Updated on 12.15.10

Out With The Old, In With The New: Put Up Some Passive Barriers

Trent Hamm

Throughout the month of December, The Simple Dollar is posting a daily series focusing on specific activities you can do right now to set the stage for a great 2011. Out with the old, in with the new.

16. Put up some passive barriers.

About a year and a half ago, Ramit Sethi wrote a great guest post at Get Rich Slowly entitled The Psychology of Passive Barriers: Why Your Friends Don’t Save Money, Eat Healthier, or Clean Their Garages. It put a term – “passive barrier” – on something I’d been using in my life for quite a long time.

A passive barrier is simply something in your life that makes the normal activity more difficult. I’ll give you a list of ten of them – and then we’ll look at each one in a bit of detail.

1. Not having the television remote on the table next to the television.
2. Not having internet access from your computer.
3. Not having alcohol in the cupboard.
4. Not having your credit cards in your wallet.
5. Not having your cell phone in your pocket.
6. Not having the temperature in your house as high as you might normally have it.
7. Not having your retirement plan automatically sign you up.
8. Not having your savings plans handled by automatic transfer.
9. Not having convenient meals ready to go in your freezer.
10. Not having a codependent friend on speed dial.

Let’s see how each of these can help your life.

1. Not having the television remote on the table next to the television.
If you find yourself constantly burning your evenings channel surfing, one great way to make that a little more difficult is to simply take the remote to bed with you and plop it on your bedside table. Then, the next evening, when you find yourself settling in for some television… no remote, and it’s on the other side of the house. When you compare the thought of going all the way over there to get your remote versus the option of doing something else that needs to be done, suddenly the non-television task seems more worthwhile.

2. Not having internet access from your computer.
If you find yourself burning too much time surfing the web, just pull the cable out of the back of your computer. Then, the next time you sit down to surf, you’ll have to ask yourself if it’s really worthwhile. Should you actually get down there and plug it in … or should you find something else to do that’s more productive?

3. Not having alcohol in the cupboard.
If you find yourself having a drink or four in the evenings (and the various bad things that happen as a consequence of that choice), simply get the alcohol out of the cupboard. Give it away or finish it off and don’t replace the bottle. The next time you go to take a drink, you’ve suddenly got a big passive barrier for yourself.

4. Not having your credit cards in your wallet.
If you often charge up your credit cards on impulse buys, just take those cards out of your pocket and leave them at home. Put them in your dresser. Then, when you find yourself at the store and tempted to spend money that you shouldn’t, you’ll find yourself without your credit cards, making it much easier to just walk away from the impulse. Similarly, consider deleting your credit cards from any online services you use.

5. Not having your cell phone in your pocket.
Do you find yourself often getting distracted by your phone? Do you often turn away from people talking to you to talk on the phone or text someone (often annoying them, even if they’re too polite to say so)? The best panacea for this is to simply not carry your phone with you everywhere. Leave it in your vehicle or at home and focus instead on the people with you and the tasks at hand.

6. Not having the temperature in your house as high as you might normally have it.
During the winter, it’s often tempting to crank the heat. A better solution is to leave the temperature a bit lower than you normally would, particularly if you’re in another part of the house from the thermostat. Is it really worth it to walk all the way across the house to just adjust the temperature a few degrees? If it’s not, then this passive barrier is saving you money.

7. Not having your retirement plan automatically sign you up.
Many jobs have the ability to automatically sign up for retirement plans when you start, even if you aren’t directly making investment choices. Do it and worry about the investment choices later on. Get on the automatic investment train as early as possible so you don’t have to think about it or remind yourself to do it later. Once an automatic investment starts, it’s much easier to leave it going than to change it.

8. Not having your savings plans handled by automatic transfer.
This follows from the previous idea. If you’re wanting to save for a particular goal, you’ll find it much easier to do it if you automatically save for these goals by having automatic transfers in place that move small amounts each week from your checking account to your savings account. This way, you don’t have the passive barrier of actually having to initiate the transfer yourself.

9. Not having convenient meals ready to go in your freezer.
It’s easy to talk yourself into eating out (which is expensive) if you have nothing delicious and easy to prepare at home. You can overcome this by creating a new passive barrier: a freezer full of prepared meals. Spend a weekend banking several meals, then you’ll feel an obligation to eat them instead of going out, saving you a lot of money along the way.

10. Not having a codependent friend on speed dial.
It can be difficult to make changes to your social network. At times, it just seems easier to maintain a relationship that is dragging you down than to go through the pain of breaking it off. One easy way to move in a healthier direction for yourself is to just delete that person from your speed dial. This doesn’t make it impossible to contact them, it just raises the difficulty level.

