It’s really easy to have good spending habits if you’re sitting in a comfy chair in your living room reading a book from the library. It’s really easy to have good spending habits if you’re in the midst of a hike in the middle of nowhere. It’s really easy to have good spending habits if you spend the day in the garden.
The problem is that our lives don’t always guide us into those situations all the time. We’re not always in a situation where we’re free of influences that can nudge us away from good spending choices. In fact, much of modern life is full of things that nudge us toward bad spending habits and away from good financial practices.
Here are 12 of these things and how to watch out for them and minimize them in your life.
Something that you don’t need that happens to be on sale is still something you don’t need. If you don’t need something or don’t strongly want it (and have given that desire some time to be considered rather than just relying on impulse), then spending money on that thing is a waste of your money, no matter how great the bargain is.
Sales exist to tempt you into buying things you don’t need and don’t really want. They show off big discounts to convince you that the item really is a bargain – and maybe it is, solely in terms of the sticker price. However, if you don’t have a genuine use for that item, the money is better off sitting in your bank account rather than in the pockets of that retailer.
A much better strategy is to, on your own, maintain lists of things you need and things you really want. Before you even look at a sale, go through those lists and make sure you actually need the things on the need list and actually really want the things on your want list, and remove anything that doesn’t match up. Then, look at the sale, but only take action on items that actually match your lists. Everything else is basically a waste of your money.
While social media can be really useful in some ways, such as keeping in touch with family and friends and professional contacts as well as finding people with similar interests, it’s also an incredibly efficient tool for nudging you to spend more money.
For starters, virtually every social media platform has lots of advertisements and, more importantly, advertisers who inject their marketing messages right into what you’re reading. As you scroll through social media, you’ll see lots of “sponsored” posts mixed right into the content so that your mind will often see them as content unless you look closely. Quite often, people actually choose to follow the social media feeds of companies, which inject more marketing right into your feed, and there are a lot of people on social media who are there primarily as influencers, which means they’re trying to sway you to buy certain things. It is very difficult to browse social media without a lot of companies, ad agencies, and “influencers” convincing you to buy stuff.
Beyond that, you have a lot of people you actually do know, except those people are trying to show the “highlight reel” of their life, which often involves their most expensive stuff and their most expensive experiences. They’re dressed well, while you’re wearing sweatpants. They’re on some amazing trip, while you’re in your ten year old couch. It can very easily make you feel envious, and envy often drives people to spend money to “keep up.”
So, what’s the strategy here? It’s simple – take a social media break and then only restore what actually provides value to your life. Just delete all of the social media apps from your phone, perhaps after posting a message saying you’re taking a break and for people to contact you via text if they need you, and leave them off of there for thirty days. Restore them only if you actually feel a need. The first few days might be hard, but after that, you’ll barely notice they’re gone.
Online Message Boards
Virtually everything that can be said about social media also extends to online message boards of any kind. Sites like Reddit, comment sections of websites, message boards devoted to specific topics – all of them have the same issue. Advertisements are spliced right into the content, many of the anonymous people on there are actually marketers trying to sell you things, and even people who aren’t marketers are often just indirectly promoting stuff you don’t need.
A further problem with online message boards is that they tend to congregate very like minded people who tend to move in a very elitist direction. They’ll often try to outdo each other in terms of their knowledge of the topic and this often turns into recommendations for very specific and very expensive products that are far beyond what you – or anyone else – actually needs. I’ve personally witness
The same strategy is useful here: take a break from such sites and message boards. If you wish, post a message saying you’re taking a break. If there are individual users you want to keep in touch with, you can give them alternate contact information, but this should be a pretty rare occurrence. Then, just walk away for at least thirty days. Find other uses for your time. It’s very likely you’ll never look back, or if you do, you’ll see it as more of a reference tool for specific questions.
‘News’ Reports on Products
Surprisingly often, “news” stories on news websites and channels seem to mostly exist to promote some new product that’s on store shelves. This new item will solve all your problems! This new item is amazing!
That “news” doesn’t help you in any way with your life. If you had an actual need for something, you’d start by finding something that filled that need. News stories like this try to create a “need” that doesn’t actually exist so that you’ll buy a product you don’t actually need.
Sometimes such stories are innocuous. At other times, they’re just a rewrite of a company’s press release. In some cases, it’s literally a paid placement. In any case, they’re not useful to you.
