How to Stop Making Excuses for Bad Financial Choices

Each year, I go to Gencon, a tabletop gaming convention in Indianapolis held every August. Among the major events are two that make it very tempting to open my wallet: a “dealer hall” where various game manufacturers show off their latest wares and an auction house where unusual items are auctioned off to the highest bidder (as well as some more common items that will often go for a very low price).

During my first two years there, I spent more money than I should have. There were many, many games and bargains there and I found myself opening my wallet much more often than I intended to.

Each year, after the convention, I’d try really hard to justify the spending to myself.

It’s just once a year.

It’s a special event.

You’ll enjoy all of the stuff.

Some of those items were major bargains!

You can make up for it by cutting back next month.

Even with all of those excuses and justifications, it still didn’t change the sting of the next credit card bill. Sure, I had enough cash to pay it off in one shot, but that money was taken away from other goals in my life.

My poor financial choices at Gencon caused me to lose progress toward other big things in my life and it was because I exhibited really poor financial control.

So, what did I do?

In subsequent years, I adopted a tight budget. I literally took an envelope of cash with me and all of my expenses for the convention came solely from that envelope. That included meals, purchases, shuttle rides, and anything else that might come up.

That money had been saved up over the previous several months, as I usually start saving right after Christmas. I save a healthy portion of my monthly hobby/entertainment allowance exclusively for Gencon.

Whenever I think about making a purchase, I just check that envelope. Is there cash in there? Can I afford the item? Might there be other things I want more later on?

The end result has been that Gencon has been just as fun as in previous years, except that I don’t spend all my money and I don’t walk away with regret. In fact, this year, I still had quite a bit of cash in my envelope when I came home.

What changed? I stopped making excuses for my awful financial behavior.

The problem is that “STOP MAKING EXCUSES!” is an overly simplistic solution. It works as a catchphrase, but it’s actually not that easy to implement in your life.

Here are seven strategies I use to stop making excuses not only with my spending choices, but in other areas of my financial, personal, and professional life.

Strategy #1 – Recognize Excuses When They Happen

This one’s easy. Just stay vigilant for times where excuses pop up in your head. Simply being aware of excuses makes them a lot less powerful.

My method for tracking excuses is a pretty simple one. When I’m trying to establish a good habit – a saving routine or a budget or an exercise routine or whatever – I add an item related to that to my list of things to do today.

A few times during the day, I look through that list and try to decide which thing I’m going to do next – and which things probably aren’t going to get done today. That moment is excuse central.

To counteract that, whenever I cross something off of my to-do list, I require that I write down a real reason for canceling it. That thing that I write down is almost guaranteed to be an excuse.

It forces me to look my excuses right in the face… and, frankly, it embarrasses me. When I make an excuse so that I can avoid something hard or so that I can take the easy path, I’m disappointed in myself.

If I’m aware of this right at that excuse-making moment, I’m very likely to just throw that excuse aside in disgust and make an extra effort to complete that task.

You can modify this idea in a lot of ways. Just make sure that you have an opportunity to pause and really look those excuses in the face when you’re at the precipice of a decision.

Strategy #2 – Practice Positive Thinking

Many of my excuses are self-defeating. They are based on the idea that I’m simply a failure in some key way as a human being. If I buy into the idea that I’m somehow flawed or somehow less of a person, it becomes easier to accept mistakes and believe that flawed moves are somehow okay.

The reality is that I’m not a flawed person, I’m not a lesser person, and thus mistakes aren’t acceptable. If I genuinely believe that I’m a person that can achieve my goals and can do great things in life, it becomes a lot harder to justify making excuses.

The key is to believe that I’m not flawed and that I’m not a lesser person. The most effective way I’ve found to make that happen is to practice positive thinking. Here are some strategies I use every day to promote positive thinking and keep melancholy at bay.

First, I list my successes. I’m a lifelong journaler (seriously, I’ve been doing it almost daily since seventh grade). One thing that I try to do every day is list five things in my life I’m grateful for and five things I’m proud of that I achieved today. Doing that every single day makes me feel much better about who I am and how my life is going, even in the face of difficulties.

Second, I think about other stakeholders. My choices are never made in a bubble. Almost every decision I make has stakeholders besides myself – my wife, my children, my friends, my readers, my professional contacts, and so on. When I think about my options, I usually find that the “excuse” is purely selfish – it only serves me. Doing the challenging thing is the option that almost always helps out many stakeholders besides me. I exercise for me – but I also exercise for my wife and my kids.

Third, I accept compliments. Compliments used to make me feel deeply self-conscious. I never felt like I deserved them. The truth is that if someone pays you a compliment, you do deserve it. You’re making enough good decisions and taking enough positive actions that people besides you – even with the spotlight effect reducing how much they notice – are actually noticing what you’re doing and are taking the time to tell you. That’s a great sign. It’s clear evidence that you’re doing something good – and you can take pride in that.