Find some avenues in your life that could use some positive change and apply some passive barriers there. You might just find that your life is made easier by making some of the negative parts of your life more difficult.

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  1. marta says:

    Some of the points in your article seem to assume everyone lives in such huge mansions that walking all the way to the other side is a herculean task.

  2. Katie says:

    I find the stuff for which this passive barrier stuff works tends to be stuff that wasn’t a problem in the first place. Not having alcohol in the house means I will drink less of it, but since I only drink a glass or two of wine a week if I do have a bottle in the house, it doesn’t really matter. Conversely, I’ve never found a barrier to mindless internet surfing so strong that it’s particularly effective (well, except being out of the country); when it comes to that, I have to motivate myself the old-fashioned way.

  3. Andrew says:

    On #9 Did you mean to put that not in there?

  4. Andrea says:

    Yeah, I think there are several “not”s where there shouldn’t be…

  5. marta says:

    Yup, #7 and #8 are odd, too.

  6. Joanna says:

    Unplugging my internet from the back of the computer wouldn’t stop me for one second from surfing the internet, and besides, who doesn’t have wifi set up by now? If internet is really an issue, maybe it needs to be canceled entirely.

  7. lurker carl says:

    These passive barriers are so weak that they beg to be defeated. Motivation to succeed and a fail-proof environment work better.

  8. Gretchen says:

    Alternate working title: be lazy, save money.

  9. Interested Reader says:

    I tried something like this when I was trying to drink less diet cokes. I kept them in the car, in the summer (I live in the south) and I had to go out to my trunk to get one.

    Instead of kicking the habit I developed a taste for hot diet coke.

  10. karishma says:

    @Interested Reader: Yuck! I prefer my sodas at room temp rather than cold – but hot out of the trunk of a car in the summer? That might actually work for me to kick my diet soda habit.

  11. valleycat1 says:

    I’m pretty much on board with lurker carl & the others on this. While it makes sense to not buy foods/drinks that aren’t on your food plan, the rest seems pretty infantile to me.

  12. SwingCheese says:

    We have such a small house that putting the remote control in the bedroom and having to walk to get it simply wouldn’t be a problem. Plus, we have a toddler who loves to hide the remote. Putting it in the bedroom might help to ensure that we don’t have to spend time searching for it, only to give up and change stations manually, lol!

  13. Elizabeth says:

    Hmmm. Most of these don’t apply to me either, but I think Ramit has a very different audience than those of us who read this blog.

    I think passive barriers are more of an advantage to retailers than they are to consumers. For instance, a lot of people don’t cancel free trials before they’re billed, and they often don’t go back to check that their rates and plans are the best deals out there.

    I think it would be more interesting to look at how passive barriers work against us — and how to overcome them.

  14. Bill says:

    @Not having your retirement plan automatically sign you up

    Companies are doing this because if there is in-balance in the ratio of the Highly Compensated Employees vs. rank in file employees, the IRS will limit the amount the HCE’s can contribute in that year. This is most likely due to the lower income employee’s not participating in the 401(k), so automatically enrolling these lower paid employees fixes this in-balance. Most of them do not op-out.

    The default investment is usually very conservative, almost to a fault, but what else would you chose by default?

  15. Sheri says:

    Trent, better revise #7-9. They mean the opposite of what you intend . . .

  16. Terry says:

    These are all great ideas — some of them apply to my situation, some not. Seems like a lot of the posters here are feeling stressed out & negative — wish everyone well for holidays & thanks Trent.

  17. Rachel says:

    Trent, 7, 8 & 9 are a bit confusing.

  18. Claudia says:

    A lot of these are not a problem for me, I don’t watch tv too often or search the net too often, I don’t charge too much and I don’t drink too much. I know, what can I say I’m perfect–well, not quite. I do find that if I move the candy jar or other snacks to even the other side of the room instead of next to the chair I read in, I eat much, much less. If I only put one can of soda in the frig per day, I’m not tempted to grab a second one.
    I also automatically save $ out of each check. That is much easier than actually remembering to put the $$ in the savings account and I loathe taking money out of savings, so I usually limit spending to what is actually in checking.
    Loved, loved, loved the cell phone one! I hate when people answer their phones, read text or surf the net while taking to me. How rude, it is in my opinion telling the person you are talking to that they are too boring to give your attention to,or you have to answer this call as it may be someone more important than who you are talking to face to face. If you are expecting an important call, say so when you start talking, or at the very least say “Excuse me a moment, I really have to take this call.” If it’s just someone calling to chat, tell them you can not talk now. And do you really need to have that lame conversation in the restaurant, store or doctor’s office? Do you really want everyone around you to know your business?

  19. MARY says:

    I second that, and I ‘ve said as much (kiddingly)to my friends who are guilty of it.

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