When I think about my worst spending mistakes, when I abandon all sense of frugality and damage my financial success by spending a lot of money on something wasteful, there’s almost always one big element that those mistakes have in common. They always happen at a moment when I feel really negative about myself and my life.
If I feel really good about things in my life, the things, the relationships that I have and all of the things going on, then I’m far less likely to make spending mistakes, particularly big ones. It’s only when I’m feeling as though my life isn’t very good and I’m missing out on things that I find myself spending money recklessly.
For me, perhaps the most powerful tool to avoid spending mistakes, stay frugal in my spending habits and keep heading toward financial success is to simply have a positive attitude about my own life and the various elements in it. As I noted, if I’m feeling good and feeling content about what I have, I’m less likely to spend recklessly to try to fill some emotional hole, and the less likely I am to spend recklessly, the easier it becomes to achieve all of my financial goals.
How do I really do that, though? I’ll be the first to admit that I find this approach to life easy at times and hard at others. There are times when I find it quite easy to feel good about myself and what I have, and there are other times when I find it very hard to feel good about things and find myself thinking very negatively about some elements of my life. That latter mindset almost always leads to big spending missteps.
I am never going to be a perfect person with a permanently sunny outlook and positive perspective on my life. I don’t think anyone is. Even though I know it’s foolish and it feels bad and it almost always causes financial and health missteps, I still sometimes fall into negative feelings and discontentment with my life.
Instead, what I aim for is a life that’s a little more positive overall than it used to be, with a set of tools I know I can use to make negative thoughts a little less likely and to help myself get out of a rut of negative thinking. These tactics aren’t like some kind of magic switch that transforms everything. Rather, they move a mind that might be, say, 60% positive and 40% negative to something like 70% positive to 30% negative. That might not seem like much, but it’s actually quite huge. That simple switch means my negative thinking is 25% less frequent than it used to be, which means 25% fewer spending mistakes. (It’s actually bigger than that, because I find that my spending mistakes get worse and worse the longer I dwell on negative thoughts, and these approaches help to stop long runs of negative thinking.)
Here are 10 techniques that work well for me in terms of cultivating a persistently more positive mindset, which not only helps me feel better but also helps me spend less money, eat better, and be more active.
Write down, in your own handwriting, five things you’re grateful for each day.
In the past, this was something I did in fits and starts. I’d do it for several days, then stop doing it, then pick it up again for three weeks, then drop it. It was only over the last year or so that I’ve really started doing it consistently, day in and day out, as part of a morning routine.
I try really hard to think of ordinary, little things in the last day that really made me feel good. In the last month or so, I wrote down things like “the enchiladas we made for supper last night,” “my youngest getting excited about figuring out a good move in a game,” and “curling up in the big blanket on a really cold day.”
What I’ve found is that the process of reflecting on my day and intentionally looking for those positive little things makes it easier to see those little things throughout the day. I’ll see one of my kids laughing, our family dog will curl up next to me when I’m reading a book or I’ll smell apples baking in the kitchen and I’ll think, “Man, life is pretty good,” and I’ll try to remember to include it tomorrow.
The thing is, when you start to see those kinds of things popping up all the time, you begin to not just see those little things, but also see that life as a whole is pretty good. Yes, there are things that aren’t perfect and there are things that are uncomfortable and difficult in life, and this doesn’t make them disappear. Rather, this is about getting your mind to notice more of the flowers in the field, not pretending that there aren’t weeds.
Challenge your own negative thoughts, particularly ones about yourself.
Everyone has a monologue of thoughts going on in their head most of the time. It’s a mix of hopes and plans for the future, reflections on the past, things that need to be done, reflections on yourself and people in your life, and all kinds of other stuff.
Depending on your mood, that monologue of thoughts can have a positive tone or a negative one. I find that, for me, when it’s positive, it tends to focus on things I like about myself and my life and optimistic things about the future, whereas when it’s negative, it’s very self-critical and gloomy. It’s that sense of self-negativity, doom and gloom that often drives me to spend foolishly, as I’m much more easily swayed by product pitches, marketing and the idea that I can buy something that will fix it.
A much less costly solution, albeit one that can be sometimes hard to remember when you’re in a funk, is to push back on those negative thoughts and question them fiercely. When you think that your life is terrible, push back on it. Is that really true? What about all of these good things in your life? When you envision failure, ask yourself if that’s really going to happen, particularly if you put some actual effort into making it not happen.
This doesn’t mean that you should be converting every critical thought into something positive. Some level of self-criticism is good, as it drives you to do things and to make yourself better, and some self-criticism is justified.
Pushback merely separates the meaningful and useful self-criticism, the stuff that should translate into action to fix it, from the stuff that just tears you down for no good reason.
It’s never a perfect filter, of course, but every step you can take to separate some of the useful things from some of the trash in your internal monologue is a step in the right direction.
“Pre-load” decisions when you’re in a good mindset so you can do less damage when you’re in a negative mindset.
