It’s a pretty common story.
Someone finds themselves in a bad financial situation, where “bad” varies a lot from person to person. “Bad” could mean being unable to pay one’s bills. “Bad” could be maxing out one’s credit cards. “Bad” could mean consistent overdrafts on one’s checking account. “Bad” could simply mean a realization that you’re behind the curve in saving for retirement.
Whatever it is, it’s upsetting, and it triggers some immediate financial change. You decide that you’re going to make a budget, make some changes to your spending, and so on.
At first, you really commit to this. For some relatively short period of time – a few days, a week, a month, whatever – you make some real changes to your financial habits.
Then… things change. You start to bristle against the changes. Then, you “slip up,” and you feel guilty, and you try really hard again for a day or two, and then you “slip up” again, and then you basically just give up on the whole thing.
The relatively small amount of progress you made helps, but within a handful of months, you’re right back to where you were, and the cycle begins again at the top.
How does a person break out of this cycle? I’ve struggled with cycles like this when trying to achieve many different flavors of self improvement in my life, and I’ve figured out that there are really only a few things that work.
What Is the Goal?
One big reason that progress falls apart at the end of the honeymoon period is that the goal for the change is never really spelled out.
First of all, is your goal really just a short term one? Is the only financial change that you want to make is the one that gets your head above water for the moment? Do you just want to get out of that immediate overdraft cycle? Do you want to just pay off a credit card so that you have some breathing room for the moment?
While that’s far from a long term healthy financial state, there are many people who are really just aiming to keep their head minimally above water, and beyond that, they’re not really concerned about their finances. You have to ask yourself if that’s where you actually are. Is your goal with this really just a short term goal?
If you actually want more lasting financial change, articulate where it is that you want to go with as much detail as you can. I usually try to set long term goals using the SMART system – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-limited.
For example, just saying “I want to fix my finances” isn’t really going to work. Instead, think about what you’re actually aiming for. Is it a credit card payoff? Is it an emergency fund of a certain size? Is it being able to sustain a certain retirement savings level? Fingure out what exactly you want to do (specific), how exactly you’ll know that you’ve achieved it (measurable, often a specific dollar amount, like $0), when you want to do it by (time-limited), and making sure that those aims are actually something you can do (achievable and realistic).
For example, rather than just saying “I want to fix my finances,” you could say, “I want to pay off all of my credit cards by the end of next year.”
Once you have that, you need to break that goal down until it’s something meaningful in your daily life. There are really two ways to do this. One is to try to break it down step by step until you have actions you can take today. The other approach is to ask yourself each and every day, “What would a financially responsible person do today?” and try to live in that way. Ask that question about specific situations that you face, particularly anything that involves money leaving your accounts or going on your credit cards.
Here are some additional tools that will really help with this.
Change Lots of Routines
The closer you stick to the routines you had in your life before you committed to change, the easier it will be to lapse back into the habits and routines you were doing before you made these changes.
So, one big thing you can do is change up a lot of routines. Obviously, it’s impossible to change everything – your job, where you live, and your immediate family are probably all tough to change – but what you can change is how you use your time and energy outside of those commitments.
Just change up a lot of things in your life. Try going to bed earlier. Try not watching television for the next month. Try turning off all smartphone notifications. Try walking to work each day instead of driving, or take the bus instead of driving. When you catch yourself doing the same old thing, stop doing it and find something else to do.
Along the way, avoid things that would cause you to spend money. Whatever you change to, choose things that don’t involve spending.
Find Enjoyable Things Within Your New Routine
Make a conscious effort to explore as many new free or ultra low cost experiences as possible during your honeymoon period. You’re already changing up your routine, so fill up the newly exposed time with actually doing a wide variety of things that don’t cost money.
Need some ideas? Here are 100 things to do that don’t cost anything. Here are 50 free activities for families and kids. Here are 50 ways to have fun completely solo, if you’re kind of an introvert like I am.
One great strategy is to dive into a few new low cost hobbies or, even better, a hobby that can potentially save you money or even earn you a little. Here’s a guide to getting started with cooking at home, a guide to getting started with hiking and nature walking, and a guide to several other wonderful frugal hobbies and another more detailed guide to a few more frugal hobbies.
The point is this: try new things. Try lots of them. Give lots of different things a try with an open mind. If you’re more socially oriented, go to lots of meetups oriented around various interests in your community. The less pre-judging you do, the better. The more “sure, I’ll give this a real shot!”, the better.
You’ll find that a lot of stuff doesn’t click, and that’s okay. All you really need to do is find a small handful of things that click with you and you’ll have more than enough entertainment and leisure for yourself than you’ll ever have time for, and when that’s true, you’ll have a lot less time for longing for the things you used to do.
Make Bad Choices (Much) Harder
One challenge that many people struggle with when improving their financial state is that bad financial choices are really easy to make. Simply having a credit card and having access to the internet provides an abundance of opportunity for bad choices. Many of the places people visit outside the home are places of commerce, solely designed to extract money from your wallet.
If you want financial change to really last, one thing you must do is make those bad choices a lot harder than they once were. There are a lot of things you can do to make this happen, but they vary a lot from individual life to individual life. Here are some of the most helpful techniques.
Leave your credit cards and debit cards at home, just taking minimal cash with you for what you need to do. Yes, it’s occasionally inconvenient to not have your credit card with you, but most of the time, this little technique puts a roadblock in your way that stops lots of little impulsive purchases.
Delete your credit card numbers and other purchase information from online sites. Just don’t store that information in the account, so that you can’t just click a couple times and make a purchase. Rather, if you decide to make a purchase, you have to dig out your credit card and type it in or enter some other payment information. This forces you to take a brief breather and really think about whether you want to make this purchase or not.
