The Failure of Bargaining with Yourself

“If I get a better job, then I’ll start paying off my credit cards,” thought to oneself while feeling self-pity about their employment situation.

“If I win the lottery, then I’ll fix up my finances,” thought to oneself by the person sitting around waiting for their ship to come in.

“If I get a raise, then I’ll start saving for retirement,” thought to oneself while worrying a little about whether they’ll ever retire.

“If my youngest will just move out, then I’ll start making extra house payments,” thought to oneself while trying to nudge a child out of the nest.

“If only I can get through this crunch time at work, then I’ll start making more meals at home,” thought to oneself at the drive-thru after work.

All of these thought processes – and many others that revolve around this kind of “financial-wellness/if/then” structure – fall under the umbrella of bargaining with yourself. “If this certain thing happens, then I’ll behave in a better fashion.”

“If/then” thinking is a giant waste of time and energy. Bargaining with yourself in this way is a giant waste of time and energy. I know from experience. I spent most of the last year before we started our financial turnaround bargaining with myself.

“If our son is born and everything is fine, then I’ll start fixing up our finances.”

“If our son starts going to daycare and Sarah goes back to work, then I’ll start fixing up our finances.”

“If the spring conferences get finished up without any major issues, then I’ll start fixing up our finances.”

“If we can get through the summer, then I’ll start fixing up our finances.”

The first three “bargains” there came and went, and I didn’t change. The fourth one was ongoing – it was another arbitrary fake “deadline” for change that I wasn’t going to follow through on.

There are two big issues with that kind of bargaining.

One, you already know what that better behavior is, but you’re finding a reason not to do it. You know that paying down your credit cards is the financially sensible thing to do, but rather than doing so, you’re hanging on to elements of a more affluent lifestyle than your income can afford. You know that saving for retirement is the financially sensible thing to do, but you don’t want to face a small reduction in your take-home pay because it would force you to make some real choices about how you spend. You get the idea.

Two, the trigger for better behavior likely won’t actually cause you to change anything. If you’ve already decided that the way you’re doing things right now is acceptable, even if you recognize it’s not the best, the “trigger” that you’re looking for won’t change that. If you’re okay with your current lifestyle, a job change or a raise isn’t going to make you start being frugal with your money.

What’s actually happening here is that you’re wrapping at least two different decisions together in the same sentence, when they’re actually very separate decisions.

First of all, you’re making a decision to be less financially responsible right now, even though you clearly know it’s a poor long term choice. You’re not choosing to avoid paying off your credit card debt because of your current job. You’re choosing to do so because you like aspects of the life you have now more than you value the prospect of financial improvement.

There’s nothing strictly wrong with that decision, but you need to be honest with yourself about it. If you truly rank getting out of debt or saving for retirement below some of the other current elements of your life, that’s a personal decision that you should acknowledge and live with and abide by. Live honestly and intentionally with your choices and you’ll never feel bad about them.

However, it’s very likely that if you’re bargaining like this, you actually respect the high value of financial improvement. You know that the best thing to do long term to improve your life, at least compared to the things you’re doing now, is to spend less, accrue less debt, and use the lowered spending for positive financial moves.

Stop thinking about a hypothetical future. Stop thinking about the “if.” Look at your life right now and be honest with yourself. Is it a better decision for you, both now and later, to be better with your finances? If it is, then start making changes now.

On the other hand, you’re making a “decision” about the future based on your thinking right now, but it’s a “decision” you’re very likely to break. You’re likely to break it because the situation you’re going to be in when that “if” comes to pass is different than the situation you’re thinking it’s going to be. Right now, you’re thinking of your life and expenses as they are today, but will they be the same a year from now? Furthermore, will your thinking be the same when that “if” comes to pass? Probably not.

Here’s the hard truth: if you genuinely want change in your life, start doing it to the best of your ability today. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a little or a lot. Change starts today or it probably won’t start.

Figure out a way in your life to come up with some extra money today and start making that change. Cut your most foolish spending off at the knees starting today. Start making those extra debt payments today. Sign up for a 401(k) or a Roth IRA today. Go through your closet and sell off some unwanted stuff to kickstart your financial turnaround today. Start buying all store brands today. Start eating at home for every meal today. Start making meals from staple foods today. Start calling your various debtors and service providers and negotiating down to lower rates today.

But how will I pay for it today? Start looking through your life for the dumbest spending you make and cut the bottom 25% or so. Stop going to convenience stores. Stop smoking. Stop blowing money on your hobbies, especially if you’ve got unused hobby stuff at home.

But I can’t do much today! You know what? That change you’re making isn’t going to be perfect. It probably would be a more dramatic change if you waited until the moment you’re bargaining about. The truth of the matter is that there will never come a perfect moment to change things about your behavior. That future you’re imagining where everything lines up and makes it easy and powerful to change? It’s never, ever going to be a real future.

Instead, do what you can do today and focus on correcting your mindset. Start making choices in your life that involve less spending. Look for ways to cut the required spending in your life (buy store brands, negotiate bills, etc.).

So, what was it that did make me change? One day, I realized how bad of a financial hole we were digging. Literally the next day, I started making changes. I realized that if I kept waiting around for some hypothetical perfect tomorrow, it was never going to come and the hole was just going to get deeper and deeper. It was just a weak excuse I was using to not change anything right now because I was too cowardly to deal with actually making changes.

Don’t wait for tomorrow. Don’t wait for some hypothetical future when it’ll be easier. Don’t bank on some change that may or may not happen (and you probably won’t follow through even when that change does happen, for other reasons).

Stop bargaining. Start doing.

Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.