Whenever I’m feeling good about myself and my life and the things I’m doing, I try to pre-load as many decisions as possible so that I can keep the good things rolling. I’ll do things like making an extra contribution to my Roth IRA or adding some extra money to our vacation savings. I’ll do a big frugality project. I’ll dig through the pantry and organize it for meal plans for the next few weeks.
The point is that I’m trying to reduce the space for bad decisions later when I’m in more of a bad spot mentally. If I’m feeling down but I know that I have supper planned out and all the stuff is already bought and ready to go for it, I’m much less likely to just order food from somewhere. If I’m feeling down and want to buy something foolish, I’m less likely to do so if I know that I’ve already “spent” that money on Roth IRA contributions.
At the same time, I try to delay big decisions if I know I’m in a bad spot. If I’m about to spend money (or eat something or waste a lot of time or whatever) when I’m in a negative mood, I try to tell myself not to do it and just to wait until I feel a little better. Again, this doesn’t work all the time, or even most of the time, but it pops up often enough make a difference.
For me, this type of thing works best when I use some visualization. I actually think about myself in a funk and then visualize myself giving that kind of pushback. I do this kind of visualizing when I’m driving somewhere, waiting for my daughter to get out of choir practice or sitting in the dentist’s office. I just visualize myself doing things the right way in the near future, and more often than not, I end up actually doing things in that “right way.”
Practice mindfulness meditation every day for 15 minutes or so.
One of the most influential books I’ve read in the last ten years or so was 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works — A True Story by Dan Harris. For those unfamiliar, Dan Harris was a news anchor for ABC News who had a panic attack on-air during a newscast. His stress level was through the roof and he was having a hard time dealing with the number of things he was juggling in life.
The thing that helped him more than anything else was discovering basic mindfulness meditation. Basically, he spends about 30 minutes a day over two sessions simply sitting in a chair, closing his eyes and focusing his thoughts on his breathing. If his mind wanders and starts monologuing, he brings his attention gently back to breathing. That’s it. It seems comically simple.
I read this book when I was struggling with a lot of things in my own life. I had tried meditation a few times in the past, but not as an ongoing, consistent thing. After reading the book, I started practicing it on my own, about 15 minutes a day. I’d just sit in a chair, focus on my breathing with my eyes closed — breathe in, breathe out — and if my mind wandered, I’d bring it back to breathing.
What I found was a lot like what Harris found: it was at the same time life-changing and not at all life-changing. That might seem self-contradictory, but you might get a clue from the book’s title, 10% Happier. Basically, as long as I keep doing that practice every day, I find that I’m consistently calmer and less anxious and better able to focus on the moment. My resting heart rate is lower (seriously), as is my blood pressure (seriously). I’ve had a lot of other nice effects, too, but they seem to vary a lot from person to person.
My own practice is about 40 minutes a day, split into two sessions. I’ve tried lots of meditative practices, but honestly, the simple practice of focusing on the breath for 15 minutes really works incredibly well. It will not be life-changing, but it is noticeable if you stick with it for long enough, and the time I put into it has paid off many times over.
When things inevitably go bad, look for humor in them.
Sometimes, life doesn’t go the way you want. You or someone you care about gets sick. You don’t get the promotion you want. Your car breaks down. Your furnace stops working on one of the coldest days of the year when you have several houseguests (I’m speaking from recent personal experience on that one).
It’s easy for those moments to nudge you into a negative mindset, one that can stick with you for a while. One of the most powerful antidotes for that is to simply find humor in the situation. Make a joke about it.
Whenever someone in our family is sick, we play up humor about how everyone else is their “servant” or how badly they’d do at a normal activity, for example. I almost always follow any bad event by saying, “It could be worse…” and suggest something comically awful that’s far worse than what’s happening.
Even with something like the death of a loved one, I’ll try to find really good stories to tell about them — funny, lively ones that make people (including myself) remember the good times rather than dwelling on the loss.
Look for humor in your current situation rather than despair. It’s a spectacularly powerful way to take the edge off of negative thoughts about it, and that almost always indicates the start of a turnaround in one’s mindset.
Hang out with positive people and dial down the time spent with negative people.
If you surround yourself with people who are generally negative in their comments and attitudes toward others, you’ll find that you begin to be negative in your own attitudes and comments and those begin to shape your thoughts. The reverse is true with more positive people — if you’re mostly around people who are generally positive in their comments and attitudes toward others, they’ll shape your attitudes and thoughts in that direction as well.
Thus, one easy solution for nudging your thoughts in a more positive direction is to simply spend more time engaged with people that have an overall positive perspective on life and spend less time engaged with people that have an overall negative perspective on life.
If you have a friend that mostly just complains about everything and sees the worst in everything and makes fun of people in a cruel way, then time with that person is likely to shape your thoughts in a negative way toward the world and toward yourself, so dial down your time with that person. The reverse is true: if you know someone who largely talks about people and things he or she likes and reacts to you in a positive way, that person is likely to shape your thoughts in a positive fashion both toward the world and toward yourself, so increase your time with that person.
