The rest of the world only has to worry about keeping up with the Joneses – in the FIRE (Financial Independence / Retire Early) community we have the Mustachians. Mr. Money Mustache retired in his thirties after nine years of saving a large portion of […]
Month: August 2017
On my debt free journey I’ve learned that motivation is everything. If we want to see progress we have to engineer our environment to bump ourselves along to success. Gamify, Automate & Habitify (GAH!) are my watchwords! Support is a major component of achievement, so […]
What is the most efficient path to sustainable behavior change?
Die-hard willpower devotees will tell you to suck it up, flex your will muscle, punch yourself in the face, and crush your goals through sheer strength of mind. Me? I don’t believe in willpower. Do you? Let’s try an experiment. Why don’t you go open a bag of chips and then only eat one of them for the rest of the day? Go ahead, I’ll wait.
[The next day.]
How did that work out for you? If you’re a regular human person, you probably ate the entire bag while watching Netflix and then shuffled to bed in a haze of salty shame. I know this because I’ve done the same thing on numerous occasions.
If willpower was really the key to behavior change, wouldn’t more of us be successful at eating right, exercising, and saving for retirement? Wouldn’t our completion rate for New Year’s resolutions be higher than a measly 8%?
My philosophy is that psychology > math when it comes to behavior and as a result, true efficiency lies in manipulating your environment to engineer success. We are squishy sacks of habits and urges. Why rely on a difficult method of change with a low success rate when we can choose something easier and more effective?
GAH (Gamify, Automate, Habitify) is my trifecta of behavior change. If you can harness the full power of these three concepts, you will be practically unstoppable! All of these changes are easy to implement and should give you better results than relying on willpower alone.
Track your progress. Celebrate the milestones and reward your small and large successes. If you’re feeling discouraged, look back over the past few months or years to reinforce how far you’ve come!
- Make yourself some achievement badges or feel free to use mine!
- Color in your debt or savings using charts or coloring pages.
- Make notes on an annual calendar.
- Add a marble (or better yet, a chocolate coin!) to a jar for every $100 or $1,000 or $10,000 you need to be debt free or financially independent.
- Fill in a spreadsheet with payments or savings amounts and watch the numbers go down (or up!).
If you treat your goal like a game, you’ll be much more motivated to get to that next level. Ask me how many hours I spent playing Zelda: BOTW. Technology companies are fantastic at gamifying our lives. Just look at how addicted we are to our phones – addicted enough to walk off of cliffs or into traffic because we’re so absorbed in them! Imagine how much you could accomplish if you used these same techniques for self-improvement.
Choices require a certain level of processing power, and using too much of it can be exhausting. Automatic actions are easier, so the key is to automate beneficial actions and de-automate detrimental ones.
The next time you find yourself overspending (detrimental action), ask what roadblocks you could throw up to prevent it from happening again. Could you delete your account information from the online stores so you’re forced to manually enter everything? Even a minute or two of extra effort might slow you down enough to reconsider the choice. Remember the credit-card-in-a-block-of-ice trick? Same idea.
If you want to save more (beneficial action), figure out ways that you can make setting aside money easier. One common strategy is to set up automatic transfers to a savings or investment account.
Every payday, I log into my bank account and the first thing I do is transfer a payment to my student loans. One of my budgeting philosophies is to pay your past self first (or your future self, if you’re debt free). If I transferred the amount that was left at the end of the month, I would be trying to pay with cobwebs and tumbleweeds. Frontloading my student loan payments means I stick to my budget, or else! There’s no excuses or ‘I’ll pay extra on it later’ if the money is already gone!
Changing habits is all about manipulating triggers in our environment. We all respond to certain triggers that cause us to act in different ways. Behavior modification starts with identifying the habit and its triggers.
Let’s say that you’re trying to spend less on clothing.
What are the triggers that cause you to do the behavior (purchase clothing)? How can you alter or eliminate these triggers and replace them with positive ones instead?
- Email newsletters? Unsubscribe, and subscribe to lists about minimalism and mindfulness.
- Pressure from friends? Tell them you’re trying to lower your spending and request their support. Invite them over for a movie instead.