How do you combat this? Spend less time with the news. Drastically reduce your time watching news channels or reading news websites. When you want to be informed about an issue, seek out good long form journalism on that topic. The vast majority of headline news have almost nothing to do with your actual life, so cut them out.
Spending Time in Stores, Online and Off
People wind up in brick and mortar stores for all kinds of reasons. They’re bored. They’re going there for a social reason. They think they might want something. They’re burning time while waiting for someone or some other event.
People wind up in online stores for all kinds of reasons, too. They clicked a link and it took them there. They want to look at new releases. They’re just clicking around.
In both cases, people are willingly putting themselves in situations where they’re giving their time and attention to a business whose primary goal is to use every trick in the book to extract cash from your pocket.
The solution here is simple: don’t go to stores without a specific purpose. Unless you are intending on buying at least one specific item, don’t go to stores, online or off. They’re merely places to convince you to buy, and they’re using almost every trick they can to nudge you toward doing so.
- Read more: Some Reflections on ‘My Year of No Shopping’
Shopping Without a List
As I mentioned earlier, it’s not a good idea to shop without the intention of buying something you genuinely need or want. Yet, for things like food or basic household supplies, you can definitely wander into the store with an intent of buying something you need or really want and find yourself putting a bunch of stuff in your cart that you didn’t intend to buy. Remember, stores are really good at convincing you to buy stuff – that’s what they’re designed to do.
There’s a simple solution here: whenever you do go shopping for anything, make up a list beforehand and stick to it when you’re in the store. Take the decision to buy out of the store so that you’re making the decisions outside of the temptations and marketing influence of the store itself.
Not only does making the buying decisions outside of the store help you with maintaining good spending habits, having that list also gives you something to focus on when you’re in the store. You can look at your list when considering what to look for next rather than wandering the aisles and looking all over the place.
How can your friends be considered an enemy of good spending habits? We often tend to be much like the average of our closest friends, and if our closest friends are avid shoppers and consumers, it’s very likely that this behavior influences us to be avid shoppers and consumers, too.
Obviously, one solution is to seek new friendships with people who aren’t avid consumers and who don’t choose a lot of behaviors that encourage bad spending habits. You can do this by getting out there in the community and building new friendships by going to community events, meetups, and other activities.
However, most people don’t want to jettison all of their friends just because they shop a little. For most people, a better approach is to recognize what’s happening in the moment and steer conversations and social events away from shopping and spending money. If the conversation is about buying stuff or the latest consumer goods, steer the conversation elsewhere. If the suggested activity requires an outlay of money, suggest a cheaper alternative. If no one has suggested an activity, suggest an inexpensive one, like a potluck dinner or a movie night at someone’s house or a game night.
The only time to really be concerned with your circle of friends is when every inexpensive suggestion is vetoed and the conversation constantly steers toward spending money and buying expensive stuff.
- Read more: Friendships and the Financial Turnaround
Humans are designed to think about things in the short term. Most of the time, we don’t give any real concrete thought to what’s going on beyond the next week or so. This means that we overvalue the short-term benefit of buying something and undervalue the long term benefit and consequences of buying something. This often results in us spending money on perks and treats and things that are nice right now but are quickly forgotten, like a fast food meal or an item from a convenience store or something you bought impulsively while shopping with friends or something you clicked on Amazon.
Obviously, that kind of thinking is costly, and it’s why people often get a sense of not knowing where their money is going. If you’re buying things on the spur of the moment and then quickly forgetting about them (because they’re utterly forgettable), you can quickly lose all sense of what’s happening with your money.
How can you stop this? Every time you think of spending a dime, consciously step back and consider what you will think of this purchase five years from now. Will you remember it in any way? Will you be kind of sad that you just wasted this money on something so forgettable? This trick quickly separates the meaningful and worthwhile purchases from the forgettable ones and strongly discourages the forgettable expenses.
That kind of short-term thinking takes another form in procrastination. We have a tendency to put off important things until the last minute (because they’re finally entering our short-term radar), and then we’re in panic mode, rushing around and doing things as quickly as possible, usually with inadequate planning. How many of us have found ourselves a day or two before a holiday event scrounging for gifts?
