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Ten Useful Strategies for Learning Financial Self-Control
If you’re anything like me, you’re incredibly tempted several times a day to spend money on something that you don’t really need.
Maybe it’s a bottle of Gatorade at the convenience store or out of a vending machine. Maybe it’s an online purchase. Maybe it’s another $5 in tokens for whatever your favorite mobile game is. Maybe it’s a latte from Starbucks. Maybe it’s a lunch out with some of your coworkers. Maybe it’s the bill for your Netflix subscription.
Whatever it is, you spend a few dollars on it – or maybe a few more than a few dollars. And then you forget about it.
This happens again and again and again throughout the month, and by the end of the month, you’re wondering where all of the money went.
“How can we possibly be broke? How can we be making this much money and not saving anything?”
The reason that this is happening can be summed up in three simple words: lack of self-control. Over and over again, you make the short-term choice in a given spending situation without considering the long-term choice. Making the long-term choice is harder, but over the course of your life it’s almost always the better choice – self-control is what helps you to make that long-term choice.
Breaking out of a routine in which you constantly make those short-term choices is quite hard. It’s easy to become very accustomed to having the little pleasures that you want as soon as you want them.
If you’re reading this article, though, you’ve become aware of the dark side of lacking self-control. At the end of the day, you’re left with very little. You’re not making any progress toward any big goals and you’re quite possibly sinking in a pit of credit card debt to boot. You’re unsure where all of the money is going, but you’re also very unsure of your own behavior.
You feel out of control. You have big long-term goals, but they’re just constantly undermined by the short-term choices you make (most of which you basically forget about) and the sense that money (and, in a smaller sense, time) is just vanishing.
What do you do?
Here are ten things you can do. These strategies have bailed me – and many others – out of a great deal of financial trouble over the years. They’ve helped us gain a lot of self-control over the years and restored a sense of being back in the driver’s seat of our financial lives, actually moving toward the financial goals we have for ourselves.
Give these strategies a sincere shot. You’ll be glad you did.
Strategy #1 – Stop Making Excuses
Here’s the cold, hard truth: every single time you buy something that you don’t need, you undercut your future. You take away dollars from getting control over your financial situation and planning for your future and instead give them to something you happen to want in the moment.
Whenever you try to justify that choice, you’re making an excuse for why you can’t get your financial life straight. Maybe it’s just a small thing. Maybe it’s something you really, really, really want. Maybe you have to buy it to impress somebody.
In the end, though, it all comes back to the same cold, hard truth: you chose a short term, forgettable desire over building a financial future for yourself.
If you truly want to have a strong financial future for yourself, stop making excuses for choosing that short-term desire. Stop justifying it. Start realizing that every time you make that choice, it is a setback in terms of your financial future.
Yes, sometimes it’s going to be a good choice to listen to your short term voice and go ahead with it, but the times when that is a good choice are few and far between when your financial house is in disorder and your financial future is in doubt. Stop making excuses. Start making better choices every time you spend a time.
Strategy #2 – Ask Yourself “Will This Help Me Survive?” When It Comes to Every Purchase
One of the biggest challenges to taking financial control of your life is to really look at each and every purchase you’re making, whether with cash or credit. Do you really need that item? Will it help you survive? Is there a less expensive option that will help you survive in the same way?
You should ask this question about every single purchase you make. You should ask this question about every single item you put in your shopping cart. You should ask this question about every single bill that comes in and every single line on that bill.
If the answer is no, buying it does nothing more than set back your plans for getting your debt under control and building some kind of financial future. If the answer is yes, you should immediately be asking yourself if there is a less expensive option for reaching that same goal.
Self-control is born from truly considering the negative consequences of each move you make. Self-control rises up from making the hard choice to say “no” to things you used to say “yes” to without a second thought. Self-control is present when you truly understand the moments when it’s okay to say “yes,” but know that the rest of the time you’re far better off saying “no.”
It all starts with asking the question, over and over and over again, with every penny you spend.
Will this help me survive?
