I am one of about five people in the United States who doesn’t have a Netflix subscription. During the last month, however, I had a free trial. Now that it’s over, I once more have time and brain power to do something other than binge watch Marvel superhero shows and “Dexter.”
The Netflix trial proved to me, yet again, that I have no self-control when it comes to watching screens. Honestly, my behavior in the last month disappointed me. “Surely I should be able to resist! What is wrong with me?”
But I also know I’m not alone in this behavior. I mean, hell, Netflix is designed to encourage this behavior, what with its “Start Next Episode” and “Skip Recap” buttons.
What saved me from wasting the rest of my life binge watching TV was not a sudden surge in virtue or discipline or will power. It was that, by simply not paying for a subscription, I no longer had access to Netflix.
In the same way, you know what saves me from eating a bag of Doritos every day? The fact that I don’t buy them when I’m at the grocery store, so they’re never in my house.
Eating Doritos. Binge-watching TV. Both unhealthy choices I’d be better off avoiding, but if the temptation is right in front of me, I cannot resist. Also in that category? All sorts of financial behavior: Spending too much money. Not saving enough money. Selling your investments right after the market drops.
If we can learn anything about our financial lives from my relationship to Doritos and Netflix, it is:
The best way to avoid bad choices in our financial life is to set up our life so that it’s hard to do the wrong thing.
I can think of three ways to put this philosophy into action:
- Create (artificial) barriers between you and the wrong behavior.
- Create a plan that you can blindly follow.
- Automate your finances.
Create (Artificial) Barriers Between You and the Wrong Behavior
In case you haven’t noticed, modern life could be summed up as the Pursuit of Convenience. I have no objection to convenience in general (from an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense), but it’s a problem when it makes it easier to do the wrong things. Like watch endless hours of TV or eat unhealthy food or spend too much money on plastic geegaws you don’t actually need.
It’s helpful, then, to intentionally introduce friction in the process of doing undesirable things. To make the wrong behavior less convenient, harder to do. Of necessity, these barriers will be artificial, self-made. But that’s okay; the results are the same: less of the wrong behavior!
When it comes to (not) eating Doritos, it’s essential I don’t buy Doritos while I’m in the store. Then when I’m at home, it would require leaving the house and going to the store–even though there’s a corner store 100 yards away–in order to get my Doritos. That’s enough of an inconvenience that I don’t actually ever do it. (One of those rare times when innate laziness works in our favor!) Similarly, by not buying a Netflix subscription, that’s one more thing standing between me and binge watching.
What behavior in your financial life would you rather avoid, but seem powerless to stop?
Maybe it’s spending way too much money on Amazon. Amazon is all about making shopping as frictionless as possible. If you introduce some friction to the process, you will almost invariably spend less.
Here are some easy ideas for creating some friction:
- Don’t enable 1-click shopping
- Don’t use the Dash button
- Hell, don’t be a Prime member! (I know, that sounds crazy. But I’m serious.)
- Start putting items you want in your shopping cart and simply waiting 72 hours before purchasing it.
If spending too much in general is a problem (it’s not just an Amazon thing), then you could go on a cash diet: pay for everything in cash instead of using credit cards. Plenty of studies have shown that spending goes up significantly when you switch from cash to credit card.
That’s in large part because spending cash makes spending your money more real to you, so you do less of it. But there’s also an element of “Well, shit, I forgot to go to the ATM, so I guess I can only buy $50 worth of groceries instead of $100. Or I can’t buy this thing easily online, I have to go to a brick and mortar store, which is less convenient, so, oh hell, I guess I don’t need it that badly.”
I know, I know. Sounds horrible. Sounds inconvenient and difficult. But if spending too much is your problem, why would you want to make it easy to do it?
Which of your financial habits don’t serve you well? How could you make it harder, less convenient for you to do those things?
Create a Plan that You Can Blindly Follow
When your paycheck is extra big because of a bonus or RSUs just vested, it’s really hard to decide in the moment that you should use these extra dollars to save for financial independence or for a downpayment. It’s much easier to use it for a complete new set of camping gear or that trip to New Zealand you’ve been eyeing for a while.
But what would happen if, before you got that windfall, you’d worked on your finances, decided what was truly valuable to you (financial freedom and owning a home), and created a specific plan for what you were going to do whenever you got extra money? “I’m going to put 50% in an investment account targeted at financial independence, 40% of it in a high-yield online bank account for a downpayment, and splurge with the remaining 10%.”
That clarity makes it a lot easier to do the right thing when your lizard brain is screaming at you to spend all the money now on delicious, shiny baubles. You made the decision before the temptation was sitting right in front of you. You don’t have to make any decisions at this difficult juncture…Just Execute the Plan.
In my practice, I create just such a cash flow policy for my clients. We review current cash flow (income, saving, spending), look forward to what income and expenses are coming up in the next year, and then create a policy that tells the client what she should do with each paycheck, each raise, each bonus, each dollar that comes from RSUs or ESPP.
We make this plan when the client is excited about taking control of her entire financial life, when she sees the power of handling her cash with purpose, when she’s thinking Big Picture, about financial independence or buying a home. We don’t make the plan after she receives the money, when temptation to splurge is too great.
Automate Your Finances
Imagine you need to save $500/paycheck to an investment account so that you can achieve financial freedom by the age of 45. If you do this all by yourself, then every time you get a paycheck, you have to:
- make the decision to save that $500
- manually transfer it from your bank account to your investment account
- manually invest it
Honestly, I just don’t think you’re going to do it every paycheck. It’s just too high a demand on your will power.
One alternative is to ask someone else to impose that discipline on you. Ask a financial advisor or a friend to remind/harangue you to do the right thing every paycheck. While you’ll probably do the right thing more often than if you’re left to your own devices, you can imagine the limitations to this approach.
Or you could simply automate the process. Set up your paycheck to automatically deposit $500 to the investment account, or set up your bank to automatically transfer money from your checking account to your investment account. Set up your investment account to automatically invest incoming dollars into certain funds.
You only have to make the decision once. Do the work once. And then it simply happens. This is the “pay yourself first” philosophy in action. No more willpower or virtue or self-discipline required.
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Disclaimer: This article is provided for general information and illustration purposes only. Nothing contained in the material constitutes tax advice, a recommendation for purchase or sale of any security, or investment advisory services. I encourage you to consult a financial planner, accountant, and/or legal counsel for advice specific to your situation. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without written permission from Meg Bartelt, and all rights are reserved. Read the full Disclaimer.