New Year’s Resolutions: Six Ways to Hack the 52-Week Money Challenge

New Year’s is nearly upon us, and with it the chance to start fresh and make some changes in our lives. The most common New Year’s resolutions this year are to exercise more or to quit smoking, according to a Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour poll, but many of us will devote 2019 to saving more money (or spending less of it).

Whatever your resolution, getting and staying motivated is critical to achieving it. Your core motivation really needs to come from within, but one of the simplest ways to augment that is to make a game out of whatever it is you’re doing. (Credit card companies, retailers, and apps have known this for years, and that’s why they get us to rack up “points,” earn rewards, and reach new levels.)

We simply love keeping score and feeling like we’re making progress toward a goal. And that explains the popularity of one game many people use to help them save money: The 52-Week Money Challenge.

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    The 52-Week Money Challenge

    The idea is simple: You start by socking away just $1 in the first week of the year, and then gradually increase your savings by a dollar a week throughout the year. So you save $2 in Week 2, then $3 in Week 3, and so on, until you’re stashing away upwards of $50 a week next December.

    By the end of the year, if you complete the challenge, you’ll have saved $1,378.

    Week No.Deposit AmountTotal Balance
    Week 1$1.00$1.00
    Week 2$2.00$3.00
    Week 3$3.00$6.00
    Week 4$4.00$10.00
    Week 5$5.00$15.00
    Week 6$6.00$21.00
    Week 7$7.00$28.00
    Week 8$8.00$36.00
    Week 9$9.00$45.00
    Week 10$10.00$55.00
    Week 11$11.00$66.00
    Week 12$12.00$78.00
    Week 13$13.00$91.00
    Week 14$14.00$105.00
    Week 15$15.00$120.00
    Week 16$16.00$136.00
    Week 17$17.00$153.00
    Week 18$18.00$171.00
    Week 19$19.00$190.00
    Week 20$20.00$210.00
    Week 21$21.00$231.00
    Week 22$22.00$253.00
    Week 23$23.00$276.00
    Week 24$24.00$300.00
    Week 25$25.00$325.00
    Week 26$26.00$351.00
    Week 27$27.00$378.00
    Week 28$28.00$406.00
    Week 29$29.00$435.00
    Week 30$30.00$465.00
    Week 31$31.00$496.00
    Week 32$32.00$528.00
    Week 33$33.00$561.00
    Week 34$34.00$595.00
    Week 35$35.00$630.00
    Week 36$36.00$666.00
    Week 37$37.00$703.00
    Week 38$38.00$741.00
    Week 39$39.00$780.00
    Week 40$40.00$820.00
    Week 41$41.00$861.00
    Week 42$42.00$903.00
    Week 43$43.00$946.00
    Week 44$44.00$990.00
    Week 45$45.00$1,035.00
    Week 46$46.00$1,081.00
    Week 47$47.00$1,128.00
    Week 48$48.00$1,176.00
    Week 49$49.00$1,225.00
    Week 50$50.00$1,275.00
    Week 51$51.00$1,326.00
    Week 52$52.00$1,378.00

    The beauty of the challenge lies in its simplicity and the habitual momentum it can create — not to mention the big chunk of change you’ll end up with. It’s a simple, effective way to build your first emergency fund or to save up for next year’s big winter vacation. And unlike so many financial endeavors, getting started isn’t at all intimidating — just about anyone can manage to save one dollar in a week.

    The problem? Well, as Trent has pointed out, you’re stuck saving $50 or more per week in December, which is already a pretty expensive month for most of us.

    How to Hack the 52-Week Money Challenge

    One way people get around that problem is by printing out the chart and crossing off the weeks in whatever order they fulfill them.

    So if you got a big year-end bonus or cash Christmas gift, you could start with a $52 contribution right off the bat, and cross that week off the list. Then you could put in $10 the next week, or $22, or whatever amount you can comfortably spare, and work upward from there. That way, you’ll save a few low-dollar “gimmes” for those inevitable cash-strapped weeks later in the year, ensuring you don’t fall off the wagon entirely during a tough stretch.

    But that’s hardly the only variation. Here are five other ways to customize or overhaul the idea of the 52-Week Money Challenge to suit your own lifestyle and motivations.

    Let the Machines Handle It

    One of the hardest parts about saving money is making the conscious decision not to spend those dollars on fun, fleeting things, and instead to stick them in a jar or a savings account. That’s why we’re relentless advocates of automating your savings — it allows you to make better financial decisions without even thinking about them.

    Most big banks have sophisticated online and mobile banking platforms at this point that allow you to set up automatic deposits on whatever schedule you want — every Friday, or every payday, or whatever works for your schedule. Some of them even allow you to authorize transfers via text message, making it easy to stick to the challenge.

