Behavior change is a funny thing. We can tell ourselves we want to change, even that we have changed, and yet still continue the same behaviors. It only takes a moment to make a choice that runs counter to our intentions, and then we have regret, or guilt, which doesn’t tend to help us make better choices next time. I think that because we have good intentions more of the time than we make bad choices, we can sometimes delude ourselves into believing we have been “good,” when we really have been quite bad.
For several years I was a member of Weight Watchers, one of the most successful weight loss programs in the world. The key to my progress in the program was the journal. I wrote down everything I ate. Weight Watchers assigned a number of points to food and gave me an appropriate daily points budget for my height. The program emphasizes eating whatever you want, but mostly in smaller portions. If you go over budget one day, it is ok, you can make it up the next day. You just try to stay under the budget a week at a time. Toward the end of some weeks, I would find that I hardly had any points left, eating copious quantities of clear vegetable soup to make it to the end.
Come the first day of the next week, FINALLY, I could indulge a little. It would be ok because I had every intention of doing better. But that wasn’t always the case. I would slip up again. Sometimes at my weekly weigh-in, I would actually have gained. That redoubled my intentions, but not always my behavior. The biggest changes in my behavior came not from my intentions, but my awareness. Without the journal and the check-ins to show me I was drifting, I tended to get blindsided by the magnitude I had gone off course.
There are other areas in life where different people have similar illusions. Addiction, in its many flavors, is a disease of perception. The addict perceives they have good intentions to quit, so they are continually surprised when they slip. Regret, guilt, it starts all over, then renewed intentions, and the same behavior. They think maybe their problem really isn’t that bad when they aren’t making that momentary bad choice. In the meantime, they wreck their lives and the lives of those close to them. When addicts achieve recovery, they often have daily journals, readings, or programs to maintain their awareness, to let them know they are drifting before they make more momentary decisions that threaten their and their loved ones’ wellbeing.
What about money behaviors? Spending behavior gets a lot of press, and has a lot of similarities to weight loss. But there are also more insidious behaviors that creep into our relationship with money. Sometimes we become addicted to the account balance, or we let its magnitude affect our mood the same way stepping on the morning scale can. Paying too much attention to it can produce behavioral choices we later regret – panic selling, greedy buying, or working too much, for example. Making even one, momentary emotional decision with money can take us way off course.
How can we have awareness of whether our aggregate behaviors are matching our intentions with money? An accountability partner, like a financial professional, works for some people. Others have family or friends with whom they can share their situation. A journal, or workbook, for our money behaviors, is the best choice for others. The self-assessment exercises in my book coming out next month, The Mindful Money Mentality, aim to fill this awareness for that kind of reader.
In Weight Watchers, there is a goal weight range for each member. Ideal weight has an upper limit, but it has a lower one, too. Taken to the extreme, overdoing weight loss past the lower limit stresses the body, and can threaten your life. In money, we mostly focus on staying above some lower limit, but we should be careful about stretching to exceed an upper limit, too. Too often the behavioral choices made in those moments can threaten, not necessarily our physical life, but the life we profess we intend to live.
Filed under: Behavioral Economics, Behavioral Finance, Family Finances, Fee-Only Financial Planner, Happiness Economics, Money and Mind Games, Personal Finance Tagged: Behavior change, relationship with money