Make your passwords at e-commerce sites long and difficult to remember and to enter. This is another effective strategy for curbing online spending. By making your passwords at online shopping sites difficult to remember and enter, you’re making it harder to actually make purchases, which means you’ll be making a lot fewer unimportant ones. If you’re doing this, you should also not have your browser simply store the password for websites.
Carry minimal pocket money. Don’t respond to these changes by suddenly putting a lot of cash in your pocket every time you leave the house. Instead, just take along a little cash to cover whatever it is you intend to do. You might occasionally miss out on serendipity, but more often than that, you’ll just skip over unnecessary spending.
Dump out, throw away, and give away your vices (alcohol, cigarettes, and so on). If you don’t keep them in your home, you’ll find it much harder to indulge in them, and the harder it is to indulge, the less money you’ll be blowing on them.
Over time, little moves like these will kill a lot of bad financial habits and routines. On the flip side of that…
Make Good Choices (Much) Easier
At the same time you’re making bad financial choices much harder, you can also make good financial choices much easier and more compelling.
Again, there are many ways to do this. Here are a few that have worked well for me.
Make meals in the slow cooker before you leave so you know you have a hot meal ready to eat when you get home. The simple recognition that you have a meal at home that’s ready to go waiting for you makes it much easier to choose to go home and eat rather than getting drive-thru or takeout food. The same is true for things like coffee – if you drink coffee every morning, having a routine that puts a cup of coffee in your hand each morning as you leave eliminates the need to stop at coffee shops.
When you cook, make plenty of food and package leftovers in the most convenient way possible for eating later. Let’s say you came home to a delicious pot of chili in that slow cooker. Great! Ideally, you made enough to feed you and everyone else in your family, plus you have a bunch of leftovers. Take the time to package those leftovers in the most convenient way possible, so that it’s easy for someone to grab a bowl and heat it up with minimal effort, making a quick lunch very convenient and very inexpensive.
Buy household and hygiene supplies in bulk and have a smart replenishment strategy. Buying household and hygiene supplies (like trash bags and toilet paper and soap) in bulk ensures that you almost always have them on hand and don’t have to make a “quick trip” to the store (which usually means a bunch of unplanned purchases). If you notice yourself getting low, plan ahead and replenish them. Add them to a list on your phone and check that list when you actually need to go to the store.
Keep your home clean and welcoming so that it’s easier to invite people over instead of just going out all the time. Many people choose to go out because they don’t want to invite people over at a moment’s notice. Adopt a daily routine of, say, 15 minutes of freshening things up around your house so that it’s always at least presentable to guests. That way, you don’t have to worry about just inviting people over for a movie night instead of going out and spending a bunch of cash.
Automate, Automate, Automate
Another powerful strategy is to put as much of your positive financial moves on autopilot as you can, so that not only do you not have to think about them, but that you actually have to put effort into stopping them, something you probably won’t do even if other habits fall by the wayside. Here are a few ways to do just that.
Set up automatic payroll deductions and automatic transfers and automatic bill pays to handle all of your good financial moves automatically, without you even having to think about them. Set up an automatic weekly transfer from your checking to your savings to build up an emergency fund. Sign up for your 401(k) plan and set up an automatic withdrawal from each check so that your retirement is funded. Set up an automatic bill pay each month to make an extra payment on the debt you’re focusing on. Those things will happen without any further action from you, pushing along your financial progress even if your eye isn’t on the ball.
Take on a lot of one-shot tasks that cut down on energy use. Doing things like putting caulk around the edges of windows where you find air leaks, putting weatherstrips along the edges of doors, changing out all of your light bulbs to energy efficient long lasting LED bulbs, turning your water heater down to 120 F, and setting your ceiling fan to run in the correct direction for the season (if you feel air blowing down on you directly below the fan, you’re in “summer” mode; otherwise, you’re in “winter” mode) are all tasks that you can do once (or once every six months) and you’ll notice a nice subtle change to your energy bill for a very long time afterwards.
Figure out the most efficient ways of doing things you do every day (or at least once a week). There are a lot of little tasks we do all the time that involve spending money or using up things that cost money. Tasks like doing the dishes, washing the laundry, taking a shower, driving to work – we do them all the time, but those things eat up hot water, soap, shampoo, detergent, gas… it really adds up. Spend the time to really figure out what the most efficient way of doing each of those things is, and practice doing them the most efficient way until it becomes second nature. If you can shave a quarter off of each load of laundry and you do laundry every day, you’re saving $80 a year thereafter.
Next Stop? The “Boring Middle”
The thing to remember is that what you’re really handling with these changes is getting through the transition from the “honeymoon” period – the part where change is new and exciting and novel and you see immediate gains – to the “boring middle” period, where the goal seems really far off and it’s mostly a matter of repeating steps.
If you follow the strategies above, you’re really amping up your chances of getting through that transition… but then you’ll face the “boring middle” of your big goal. Getting through the “boring middle” requires a bunch of different strategies, but much like the strategies described above to get through this transition, they’re all doable strategies.
The most effective use of a “honeymoon” period, when you’re really excited about a new big initiative in your life, is to set yourself up for lasting success in that particular area. You want to be able to succeed at this thing over the long haul, not just for a few weeks. You don’t want to just get your head above water; you want to change things so that you’re never in this position again.
Don’t spend the first part of your financial turnaround doing a bunch of unsustainable stuff that you’ll eventually resent. Rather, spend it figuring out patterns that will work well for you over the long haul – things like automation, making bad habits harder, making good habits easier, and having a good mindset and approach regarding the goal.
If you do that, you vastly increase your chances of making this a lasting change, one that will set you on the path to great financial success.