Finally, I eliminate negative people in my life. If I find that there are people in my life who cause me to feel negatively about myself, I reduce the time I spend with those people. On the flipside, if there are people in my life who make me feel more positively about myself, I increase the time I spend with those people. The people you’re with just reinforce the thoughts and ideas that are already inside of you.

Not only do these strategies help me keep the excuses at bay, they also help me keep negative feelings about myself at bay. I generally feel better about myself when I practice these things.

Strategy #3 – Give Your Big Goals Priority

Humans are short-term people. We are always thinking about the near-term future. What are we doing in the next fifteen minutes? This afternoon? This weekend? Things outside of the next few weeks often feel really nebulous and vague, almost as though they’re not quite real. We have a very hard time grasping long-term goals and making them feel as important as our short-term desires.

When I’m sitting at my computer working on an important-but-not-urgent big project, it’s often really tempting to just go and do something fun for a little while. When I’m at a game shop or a book store, it’s often really tempting to just buy a new game or a new book, because in just a few minutes I could have that fun new thing in my hands.

The little immediate things become a priority over the big picture things.

In the aftermath, of course, there are plenty of excuses for why that mistake happened. It wasn’t really that expensive. I wanted it. I deserve a little treat every once in a while.

In reality, though, it’s simply a weak way to try to explain why I let little impulses get in the way of big goals.

To get around this, I’ve found that the most powerful technique is to just reinforce those goals strongly in your life. Make sure that those goals are strongly present in your thinking throughout the day and you’ll find that they pop up when you’re making those little mistakes. If you never make that mistake in the first place, then there’s nothing to excuse.

Wake up in the morning thinking about your goals. I’ve adopted something of a “morning report” that I look at each morning to get my mind in the right place. It usually includes three big life goals that I’m trying to achieve and I spend a bit of time thinking about each one and how I can make that goal a part of my life today.

Find some things to do each day that result in positive progress toward your goals. Almost every big goal in life has something you can actively do during a given day to make positive progress on that goal. If you take action toward a goal, it becomes much more concrete and real in your mind. I find that active steps help better than passive ones, so choose something to do that isn’t just a choice not to do something. Get some exercise or take on a frugal task, whatever it might be.

Take great pride in your positive steps toward your goals. At the end of the day, look back at those steps you took and feel good about them. When you go to sleep, let that thought of real progress stick in your mind. That sense of feeling good about your goal-oriented actions and achievements will stick with you throughout your day and is only reinforced by every good choice you make.

Keep your big goals front and center in your life. It makes excuses harder to come by.

Strategy #4 – Recognize That Only You Control Your Own Decisions

One of the biggest excuses that people like to rely on is blaming others.

It’s my boss’s fault that I can’t get ahead.

It’s Obama’s/Congress’s fault that I can’t get ahead.

It’s my spouse’s fault for sucking up my time with stuff I don’t care about.

Guess what? Your boss doesn’t make decisions for you. You make them. Obama doesn’t make decisions for you. You make them. Congress doesn’t make decisions for you. You make them. Your spouse doesn’t make decisions for you. You make them.

You have a choice. You can choose to spend your free time on things that build toward something great… or you can choose to spend your free time on something that doesn’t build to anything at all. You can choose to get out there and do something that generates income… or you can choose to sit on your couch getting angry at whatever the talking heads on television want you to get angry at.

It is always your choice.

Strategy #5 – Stop Comparing Yourself to Others (and To Your Distant Past)

There is only one comparison worth making when it comes to avoiding excuses. Are you better off today than you were yesterday (or a week ago or a month ago or some other very short time ago)?

Did your net worth go up in the last month? Did your weight go down or stay steady in the last month? Do you have less debt than you had a month ago? Are you closer to your big goal than you were a week or a month ago?

Don’t waste a second of your life comparing yourself to anyone else. The people you’re comparing yourself to do not have your genes. They do not have your life experience. They do not have your job situation. It is not a valid comparison.

Don’t waste a second of your life comparing yourself to who you were five years ago or when you were in college. That person doesn’t have your full set of life experiences. That person certainly doesn’t have your current job situation or life situation. It is not a valid comparison.

None of those things matter now. All those comparisons really do is provide an excuse to give up.

Instead, all that matters is that you are in a better place today than you were yesterday. Every day, that should be your focus. Today matters. You matter. Nothing else matters.

The only valid comparison to where you are right now is the person you were in the very, very recent past. The threshold for surpassing your very recent past is something you can handle.

Any other comparisons are a waste of your time and energy, both of which can be spent topping the person you were yesterday.

