The following is a contribution from Jerry over at Repaid.Org. If you’d like to contribute to Wise Dollar, please contact us.
It is easy to say that we are going to start a new habit and break an old one, but as we have all found, habits are hard to break and they can be even harder to form. If you have any doubts, just count the number of New Year’s resolutions that you have kept.
So, since we keep failing why do we keep trying? Hope, we all have the hope that this time will be different. Unfortunately, hope is not enough, and neither is willpower at times. Why? Because our brains are constantly working against us.
The Debt Cycle
If you need proof, think about the last time you wanted to stop doing something. For example: first comes the resolution to quit smoking, then the first day you didn’t smoke a cigarette. You felt great about yourself, but the next day you felt lousy getting up, just couldn’t get going. Then you remembered how quickly you could get it together after a single smoke. So, you thought: heck, I did great yesterday, so one cigarette today won’t matter, then I won’t smoke again.
Unfortunately, that slip leads to another, which leads to another, then you are back to a pack a day and beating yourself up about it. The process is the same with saving money and avoiding debt. You vow to do better and your brain tells you that buying that one shirt or charging that tank of gas is not going to hurt anything.
How Can You Fight It?
The only way to form a new habit or break an old one is to out-logic your own logic. To better explain that confusing statement, let’s start by looking at how your brain works. You know on a conscious level that you should not use your credit card, every time something shiny is in front of you. Your brain has a far more powerful subconscious level that knows that shiny trinket is linked to a habit that you currently have and one that makes you feel good, so it fights against your logic in order to allow you to do what you have habitually been doing.
You can start to change your debt habit by looking at why you want to spend money so badly. The general reasons that people spend money needlessly are:
- The thrill of the purchase.
- Negative emotions: depressed, lonely, etc and hoping the purchase will help them feel better.
- Lacking a full understanding of the negative impact of impulse buys.
Fighting the Thrill
Shopping can be fun. That fun can drive people to seek that purchasing thrill when they are bored, lonely, or depressed. It is very easy to fall into the routine of work, home, weekend, then rinse and repeat. If that is the case with you, look for weekend activities, a weekday movie night, or look into a hobby that you can distract yourself with.
Fighting Emotional Spending
If emotional spending is your issue, you may have a tougher road ahead. In order to avoid swiping a card or spending cash unnecessarily, you will have to dig into the underlying emotion. Why are you feeling this way? Lonely, bored, trapped in a routine, feeling isolated or overwhelmed? Any one of these can lead you to feeling as if spending will fix the problem. Sadly, it does for a few moments, then you start feeling the same way, but have the additional emotion of knowing you shouldn’t have spent that money, so the cycle begins again.
To fight emotional spending, you must work hard to set new steps to prevent the spending and break the cycle. A new habit that makes you feel good will be a great start, but you may need to add people to your support group. Try calling someone when you think you should go shopping. If depression or loneliness are the issue, then human contact outside of work may help.
Fighting Impulse Buys
Many adults do not fully understand the impact of an impulse buy. The rationalization is that one item will not matter. After all it is only $2.50, right? Well, often it is only $2.50 on Monday, another $2.50 on Wednesday, then an additional $10 or so on the weekend. The next thing you know, you catch yourself spending $30 or more each week on impulse buys. If you put them on a credit card, they can get out of hand even more quickly.
The best way to keep a handle on impulse buys is to track your spending every day. Just using a pocket notebook can keep you clued in. Write all of your purchases down, then add them up. It is likely that you will shock yourself out of the impulse buying habit.
Re-training Your Brain
The true cure all for fighting your brain is to train it to stop fighting you as often. You need to train your brain to fully process alternatives to the subconscious reactions that you have. Being under a lot of stress, depressed, not sleeping enough–any one of these things can reduce your brain’s ability to process alternatives, making you more apt to spend unnecessarily. Getting more sleep is easy to do, but feeling stressed out or depressed can be harder to fix.
When you feel like buying something to make yourself feel better under those conditions, try simply walking away. If the purchase is necessary, it will still be available tomorrow and you can go back. If not, you will have forgotten it by morning. Walking away may not work for everyone. You may need to find someone to help you. A parent, spouse, or sibling that will help talk you out of buying things you do not need. Keep in mind that you may feel as if you are being judged while in the moment, but that will pass when you realize that they are only helping like you asked. Just like many bad habits, it may take some assistance to kick the debt monkey off of your back.
What are some ways you trick yourself into not spending more? What tempts you to overspend when you know you shouldn’t? What is one financial thing you’ve been trying to conquer for years but have struggled with?
Jerry Coffey is a self-described recovering “debtaholic” who went deep into a spiral of spending, debt, bankruptcy, and assorted money woes before breaking the cycle with a frugal lifestyle. Now he shares his experiences and advice over at Repaid.org.
Photo courtesy of: Morgan