    The other tricky part about saving money in, say, a piggy bank, is actually having the cash on hand to stuff in there each week (and resisting the urge to take it out when you want it a couple of months later). That’s why, unless you work for tips or in a cash-based business, most financial pros recommend setting up a high-interest savings account online, so you can automatically deduct money and stash it where you won’t spend it.

    Either way, if you find your bank wanting in the technology department, there are plenty of slick banking apps that make this process even easier, including Digit and Qapital.

    Qapital even has a 52-Week Money Challenge option built in. Yet that’s not the coolest thing you can do with the app. Since Qapital plays well with other apps and devices — such as a FitBit, Foursquare, Instagram, or your phone’s GPS — you can set up almost any “savings rule” imaginable that will transfer money into your savings account based on your behavior.

    For example, you can set the app to make a small transfer into savings whenever you walk 1,000 steps or jog a mile. You could basically create your own walk-a-thon fundraiser: Pledge yourself 25 cents or $1 for every mile you walk next year. Or you could set up a virtual “toll booth” for yourself, where the app automatically transfers $2.50 into your savings account every time you cross a local bridge or pass a particular exit on the highway.

    At the very least, using an app or automatic savings schedule can make the 52-week challenge a little less challenging.

    The Monthly Money Challenge

    If your goal is simply to establish some fiscal discipline and save roughly $1,400, there’s no reason you have to do it weekly, nor with the bulk of the burden hitting you in the heart of the next holiday season.

    Set up an automatic savings deposit for $100 a month. Then, each month, kick it up by $5 (or $10). For example, save $100 in January, $105 in February, $110 in March, and so on. By next December, you’ll be saving $155 a month and sitting on a balance of $1,530. (If you use $10 increments, you’ll have $1,860 saved up.)

    104-Week Challenge

    Why stop after Week 52? After all, the whole point of the challenge is to develop a steady savings habit. If you were to keep ratcheting up your savings by just a dollar a week into the next year, you’d save up another $4,082 by the end of the second year – or about $5,500 total over two years.

    Likewise, advanced savers or high earners who already have a substantial emergency fund may chuckle politely at the notion of saving just a few dollars a week in the early going. If you’re already an accomplished saver or have a more aggressive target in mind, up the ante a bit: Start at $100 a week and increase your contributions in $2-a-week increments.

    Get Competitive

    Qapital’s app also allows you to share a savings goal with someone. So, for example, if you and your spouse are saving up for a trip or a down payment on a house, you can each contribute to the same goal – and egg each other on.

    Competition is a terrific motivator for many people. Want a real 52-week challenge? Set up a shared goal together and see who can save the most money toward it this year. Winner gets the window seat on your next big vacation.

    Combine New Year’s Resolutions

    Among Americans making New Year’s resolutions, 13% resolved to exercise more in 2019, according to the Marist/NPR/PBS NewsHour survey, while 10% are determined to lose weight and another 9% aim to eat healthier. Meanwhile, 8% will try to spend less or save more money.

    For those of us looking to do all of the above, Qapital’s saving rules come in handy. The app uses IFTTT (“if-this-then-that”) functionality that integrates with popular apps and social media platforms to make logic-based connections between your actions and your money. So, for example, you could have the app save $2 for you anytime you tweet or post an Instagram photo with a certain hashtag.

    More helpful in terms of getting in shape, you can set it to transfer $5 into your savings account every time you check in at the gym on Foursquare, or every time you go for a run. Or, you can fine yourself a few bucks every time you splurge on a treat at Starbucks or eat at a fast-food joint.

    Another 12% of those surveyed say they’ll try to quit smoking in the new year. If you always buy cigarettes at the same convenience store, set up a “cigarette tax” on yourself so that anytime you make a purchase at that store, you’re forced to dump $10 into savings. (Or try a brutal $100 fine if you really need some fast motivation.)

    If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to find a better job in 2019, Qapital connects to productivity apps like Todoist, so you can automatically deposit a few dollars into savings every time you cross off an item from your to-do list — such as sending out a resume.

    The combinations are certainly vast, if not endless, and can turn the dull saving process into a fun game. (If you come up with any cool ideas for a savings rule, let us know in the comments.)

    It’s Not How You Save – It’s That You Save

    For some people, especially the many young Americans who have little or no savings whatsoever, the 52-Week Money Challenge offers the straightforward game plan and motivation necessary to help them start saving. But it’s certainly not the only way to do it.

    In the end, whether you’re building your first-ever emergency fund or saving for a down payment on a car, it doesn’t really matter whether you use the 52-Week Money Challenge, some variant of it, or a completely different tactic to save more money in 2019. The important thing is that you start a routine of socking away some money for your own future, and that you stick to it.

    Good luck, and happy New Year’s!

    Have you tried the 52-Week Money Challenge — or put your own spin on it? What are some savings rules that would get you to save more?

    Jon Gorey

    Contributing Editor

    A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte’s work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications. Notte earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998.