Procrastination can pay off sometimes. For example, for many people, the pressure put on us by procrastinating generates efficient and high quality performance when trying to finish up a big task or a project.
However, for spending money, procrastination almost always bites us in the rear end. It means that we don’t have the time to do the best research. It means we’re unable to effectively shop around. It means that we can’t wait patiently for sales. In the end, procrastination usually means paying full price for a suboptimal item.
What’s the solution? As soon as you’re even aware of an upcoming need, start shopping for it. Start shopping now for upcoming birthdays and holidays. Come up with good ideas for everyone now and then patiently watch for sales on those items. This also gives you plenty of time to make gifts if you want. If you know a big bill is coming, start putting money aside for it now rather than later. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to just automate savings for those irregular bills by having an automatic transfer at your bank from your checking to your savings each week.
Lack of Self-Control
We all have that inner voice, that monologue inside our head that wanders off thinking about all kinds of things. Often, that voice encourages us to do things on impulse that, when we’re thinking about it, we know we shouldn’t do, but we do it anyway because we’re letting that subconscious train of thought run the show. It’s in those moments that we exhibit a lack of self control – we let our basic impulses, as bad as they are, run the show, even when we might know it’s not the right choice.
This can be very hard to counter, and the best strategy I know of for countering one’s lack of self-control works best when using a lot of other strategies in this article. It relies on some degree of good behavior against other enemies of good spending habits.
What’s that best strategy? Remove temptation and the ability to act on it from your life as much as possible. Avoiding shopping – or any place where you might spend money – is one part of it, but there are many more steps you can take. Another good tactic is to delete your credit card information from online merchants. Another good strategy is to leave your credit card at home unless you’re going out specifically for a need, and only carry a little cash with you. Not only are you removing temptations themselves, you’re also removing the ability to act on them.
Advertising and Marketing (Especially If You Think You’re Immune)
Advertising and marketing are pervasive. They prey on normal human psychology, our inner wants and needs. Sometimes they try to insert an idea in our head that stays there forever, like a good advertising jingle. Sometimes they aim to be so subtle that you never notice the insertion into your subconsciousness, like a clever product placement in a program. The techniques and tactics are endless. And they work. There’s a reason that, when you go to a store, there are tons and tons of brands that you instantly recognize.
These techniques work on everyone, regardless of whether you believe yourself to be “immune” to advertisements or not. In fact, people who think that they’re immune to marketing often lower their guard against the more subtle forms of marketing, making them, in some ways, even easier to market to. Here’s a good summary of that phenomenon.
So, what can you actually do, besides be aware of it? One good strategy is to spend less time with things once you realize they’re being used to market to you. Spend less time with things filled with ads and with product placement and more time with things free of ads and product placement. Modern people can never avoid it entirely, but they can certainly trim down the influence. Read more books and spend more time in nature. Watch less television and use the internet a little less.
Programs with Lots of Product Placement
I’ve hinted at this in previous sections, but I think this needs a section entirely on its own. Product placement – where a particular product is placed into a scene in a dramatic or comedic program that has nothing whatsoever to do with the product, just so it’ll subtly slip into your consciousness a little more – is incredibly pervasive on television and Youtube. Once you start watching for it, you see it everywhere. There are brand name products in the background of many scenes and often featured in various ways without being too intrusive.
My favorite example of product placement in the last several years was the use of cars on The Walking Dead. Here, you have this grimy post-apocalyptic setting where society has fallen apart, but look! They’re driving this beautiful shiny SUV (full of gas, of course) and the camera just happens to pan right over the brand logo. (If you’re wondering, it was a Hyundai Tucson.) It just stuck out at me as being incredibly egregious, and after that, I can’t help but see the products everywhere in television programs and many YouTube videos.
My solution for this is simple: watch less television. Be really selective in terms of what you watch and be aware of product placement. It’s when you’re not aware of it that it’s particularly effective.
The modern world wants you to spend recklessly and not save for the future. The influences to spend, spend, spend are everywhere, from the entertainment we enjoy to the social occasions we choose, even to the thoughts in our head.
While there is no perfect solution for escaping all of it aside from moving to a mountain cabin completely cut off from the world, you can be aware of those enemies of good financial behavior and you can fight them. The most powerful tool you have is your attention and time – use it more wisely and you’ll fend off a lot of temptation.
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