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Struggling with your resolution? Mix it up a bit

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By Brett Graff
Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

We can all admit to recent vows about saving money and losing weight. So to lend a hand, Miami-based Benihana, the Japanese restaurant chain with an international reach, rolled out a promotion of menu last month designed to help us keep our New Year's resolutions.

Benihana's nearly 70 locations served up three “skinny” cocktails — drinks with less than 200 calories — and a Chef Special dinner boat, which could load you up with onion soup, salad, edamame, California roll, hibachi shrimp on a skewer, colossal shrimp and chicken grilled in garlic butter, steamed rice and fresh fruit — all for $16. Because for now, at least, people everywhere are watching what they eat and spend.

“That has always been a tradition with people making New Year's resolutions,” said Jeannie Means, vice president of marketing for Benihana.

Ah yes, it's a new year that — for most of us — will bring on the same old promises. We'll download money-management applications, swear off Starbucks and ultimately forget the whole thing in time to buy champagne and eat chocolate. But new research from the University of Maryland suggests that perhaps we can have the wealth — not to mention the weight — we'd truly love, after all.

The trick, this science says, is this: Rather than regulate our consumption, we should work on providing ourselves with the correct number of choices at each stage of our money-saving (or calorie-cutting) journeys. In the beginning, we should try curbing at every turn: brewing our own coffee, socking away slices of our paychecks, bringing —not buying — healthy lunches. Basically, spoil ourselves with variety. Once we're halfway there, though, it's time to train our minds to focus on a single objective.

“When you start out, you're uncertain about the best way to achieve what you want,” said Jordan Etkin, a marketing researcher at University of Maryland. “And variety helps reduce that uncertainty because it gives you more options. But once you've made a lot of progress and the uncertainty goes away, the variety can be distracting. That's when you really want to focus.”

Etkin isn't just a business researcher; she's also a personal trainer who is fascinated by how our relying on different combinations of products — regardless of how effective each product may actually be — can produce distinct results. To check that effect on our finances, she spoke to more than 1,000 people across the country about their savings goals.

She'd either ask about their progress or manipulate their feelings about how far they'd come with comments such as, “Oh, really? Most people save twice that,” or “Wow, you're way ahead of your peer group.” Afterward, she'd have them think of a variety of approaches for moving forward.

“I found that for people who felt bad — either by themselves or because I made them feel that way — were more motivated when thinking of all the different approaches. The opposite would happen with the people who felt good about their progress.”

The same was true with fitness aspirations. Etkin recruited people outside gyms and had them try a variety of products — protein shakes, bars of many flavors, more sleep — and found that, based on several factors including willingness to pay, those who'd just started were inspired by the options. Those who'd lost, say, eight of the 10 pounds they set as their goal did best when focusing on just exercise.

When it comes time to focus, she said, start by mentally grouping your many options into one category of saving money or cutting calories.

“It's best to change how you think about what you're doing,” Etkin said.

It makes sense, said Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of “Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.” That's because specific goals are easiest to achieve. But we should also remember, Ferrari said, to be realistic and start cutting out the expensive coffee three times a week, not five. We may also want to state our resolutions publicly, say, by posting them on Facebook.

“Hold yourself accountable,” he said. “Make them public, small and doable.”

Here are some tips to get started from Ellen Siegel, an independent financial adviser in Miami:

• Place a small percentage of your paycheck into a savings account.

• After cutting out your Starbucks — you hear this all the time — put the $5 savings into a separate envelope and watch the cash accumulate.

• Take your credit card, put it in a small plastic bag, then a cup of water and freeze the whole thing. That means during the defrost you'll have to think before charging.

• Pay only with cash. Squirrel away pocket change.

• Have a garage sale.

• Donate to charity for tax deductions.

• Learn to invest in the stock market.

“Be mindful,” she said. “It's like going on a diet.”

Oh yes, diets. When looking for a variety of options, there are countless low-calorie swaps, said Tanya Zuckerbrot, a registered dietitian and author of “The Miracle Carb Diet.” Try eating fruit instead of drinking fruit juice. Substitute mustard for mayo, choose only sweet potato fries, and dress your salad with just lemon juice — not fatty Thousand Island dressing.

Brett Graff is a former federal government economist and the editor of;

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