I’m not thinking about my retirement savings. I’m not thinking about my debts. They’re lost in the fog right now. All I can think about is that I want a meal at that fancy restaurant or that I really want an iPhone. That’s what I see around me, with everything else greyed out and not even present in my mind. I’ve worked hard. I deserve these treats. Retirement? Debt? My future self will deal with it.
This was an extremely familiar state of affairs for me during my late college and early professional years, and it’s a state that I still fall into every once in a while.
I call it the money fog because it’s a feeling much like a fog.
When I’m in that state, the future becomes invisible. I don’t really consider the ramifications of what I’m about to do beyond the next hour or two. I simply want something and the impact of that choice is pushed out of my head.
I buy into the idea that my “future self” will take care of things. At some undetermined point in the future, the financial damage I’m about to cause will be easily solved. I choose to ignore the fact that I might not necessarily be in a good position in the future. I just buy into the idea that my future self will just handle it. My future self will pay off debts and will save more for retirement.
Thankfully, I rarely fall into this state these days. I’ve come to understand how dangerous that state is to everything I want for my future because every time I slip into that mindset, I take several steps back from where I want to be going. At the end of the day, I’d rather take a step or two forward rather than several steps back, even if it means passing up on things that I want.
How did that change happen?
I think the first part of it was simply becoming more mature. I got married. I had a child, then another, then yet another. I became a homeowner. I joined several community groups and ascended to leadership positions in some of them. More responsibility gradually found its way onto my shoulders.
However, there were several other elements that revolved around specific changes I made to my life and specific strategies I adopted that made it easier to avoid this “money fog.”
Using the Thirty Day Rule
Right after we began to struggle with turning our disastrous financial position around, I read about an interesting rule in one of the countless personal finance books I was devouring at that time. The author called it the “thirty day rule,” and it worked like this:
If you’re going to make a non-essential purchase of $10 or more, write it down and wait thirty days. If you still want it, then buy it. If you don’t want it (or, even better, you forget about it), then you made a great choice not spending that money.
This rule was incredibly helpful for me to break out of the “buy two or three books a week” routine that I had established.
It was pretty easy to convince myself to agree to it in the moment. It just meant that I wrote down the name of that book and I’d decide in a month whether I wanted it. This eliminated the “worry” that I might forget about a really great book, which was something that I would use to convince myself to buy on the spur of the moment.
In a strange way, it also gave a strong sense of having fulfilled that desire. By writing down that item that I wanted, I could walk away feeling as though I had “taken action” on that desire, which fulfilled much of that purchase desire.
What happened a month later was even better. Most of the time, I realized I didn’t really want that thing that I wanted so badly just one month earlier, so I just happily forgot about that item. Why? The desire was often based on a pretty short-term impulse, one that faded with time.
I still apply this approach today (with a few exceptions, such as when I go to an event or a store with money I’ve saved up and planned for with the intent to spend it there). I’ve found that putting items on my Amazon wishlist and simply waiting for a month does a spectacular job of curbing that desire and when I go back through that wishlist, I often delete most of the items I find there.
Keeping Goals Front and Center
It’s easier to make out familiar things on a foggy day than unfamiliar things. The outline of your neighbor’s house is easy to spot, but you might not be able to figure out where landmarks are if you’re not used to those sights on a daily basis.
This same philosophy applies to a “money fog.” If you spend a lot of time thinking about your future and your goals, they begin to seem like a normal part of your mental landscape. If your financial goals are things that you think about a few times a day, those goals are going to be an ever-present part of your consciousness and they’re going to constantly remind you of the choices that you should be making to approach that goal.
As a normal part of my routine, I review my big goals every day. I look at my set of lifetime goals, my five-to-ten year goals, and my three-to-six month projects. Once a week, I review them more deeply, spending time thinking about what kind of progress I’m making on those things.
I also let those goals cross my mind throughout the day. Because I usually think about goals early in the morning, those goals pop up in my mind during the normal course of a day. They’re simply a normal part of my thinking.
Because of that, when I fall into a situation where I might be in a “money fog,” those goals tend to still be visible, even if they’re not as clear as they might otherwise be. They can still be a guidance to me, helping me to make better decisions even in the face of financial temptation.
Reminding Myself of the Good Things I Already Have
My life is already abundant. I have a nice home, a great wife, three wonderful kids, and more interests and hobbies than I possibly have time to dig into. I live in an area with lots of trails and parks to explore. I have lots of family and friends who care about me.
In a situation like that, I really don’t need more stuff. I have more than I could ever want, and reminding myself of that abundance is a great way to keep “money fog” at bay. I do this in a few different ways.
First, I keep a gratitude journal. Every day (well, almost every day), I take some time to list at least five things that I’m grateful for in my life. In doing this, I am able to constantly remind myself of how many great things I have. It becomes a natural part of my mindset.
Second, I catalogue the things I have regularly, looking for things I already own that I want to dig further into. Do I have books I want to re-read? Do I have games that I am anxious to replay? Maybe there are some movies just sitting on my shelf that I want to watch? This simple act reminds me of how much I have in my home to entertain me. I do the same thing with the community groups and services. This sense of abundance is overwhelming; I usually wind up realizing I have far more to do in my home than I have time for, so I lose the desire for new things.
Finally, I try to fill my spare time with ongoing projects. If you spend a lot of your spare time with ongoing projects that don’t require additional materials – like painting a small army of miniatures or writing a novel – then you begin to feel less and less need to buy new things. You already have everything you need.
