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How to break bad money habits and achieve your goals, from a financial psychologist

In Business
June 09, 2024

If you want to make better money decisions but you feel like you’re stuck in a rut, don’t beat yourself up, says Charles Chaffin, co-founder of the Financial Psychology Institute and a professor at Iowa State University. It’s natural to do what’s familiar.

“We’re inherently lazy — we call it status quo bias,” he says. “Basically, we don’t want to make big changes. It’s just how our brains are wired from 100,000 years ago.”

That means you’re likely to continue spending and saving and investing the way you always have, even if an overhaul help you get closer to reaching your financial goals.

To overcome this bias and get better at managing money, he says, set up systems that add a layer of difficulty to the things you shouldn’t be doing. Then you make the positive habits you want to add seamless. Here’s how.

‘Make it tougher’ to spend money and easier to save

You know you have to put some money away to use later. This applies to short-term goals, such as building an emergency fund, and longer-term ones, such as retirement. The problem is, you have financial needs and wants now, too.

The solution, says Chaffin, is to set your money to transfer automatically where you want it to go before it ever hits your checking account.

“Automation is an elimination of friction that can help people save and invest in ways they otherwise wouldn’t,” he says. “A 401(k) is a great example. If I can automate my retirement saving, I’m not even having to make a decision about that money. It’s not even part of my budget.”

Conversely, you may want make certain actions harder, like the ones that drag you down financially. If you want to cut out junk food, for instance, you’d probably avoid keeping Oreos in your pantry, Chaffin points out. You can apply the same method if you struggle with making too many purchases online.

“One of the best things to do if you’re susceptible: Don’t keep your credit card stored with Amazon or with any of these retailers,” Chaffin says. “It’s too easy to overspend. Make it tougher.”

If you don’t think that will work, you might even consider switching to an all-cash spending system.

“Cash is tangible. It’s more real. So people feel like they’re actually spending their money, whereas if you’re tapping using your phone, it doesn’t feel like a real transaction,” Chaffin says.

Keep specific goals in mind

No matter how serious you are about saving more or spending less, none of your habits are going to stick unless you’re clear about what you hope to accomplish with your money, says Chaffin.

“Without goals, all of these things relative to friction are meaningless,” he says. “Whereas if you have some goals identified, you can start to think about eliminating some of the frictions that come into play.”

The more specific your goals, the more likely you are to adhere to better financial habits. If you say you hope to save $5,000, you may get halfway through and decide you’re better off spending it, Chaffin says. “If I say, ‘I need $5,000 to go to Hawai’i by the end of the year,’ I’m more likely to reach that goal than if it were just an arbitrary number.”

Remember: you can’t do anything to change money habits that don’t work for you if you’re not willing to address the problem. Chaffin recommends checking in on your finances regularly to examine where you’re succeeding and where you’re coming up short.

The more you avoid reckoning with your money habits, the worse things will get, he says.

“People who are money avoidant tend to have terrible issues, because they don’t want to look at it,” he says. “If you’re looking at it, and you’re focused on it, you’re more likely to change your behaviors to be consistent with what your goals are.”

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