Have you ever told yourself you would do one thing but then done another? If you’re human, then no doubt you have. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. We like to think we act rationally, but when it comes down to it, our decisions are influenced more by our emotions than our thoughts. There are plenty of situations where our most carefully laid plans fall apart – that restaurant dinner that got expensive, that budget that just didn’t work, or that bar tab that was out of hand.
In this article, we’ll look at how to recognize where our careful plans fall apart, and how to set psychological traps that keep ourselves on track.
Rational Plans: Good, But Not Enough
Usually, people try to solve problems in our lives by taking huge, rational, complicated approaches to things.
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To improve our financial lives, we do things like read financial planning books to make decisions about retirement, or create multi-category budgets with monthly rollovers and manual data entry. These solutions have their benefits, but it’s important to note that we have a lot of power over the little things that add up to a huge impact. Those little things are what we’ll work on today, and we’ll assume that you’ve already made some rational plans about how to take control of your finances.
Habits: Powerful, But Hard to Change
Habits are powerful because we do them regularly. We can keep up some complicated plan for a while, but when we’re stressed or out of energy, that plan dies. It’s our daily habits that survive. This is why the most important part of any real behavior change is in the small things that we do every day.
What habits do you have? Think about a time where your plans got ruined by special circumstances, something habitual. Maybe you had a budget and it fell apart; maybe you were trying to save up for something but didn’t make it. Got one? Good.
You’re a creative person. Right now, I bet you can find one small way to change your financial future. I bet we can set a trap that will help you stay on track with your plans; that is, we can set up a little structure that is easy to make now, waits for the right moment, and then catches you right when you’re about to fall.
To help you set this trap, let’s take a few common examples of financial mishaps, and then figure out ways to prevent them from happening.
Challenge 1. Dining With Friends
Perhaps you’ve already saved a lot of money on dinner by cooking at home. But your friends are all going out for dinner, and of course you’re going to go. Taking control of your finances doesn’t mean sacrificing your friendships! Your friends pick a restaurant, and you end up paying $40 for dinner.
How do you stay within a better budget? It’s not realistic to stop hanging out with friends, and it’s embarrassing to admit to everyone that you’re not comfortable with the cost.
One Solution: When going to dinner, put your cash limit in your wallet, and nothing more. Perhaps this limit is $15. It’s much easier to order a cheap menu item or a salad than it is for you to get up halfway through dinner to run to an ATM.
Challenge 2. Pay More Towards Debt
Sure, it’s easy to say “I’m going to pay $___.__ to my debt every month” (fill in your own amount). However, when the monthly statement comes around, you second guess yourself and only pay half as much, keeping the extra cash “just in case”. This cash then ends up being spent on stuff – that horrible, house cluttering, expensive, environment crushing junk that provides more trouble than happiness.
One Solution: Set up automatic monthly payments for your goal amount. It’s easier to monitor your spending when you know for a fact that if that account balance goes too low, your automatic payment will overdraft the account. You can always cancel or change the payment in the case of emergency, but if you’re just hankering for some stuff, canceling that payment sure gets harder to justify.
Challenge 3. Going Out for Drinks
You go to happy hour after work with some buddies to relax a bit. You didn’t plan on spending a lot, but all of a sudden everyone is buying rounds of beers, and you’re up next. Your wallet feels lighter after it leaves $30 at the bar.
How do you keep yourself from getting into this situation without being antisocial?
One Solution: One option is to volunteer to be the designated driver. You won’t drink, your wallet will be fatter, your friends will love you, and you’ll feel great in the morning.
Challenge 4: The Online Shopping Spree
Your plan to getting out of debt is going along smoothly, but you see that new set of Mad Men DVDs you’ve been wanting on sale, and before you know it you’ve spent yourself into a hole. You later realize it probably wasn’t necessary, but at the time it just seemed easy.
How do you keep yourself from spending without turning off the internet altogether?
One Solution: Make it as hard as possible to make a purchase. Delete all saved credit and debit card info from shopping websites, so you have to enter it each time. Hide the cards in a safe, or freeze them in an ice cube. Put our reminder stickers on your cards while you’re at it. Now, you have valuable extra time to rethink each purchase before making it.
Now, Make Your Own
None of these solutions are perfect, and there are infinite other challenges and tactics to take in your financial picture. The trick is to develop the right mindset. With this mindset, you pay attention to where your spending doesn’t match your goals. You realize that you’re human, not a bad person, and that in the heat of the moment your plans can fall apart.
Then, you plan for that moment. You use your creativity, you set the stage for your emotional mind, and when that moment comes, you triumph over it. So now it’s your turn: What traps can you lay for yourself?
Please leave any techniques that you think of in the comments, so others can benefit from your creativity.