Re-evaluating My Hobbies Regularly
Many hobbies out there are giant money sinks. Golf is a great example. I don’t even want to know how much money I dumped into golfing during my early professional days. Any hobby that requires regular purchases is going to be a money sink, like it or not.
I try to keep this in mind when I look at my hobbies. I try lots of new things all the time and some of those things grow into new hobbies, sometimes supplanting old ones. By default, I prefer hobbies that don’t require lots of purchases.
How does that help with the “money fog”? If I have a hobby that doesn’t require purchases, I’m not going to wind up in a hobby store. One example of this is geocaching, a hobby that I’ve been enjoying with my family. It doesn’t cost anything. We just wander through parks and on trails and in various places, find the caches, and mark them as found.
Thus, over time, I migrate away from expensive “upkeep” hobbies like golf and towards low-expense hobbies like geocaching. My most expensive hobby at this point is board gaming and most of my game acquisitions are via game trading.
Carrying Only Small Amounts of Cash
When I have cash in my pocket, I’m tempted to spend it. That’s because when I actually have cash in my hand, it’s already been accounted for in my budget. When cash exits our checking account, there’s a budgetary reason for doing so, so if I’m holding cash, spending it has zero impact on our budget.
Thus, when I have a lot of cash in my pocket, it’s really tempting to spend it on things I don’t need. If I have $30 in cash in my pocket and I walk into a bookstore, there’s a good chance I’m going to talk myself into buying a book. If I have $50 in cash in my pocket and I walk into a game store, there’s a good chance I’m going to talk myself into buying a game.
The solution? Don’t carry much cash. I usually have a few dollars in my wallet for little things like a beverage, but I try to avoid ever carrying more than $10 in cash with me.
Sure, I always have the option of using my credit card if I see something I want, but that credit card comes with a catch: it’s part of our budget. A purchase on that credit card has to be reconciled with our budget at the end of the month. It’s going to be examined by both of us in a clear state of mind.
Of course, this all relies on having a healthy money relationship with your spouse and also having a budgeting system. Because of those two things, I’m quite careful about how I use my credit card. If you don’t have those things that help you filter your credit card spending, this tactic won’t be as useful.
Not Taking Credit Cards Into Stores (or Storing Them Online)
Whenever I’m going to a store where I know I’m going to be tempted – a bookstore or a game store, for example – I try to minimize the cash I’m going to take in there. Just to be safe, I also try to avoid taking credit cards in there, too.
Typically, I just leave those cards at home or, on occasion, in the glove compartment of the vehicle I arrived in (I’ll usually just leave my full wallet in there).
For similar reasons, I don’t store my credit card number in online stores. If they offer to store that information, I always decline.
In all of these cases, the reason for not having that credit card (or credit card number) ready to go is inconvenience. If I get lost in a money fog, not having my credit card makes it much harder to actually make a foolish purchase. I have to break myself out of the situation in order to be able to execute that purchase, and by doing so, I typically recognize what’s happening and can apply the thirty day rule, as described above.
There have been many, many times in the last several years where having my credit cards out in the car have kept me from making an unnecessary purchase.
Not Going to Stores without a Specific Purpose
One of the biggest shifts I’ve made is to stop going to stores solely for the purpose of entertainment.
Once upon a time, I used to go to the bookstore several times a week, just because it was fun to go there. The same thing was true for several other shops in the area, though the visits weren’t as frequent.
I simply don’t do that any more. Instead, I’ve substituted the actual experiences in for of shopping.
For instance, I’d rather go home and read than go to the bookstore. I’d rather play a game or paint some miniatures instead of going to the game store. I try really hard to collect experiences instead of things.
There is one other challenge here – social shopping. When I’m out with friends and one of them wants to go to a store, I usually just leave my credit cards in the car as mentioned above so that I can’t easily make a purchase.
Even in social situations, though, I try to avoid stores unless I have a purpose. I usually suggest doing something else rather than going to a store – going to someone’s house to play a game, having a potluck dinner, going to a park to play disc golf or ultimate frisbee, or something else along those lines.
Realizing That Not Buying Stuff Isn’t “Self-Denial”
When people think of the choice to not buy something they want, they immediately cringe and get an image of some kind of self-denial strategy. They imagine some sort of stoic lifestyle without pleasure and that just doesn’t sound appealing.
Here’s the truth: choosing not to buy something means that you’re choosing to buy something else instead. When I don’t buy a book, for example, I’m buying a few hours off of work down the road. When I don’t buy a game, I’m buying part of our hotel room on our next vacation.
It’s not “self-denial.” It’s not “never having fun.” It’s simply about choosing one thing over another thing.
The challenge of a “money fog” is that you often lose sight of those “other things” that you might choose. Many of the strategies in this article focus on keeping those “other things” in sight when you’re making a purchasing decision and, when you do that, it often seems like the better option to not spend your money on the “spur of the moment” option.
That doesn’t mean that the “spur of the moment” option is always the wrong option. Sometimes, it really does make the most sense to spend money now. However, having other options on the table always makes it easier to choose another option.
For me, the “money fog” is a dangerous thing. By using several different strategies to avoid the fog and to give myself landmarks to follow when it happens (so that I can get out of it without spending money), I can avoid unnecessary purchases and make smarter decisions about where to put my money.