How do you “dial down” your time with negative people and “dial up” time with positive people? Intentionally choose to do social things with the more positive folks. This doesn’t mean that you start avoiding the more negative person, just that your calendar is more filled with time with positive people.
I should also note that I’m not talking necessarily about people who are cloyingly positive. Rather, I’m referring to people who don’t react in a negative way toward news of your life and don’t spend their time talking down and ridiculing others. Rather, they talk in a positive way about things of mutual interest.
I’ve spent a lot of time cultivating my friends toward the more positive folks, not in an effort to cut my friendships with the more negative folks, but just to put myself in a better place, and it pays dividends.
Spend less time on social media.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all of the other social media sites can be a useful way to stay in touch with people, but they can also be incredible hotbeds of unnecessary negativity.
All of those platforms encourage people to share only unrealistic highlights of their life — causing you to feel negative by comparison — or to spur people into extremely critical and negative discussions about the issues of the day, cutting people to shreds for simply having a different viewpoint.
That’s not a healthy way to interact, and it doesn’t reflect real-world, face-to-face interaction very well. It also strongly encourages negative thinking, even when away from social media. Dial down your time on social media and find other things with which to spend your time.
Spend less time with entertainment that makes you feel bad; spend more time with entertainment that makes you feel good.
There are some books, movies, television shows and other forms of entertainment that leave me feeling emotionally cold afterward. That can be fine in small doses, particularly considering how many great works do have a negative tone to them. However, the reverse is true: if you primarily dwell on and consume content that has a negative perspective to it, it will begin to shape your thoughts in a negative direction.
I’ve witnessed this often in my own life. For example, if I spend a lot of time watching 24-hour news channels, I often end up with a more negative perspective on life and the world around me. I’ll view people, particularly politicians, as being far more crooked than they are (on average) and that large swaths of people are lacking any recognizable personal values.
Yet, when I interact with people in real life, the vast majority of people are good people. They might have differences of opinion, but they’re almost all working to make a better life for themselves and their family or, at the very least, trying to get by. A very small percentage of people are out to genuinely cause harm or to rip off others. I’ve witnessed astounding kindness and generosity from people time and time again, with comparatively few acts of cruelty in the big scheme of things.
Spend more time with people and less time with media, particularly media that presents humanity in a negative light. While you don’t have to exclusively choose positive entertainment, use that as a consideration when choosing what to watch. For me, the best switch I made was to stop watching 24-hour news entirely.
Go outside and move around.
A few years ago, I spent a bunch of time doing mood tracking. I wanted to figure out what things I did during a day would shape my mood in a positive and negative way. It was hard to really find consistent patterns in all of the data, except for one thing: almost always, the higher my step count was on a given day, the better my mood was on the following day.
Basically, the more I walk, the happier I feel for the next 24 to 48 hours, and it’s very consistent over time. It’s not something I consciously notice at the moment, but if I step back and look at the big picture of my life, it’s pretty consistent. If I’m outside and walking a lot and moving around a lot, I tend to feel good about things. If I stay inside and barely move around, my mood will start to decline, my thoughts will grow more negative.
Again, when I’m in a negative mindset, I’m much more likely to spend unnecessarily on things that don’t really matter in the long run, whereas if my mindset is positive, I’m far less likely to fall into that trap of overspending.
Focus on the best you can do in this moment, above all else.
This final tip is perhaps the most universally useful of all: focus on the moment and making the best of that moment.
For example, if you’re having a conversation with someone, put your phone on “do not disturb” and focus on that person. Make that conversation amazing.
If you need groceries, make a thoughtful grocery list, go to the store, and focus on getting the items on that list.
If you have a huge project at work, think about what you can be doing right now to move that project forward effectively, then focus intensely on that task.
Whatever is going on in your life, whatever you’re doing right now, aim to do that well. Aim to do it the best you can, with the best long term outcome.
If you do that consistently, you’ll find that you’re not only proud of your efforts in that moment, but you’re also going to be happier with how your life goes in the long term. Your relationships will improve. Your finances will improve. Your career will improve.
Focus on the moment, make it the best you can, and aim to make choices that improve your long term prospects. You’ll feel better in the short term and in the long term.
The thing is, you’ll never do this all the time. The key is to do it just a little more than you do it now, taking a step in the right direction.
The path to success isn’t perfectly even.
People often buy into the idea that if they just nail this one project or do this one thing right or buy this one product, the success they want will just magically appear.
In truth, success at anything involves a lot of little steps forward, a lot of failures that knock us back a few steps, and then some luck on top of that.
A lot of the time, the difference between success and failure is that you took a few more little steps forward and a few less little steps backward. It’s consistently making little decisions and taking little actions and being a little more positive that makes the difference. It’s about moving from 60% positive steps to 70%, and that’s really what all these strategies are about.
Success is often found simply by making a few little decisions each day a little better than before, having a slightly more positive attitude about life, and looking at things from a “glass half full” perspective a little more often. Do that day in and day out and before long your trajectory is heading in a much better direction.