Strategy #6 – Design Simple Ways to Minimize Mistakes

Many of our excuses come about in the aftermath of making personal mistakes. We want to try to minimize that failure, so we look for easy reasons to explain away that failure.

The best way to avoid all that is to find ways to avoid making those personal mistakes to begin with.

This is where my “money envelope” idea comes into play, the one I mentioned in my story about Gencon at the start of this article. It’s a simple way to minimize (and basically eliminate) my ability to spend beyond my budget in a very tempting place where I’m okay with spending a little money… but not too much money.

There are simple ways to avoid most of the excuse-triggering mistakes in our lives.

Don’t want to “excuse” drinking a bunch of soda? Don’t buy it, especially not in a multi-pack at the store, and if you’re craving it, have some sort of substitute waiting for you in the fridge (like a cold bottle of tea with a bit of honey in it).

Don’t want to “excuse” not saving for retirement? Sign up for a plan that automatically deducts from your paycheck or automatically moves money out of your checking account. That way, you never even have to think about it.

Don’t want to “excuse” not exercising in the morning? Keep all of your exercise stuff right by your bed so it’s incredibly easy to grab it and get dressed and get going first thing in the morning.

Don’t want to “excuse” buying too many impulsive things at the grocery store? Adopt a routine of making a meal plan and a grocery list based on that meal plan, then use the grocery list when you’re in the store.

Don’t want to “excuse” not eating at home? Make a slow cooker meal in the morning that’s ready for you when you walk in the door.

Don’t want to “excuse” forgetting to make progress on your side business? Have your cell phone remind you to spend time on that side business with an alarm or other notification.

Most of the excuses we make are there to cover up simple mistakes that can be prevented with simple solutions. If you feel an excuse coming on, look for a simple way to make sure the mistake never happens again.

Strategy #7 – Master Positive Responses to Common Excuses

Even after all of this, my mind will still generate excuses when I’m about to make a mistake or when I’m justifying a mistake. Thankfully, some of these excuses exhibit some common patterns, so I know just how to take them on.

Common Excuse – I Don’t Have Enough Time

Yeah, sure, I’m busy. I have a full time writing gig, plus I work on other freelance writing tasks. I have a healthy marriage, three kids, several hobbies, and several community commitments. It is really easy for me to tell myself that I don’t have enough time for something important.

The reality is that, if I look at my day carefully, I spend time in foolish ways almost every day. I’m not talking about mere leisure time. I’m talking about time spent here or there just surfing websites or playing a computer game by myself. I can always cut out things like that without cutting into my true leisure time.

If there really isn’t enough time, then that’s a sure sign that I’m overbooked. I should take some time to evaluate all of my commitments and see if there are any that should go by the wayside to make room for other commitments.

There is always time to take on something important.

Common Excuse – I Don’t Have Enough Education

If there’s a task out there that I want to take on but I’m afraid to try it because I don’t have adequate education or training or knowledge, then I’ve just spelled out a new goal for myself. It’s now time to acquire that knowledge.

Just like the time issue, it all comes down to priorities. Are you willing to give up a big part of your daily television or internet surfing routine to take some classes or acquire the knowledge you need to make that next big career move? From there, you can break it down into little bits. Are you going to spend your evening building knowledge for your career or are you going to watch America’s Next Top Model?

Common Excuse – This Time Is Special, So Failure Is Okay

A “special event” in your life isn’t enough of a reason to toss personal goals out the window.

You don’t need to order an unhealthy or expensive meal at a restaurant. You don’t need to buy stuff you don’t actually need at a big sale. You don’t need to sacrifice your personal goals because an old friend is in town.

Simply because a special event is occurring does not directly mean that it’s okay to toss your goals aside. Most of the time, your goals and that special event can easily coexist if you either plan ahead a bit or curb your impulsive tendencies.

Common Excuse – I’ll Just Fail

This is the opponent of hard goals. A hard goal is one that does inherently come with a risk of failure.

Here’s the catch, though. Most hard goals reward you even if you don’t quite make it to the big achievement at the end. A goal that requires you to work out four times a week is going to get you in better shape, even if you don’t lose a certain amount of weight. You’re going to walk away healthier.

A goal that requires you to write and publish a book is going to make you a better writer just through the process of completing a manuscript, even if you don’t find a publisher. You’re going to walk away a better writer.

If you take on a hard goal, so what if you fail? In a sincere attempt at success, you’re going to become a better person anyway. It’s the journey that makes you better, not the destination.

Final Thoughts

Excuses are the enemy of making yourself and your situation better. They allow you to walk away from that progress simply because it’s a little hard or inconvenient.

When you see an excuse popping up in your life, tear it out like a weed from your garden. You’ll find far more success in almost everything you do if you just get rid of the excuses.

Good luck.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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