- Nothing to wear? Try making a capsule wardrobe with items you already own. Project 333 is a great resource for creating a capsule wardrobe!
- Bored? Find other hobbies that don’t involve shopping. Meditate. Take a walk in a park.
Another great tool to try is habit tracking. Every day you don’t buy clothing, mark it off on a calendar. Imagine that each day is one link in a chain. How long of a chain can you make? Don’t break the chain! This is surprisingly motivating, and relates back to the gamify piece of the trifecta!
Personal finance is largely about behavior, so the more that you can do to steer yourself in the right direction without necessarily being at the wheel, the better!
What are some areas of your life that you’ve gamified, automated, or habitified?
One of the common excuses for not being able to save money is living in an expensive city. Well, I’m here to tell you that I live in the most expensive city in my country – Vancouver, Canada – and I’m STILL making it work. […]
August was pretty standard as far as debt payments go. I’ve settled into a routine where I pay $600 on my student loan at the beginning of the month, and $1,300 on my student line of credit in the middle of the month. My current […]
I’m sure by now we’ve all read an infinite number of articles about saving money. The standard cut your cable bill and stop eating out so f*cking much is still great advice, but what if that doesn’t work? The math is simple, but that doesn’t help the majority of us if personal finance is largely about behavior.
What can we do outside of self-flagellation and budgeting?
Make The Smallest, Easiest Changes First
This might seem counterintuitive, since the big, tough changes usually bring the biggest financial benefit. As I mentioned, behavior > math so I like to focus on the changes that are behaviorally the most efficient. By staying consistent and making small, incremental steps, the math will eventually follow!
We all have priorities in life, it’s just about managing them so that our top priorities have most of our focus. Make a list of your top 10 key splurges, in order of most to least important to you. Here are mine:
- an abundance of cell phone data
- delicious, chocolatey snacks
- delicious, non-chocolatey snacks
- event tickets
- video games
- board games
- fast food & restaurants
Check out the bottom of that list. This is where we start. I’m not saying you have to completely cut out any category, but you can certainly spend less on the lower tier without noticing it as much as the higher tier. If you’re spending the most money on some of the lowest priorities, this is also a great time to face that reality!
I could lower my cell phone bill and slip slowly into madness on my commute, but that would cause me a disproportional amount of pain to gain. Ditto to ditching unhealthy food, apparently.
On the other hand, I don’t really enjoy drinking more than one or two alcoholic beverages at a time because it pretty much makes me feel like garbage. I realized that I was usually drinking more because everyone else was, and not because I particularly liked it. I started having water instead or sipping one or two drinks, and my spending dropped with almost no effort. I actually increased my happiness by spending less in this case!
I also decided I wouldn’t purchase any clothing in 2017 (so far, so good!). By the time I made this decision, it was surprisingly easy. I had a capsule wardrobe that was working well for me, and I didn’t need anything. When I still found myself browsing clothing, I knew it was time to disrupt the habit. I was shopping out of impulse, not want or necessity. It was relatively painless to unsubscribe from the newsletters and stop browsing the shops, because buying clothing was already lower on the priority list.
This method works well because it increases your confidence with quick wins, and reinforces the idea that you are in control of your spending. Suddenly you discover that some of those items that you thought were essential were actually just habitual. Once you feel comfortable decreasing spending on the lower priorities, it will be easier to move on and evaluate your purchases in other categories.
Find A New Hobby
Boredom is a great way to spend money, speaking from personal experience. If you can build in productive ways to fill your time that remove the social spending cues and distract you from researching that next perfect purchase, you’ll be ahead of the curve.
Most people would classify Netflix as an inexpensive activity, but if all you’re watching are home improvement shows and dramas about flush money launderers or drug kingpins, you’re still constantly receiving cues about spending. I like to watch futuristic science fiction because at least then the things I want to purchase haven’t been invented yet.
The holy grail of hobbies is something that is inexpensive, engaging, and enjoyable. It’s all about finding something that fits this criteria for you.
Get New Friends, Or Convert Your Current Ones
Yes, seriously. I don’t mean completely ditch your friends, but it’s tough only being around people who are directly opposed to your goals. If you find yourself having to say no to spendy plans constantly it will be more difficult to get in the right headspace to succeed.