Strategy #3 – Live off of Cash Alone – No Credit
One of the biggest reasons that companies push credit cards so hard – and issue such large credit limits to users with decent credit – is that it distracts the user from how much money they’re actually spending. No actual cash changes hands when you buy something with a credit card, so it’s easy to abstract it and just assume you “have enough” if the credit card transaction goes through.
That’s a recipe for trouble, especially for people who simply pay their credit card bill each month and don’t really think about the consequences of their purchase until one day they realize that their minimum credit card bills are huge, those bills and other debts are keeping them from things they want or need to do, and it’s going to be many years before they can pay them off. It’s a disaster fueled by a lack of self-control when it comes to spending.
The solution, however, is easy: go cash-only. Stop using your credit card at all for a while. If you don’t have the cash in your checking account to cover an expense, then skip it. If you’re finding that you’re running out of cash before the end of the month, figure out how to make it to the end and then use that lesson to make smarter choices the following month.
Financial self-control is like riding a bicycle, and committing to a cash-only lifestyle for a while is much like learning to ride a bicycle using training wheels. Eventually, when you know what you’re doing, you can take the training wheels off and use credit again in a smart fashion, but for now, if you can’t make ends meet and you’re dealing with credit card bills, it’s time to keep things simple and ditch the credit cards for a year or two.
Strategy #4 – Visit Tempting Places with No Money or Credit Cards in Hand
Most people who have difficulty with financial self-control recognize that there are certain places where they are highly likely to make poor decisions and spend money on short-term desires without really thinking about the consequences. The coffee shop. The book shop. The electronics store. The clothes store. Where are your weak points?
One might think that it is sensible advice to just avoid those places, but doing so really doesn’t teach you self control. It just teaches you avoidance.
A much better approach is to sometimes go to those tempting places, but put a very hard cap on what you’re able to spend there. Don’t take a credit card or a debit card in there with you. Take no cash at all, unless you’re going there for a very specific item; in that case, take just enough cash to buy that specific item.
The process of doing this, especially doing this many times, teaches you how to go to those places, be tempted, and resist that temptation. That temptation resistance is the core of self-control.
Strategy #5 – Focus on Participation, Not Buying
Many busy people often buy things out of a desire to keep in touch with a hobby or passion that they don’t really have time for. A person might be a passionate reader, for example, but that person’s life gives little time for the kind of focused reading that he or she really loves, so instead that person buys books that they’d like to read as something of a “substitute” fulfillment.
If you find yourself buying things to fulfill a hobby that you love but can’t find time for, consider altering your schedule and blocking off some devoted time for that hobby. Spend less time on distracting and unfulfilling time wasters such as the internet and television watching and instead focus on actually participating things that you wish you had more time for. Crack a book. Go fishing. Build a new chair in your woodworking shop. Make a scrapbook with the scrapbooking supplies in your closet. Go on a hike.
Do something. Don’t buy something as a weak substitute for doing something. If you don’t have enough time to do something, then look deeply at your time use and eliminate some of the time you waste. Actually participating in something you’re passionate about can be incredibly effective at draining away one’s desire to spend money on more and more things for that passion as a “substitute” for participation. In other words, actually read that stack of books instead of buying more to add to it.
Strategy #6 – Choose Your Social Engagements Wisely
Quite often, people go “out on the town” or meet others for social engagements outside of the home that end up revolving around clubs or restaurants or stores or businesses that strongly encourage spending money. You might go out for dinner somewhere with some friends, then go to a movie, then go to a bar, and before you know it an evening with friends has sapped $100 from your wallet. You might hang out with some friends for the day, but it ends up being a nonstop string of stores and spending money.
Be wary of those social engagements. You shouldn’t have to shell out cash to hang out with friends. Try to find other types of things to do when socializing, either at someone’s home or at a place where spending isn’t really part of the experience, like playing soccer at the local park or having a picnic somewhere.
Some of your “friends” may balk at this. In that case, it’s pretty easy to tell which people in your social calendar are more interested in going out and spending money and which ones are more interested in hanging out with you. The ones who would consistently rather go out and spend money are friendships you can safely minimize in your life.
