of 10 members, respectively, who persisted with their goals.

Clear notes that words “frame your sense of empowerment and control” and can result in very different actions:

  • “I can’t” sounds like someone else is in control and forcing you to do something that you don’t want to do.
  • “I don’t” sounds like you are in control and that you have control and power over the situation.
  • How can Personal Financial Management (PFM) program staff apply this information? Help clients write personal finance “I don’t” statements that can help them achieve their goals. Below are five examples:
  • I don’t pay interest and fees to use credit cards
  • I don’t get car loans longer than 4 years
  • I don’t invest in any investment product that I don’t understand and feel comfortable with
  • I don’t use payday loans and pawn shops
  • I don’t pay bills late