My friends know that I’m reducing my spending to pay down my student debt and have all been extremely supportive, but if yours aren’t maybe it’s time to focus on yourself for a while. Find friends who understand your situation and are working toward similar achievements, even if they don’t live close to you. I have a few long-distance friends who know about my financial independence journey (and are on their own!) and we send each other messages of encouragement almost every day.
Okay, you may want to continue seeing your best friends, but are there other detrimental relationships that you can give some more distance? If not, could you steer the conversations from spending to saving? When your co-workers talk about how they plan to spend their bonus, you could chime in that you made a contribution to your retirement account. You don’t need to push the financial independence path on anyone, because no one wants to be saved, but you can mention it casually and then change the subject to a neutral topic. If their wheels start spinning and they ask you about it later, you can dole out more information at their pace. You might even find a new financial independence friend!
Address Your Mental Health
I think this step can be one of the most important, especially for those of us who aren’t seeing progress using the conventional wisdom. If you find yourself setting reasonable goals and then regularly failing to achieve them because of overspending, there may be something deeper at play. Other signs of a negative relationship to spending include purchasing things you don’t need or didn’t plan to buy; shopping in response to emotions; experiencing remorse after a purchase; or trying to conceal your new items from friends or family.
Spending can stem from many areas such as attempting to cope with stress, trying to fill an emotional void, or seeking a dopamine rush. I know seeing a professional can be intimidating, but having a neutral, kind, empathic ear might make all of the difference. If you’re not at that place right now, the Recovering Shopaholic blog, while currently on hiatus, has some fantastic resources.
For a mental health action you can take right now, try meditating for a few minutes to clear your mind of the noise.
What are some unconventional tactics you use to save money?
Are you on schedule to achieve your goals? A key component of motivation is tracking and evaluating your progress for consistent feedback on your behavior. We tend to get lost in our day to day, feeling like we’re not getting anywhere, so it is essential […]
In January, riding the high of New Year’s Resolutions, I decided to tackle my meals out budget. Reviewing my 2016 numbers, I realized I had been spending an average of $290.12 per month on fast food and restaurants! Not. Good. To cut back, I knew […]
It sounds ridiculous when I put it like that, doesn’t it?
The truth is, I could have easily said Don’t Hide Behind Your … Income – Job – City – Relationship – Parents. Children are just the most common excuse I read for people not pursuing greatness, so I went with them (sorry, kids!).
On virtually every article about financial success there are comments like these:
- “I’d like to see someone do this with kids.”
- “Not as a single person!”
- “On that salary, I could retire early too!”
- “Must be nice to live rent free.”
- “I wish my parents paid for my education.”
- “Impossible when you live in an expensive city.”
- “I’m a Leo so I physically cannot save money.”
- “That wouldn’t work for me because my pet rock has asthma.”
What I’m trying to figure out is how all of these excuses are helping YOU. My hunch is that they’re not, except to help you feel better about not making any progress toward improving your life.
How do I know this? I’ve done the exact same thing for years.
I could list excuses that I could use (and have used) if you want to commiserate?
- I have a long commute
- I live in the most expensive city in Canada
- I have six figures of debt
- I don’t have a six figure salary
What happens when we remove the barriers that we’ve set up?
For me, ditching the excuses meant facing everything that was actually holding me back – my spending and my attitude and my behavior. I took control wherever I could find it, cut my expenses, and started crushing my student loan debt. I didn’t suddenly reform my habits overnight – I made several small but consistent changes that eventually added up to major progress. As soon as I cut the power to the excuse generator, I started to see results.
Instead of saying “I couldn’t do that,” try saying “how could I do that?” Ask yourself which strategies someone used to succeed, and choose one that you could apply to your own life. You might not retire at age 30 with a million dollars (hey, me neither!), but it’s not an all or nothing scenario. Your life is a spectrum, and you can be close to or far from your ideal life depending on your choices. Yes, fortune is a factor, but does that mean we should just ignore the effort side of the equation? Don’t give up before you even start.
So, when is it time to improve your life?
Side note: If want proof that you can pursue financial independence with kids, in a high cost of living area, or as a geologist, check out the Rockstar Finance Directory! There are many search terms, and no more excuses.