Strategy #7 – Track Your Spending Very Carefully – and Review It
One big reason that people lose track of their spending and feel like they’re out of control is that they have no single central place to really look at their spending and see where the money is going. You can alleviate that by tracking your spending with care, recording and categorizing every dollar that goes out of your life.
To this day, I track my spending very carefully using You Need a Budget 4. Others use tools like Mint or Quicken to achieve similar results. You can even do the same thing with a pocket notebook and a spreadsheet program. The goal with each tool is the same – record every dime you spend, sort it into categories, and review that spending to see what areas you’re overspending on.
Such reviews are almost always an eye opener. People almost always spend far more on things than they believe that they did, and simply seeing a monthly total of how much you spent at the convenience store or the Google Play store or on Amazon can often really shock you.
Spend some time really thinking about those areas of spending that shocked you the most. Did you really get that much life value out of those purchases? Probably not. How much of your spending at a particular store or on a particular type of item could be eliminated? Quite a bit, most likely.
Strategy #8 – Automate Your Key Savings and Key Bill Payments
This is the old “pay yourself first” strategy, meaning that you take care of important things like paying down debt and saving for the future before anything else and then figure out how to live on what’s left.
The easiest way to do all that is through automation. Have your bank send an automatic payment to your credit card (the one you’re not using right now… remember the earlier strategies) that exceeds your minimum payment each month. Have money automatically taken from your paycheck and put into your 401(k) (or start a Roth IRA and have the cash come straight out of your checking after each paycheck arrives).
The more automatic you can make these things, the better. Some people with irregular paychecks might not be able to fully automate this, but you should be able to do such things with just a click or two using online bill pay, so make sure that you have everything in place to do just that.
Strategy #9 – Ask for Help from Your Most Trusted Friends and Family
If you have a trusted inner circle of friends and family, they can be incredibly helpful when it comes to making personal changes like this.
For starters, they can be useful sources of advice that are attuned specifically to your situation and your personal attributes. They know you. They probably have at least some sense of what makes you tick – sometimes even more than you do. That can result in some very useful, very specific advice that works for you specifically.
In addition, having a person that deeply cares for you as a personal support and confidant during a period when you’re making some difficult life changes and life choices can be very empowering. Simply having someone to talk to who will provide an ear can help as you take on these life changes. Having someone who will happily spend time with you doing nothing at all or exploring new activities that don’t cost anything can be very powerful, too.
You might also find a very nice role model in that mix. Perhaps you have friends or family members who have achieved the financial goals you want to achieve and you can use them as mentors to help guide you along the same path. You can pick their brains and learn from their experiences, too.
Close friends and family members can provide all of these things, all of which can be very helpful during a major change in personal habits.
Strategy #10 – Don’t Give Up When You Take a Misstep or Two
Guess what? You’re going to make a spending mistake or two while you figure all of this out. You’re going to buy something without thinking about it. You’re going to make a purchase that you later regret. You’re going to feel like this is all impossible.
First of all, don’t sweat it. Financial progress, like progress in anything else in life, is often a story of taking two steps forward for every one step backward. You can take a lot of steps backward as long as you keep pushing forward.
The goal is to strive to do better than you did before. If you make a mistake, don’t punch yourself over it. Instead, ask why you made that mistake and then strive to not repeat that mistake. Rethink the situation that led you to that mistake and see what you can do to avoid that situation in the future.
Most of all, don’t give up on yourself. The journey is long. No long journey is ever completed without some missteps and setbacks along the way.
It can feel almost overwhelming when you finally realize that your financial state is completely out of control. You’re often simultaneously facing significant debt, a lack of any sort of sense as to where your money is going, and a great deal of worry about your future, and that can add up to a dark place in life.
The goal of all of these strategies is singular: it’s all about taking control again. It’s about getting back in touch with where your money is actually going, separating your needs from your wants, and figuring out which uses for your money actually make sense. It’s also about finding support for that change from your family, your friends, and your greater social network, as well as through your personal use of time and energy.
If you work on those things in concert, you’ll find that you’re back in control of your money surprisingly quickly and you’re ready to start heading down a path of debt freedom and financial independence.