Exploring ideas for affordable, sustainable, enjoyable living.

Lifehacking 101: Make Today the Day You Stop Sucking at Saving $$$

on April 11, 2013

definitionI’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you are looking for new and/or better ways to save money, and for some of you this may be because, like me, you suck at it.

I should say I used to suck at it.

I’m a lot better at it now, but it took me a year of trial and error to get to this point, I had no one to show me the way, and I’m still learning. You better believe I’m trawling the net for better methods all the time.

But for literally 97% of my life I was bad at saving money. How I wish I could go back in time, grab my 19-year-old self by the lapels and impress upon her the importance of saving. I mean, sure, I understood the basic idea that you’ve got to spend less than you earn, but what would usually undo me is that the pitifully tiny amount I had left to carry over to the next month would get eaten up by some unforeseen expense, so I was always only breaking even–at best. In truth, frequently those unforeseen expenses would be so large–such as breaking a leg overseas and then being unemployed for 6 months because of it–that my miniscule earnings couldn’t cover them and I had to use credit. I truly shudder to think of my profligate ways.

Learning to be thrifty can make your life more rewarding, but if you’re not in the habit here are some hacks to make this (or any other) change more effective:

1. Don’t break the habit, replace it

It’s been said before but I’ll say it again–nature abhors a vacuum, and so does your brain. If you try to eliminate a bad habit without replacing it with something else, you’ll fall back into those evil ways.

Know your weaknesses. Break the bad habit down into manageable targets rather than tackling it as a big abstract. Pay attention to your spending patterns. Are there particular things you spend a lot of money on, or particular venues? Books are my undoing. I can’t buy just one, even when there are dozens waiting to be read on my bookshelves. Also, I love to go out to eat with friends, and it is pretty much impossible for me to refuse an invitation, even if I don’t like the restaurant and I know I can’t afford it.

Here’s one suggestion: during one of the times or activities when you might be inclined to overspend, try working on learning a new skill (budgeting comes to mind).

“When all you do, day after day, is reactivate the same old neural networks and pathways, then breaking a bad habit pattern and implementing significant changes can be much harder. You simply don’t have the habit of changing your brain in place. However, when your brain is already accustomed to change through the process of ongoing learning, then making behavioral changes in your life is easier. Don’t wait for the day when you might ‘need’ to change – keep your brain sharp and keep learning new things….Keep in mind, however, getting better and better at your job by performing the same tasks and running the same habits, while useful, doesn’t count as new learning. To activate your brain to stimulate new connections, do something that you never would have expected, maybe something that scares you a little bit.” 

(Oh shoot, sorry guys–I can’t go to the bar because I have my glassblowing class in half an hour!)

Bonus: you get smarter and probably more interesting.

2. Regrets? You’ll have a few

A number of studies (for example this one from 2002, this one from 2004, and this one from 2009) have shown that anticipating the regret you will feel after doing something you know is bad, or failing to do something that could be awesome, is a more effective motivator than imagining how happy you’ll be doing the opposite thing. In other words, forget about how hot you will look in those $200 jeans and think about how crap you’ll feel when you can’t buy booze food for your kids because of them.

“Anticipatory post-decisional regret” is a fact of life–why not make it work for you?

3. Fake it till you make it

I think the reason many of us suck at saving is because we have this burdensome notion that it means going without (even more than we already are), that it’s boring, that it means we’re stingy, and so on. Then there’s the fear that we will fail and somehow end up in even worse financial straits. So on some level, there is a part of us that doesn’t want to do it.

Just do it anyway. But do it differently. One thing I learned from this book is that changing the physical behaviors (for example postures, patterns of tension) that go along with a feeling actually changes the feeling. The feedback loop works both ways.

4. Change everything around the habit

Remember what I said in #1, about replacing bad habits? Well, it’s a little more complicated than that (you knew it would be). Turns out:

“In order to really change one thing, you need to be willing to change everything, at least potentially. Habits don’t exist in a vacuum, they exist in the ecology of your whole life – all your other habits, responsibilities, schedules, connections to other people, institutions, and so forth.” [more]

When Srinivas Rao (author of The Skool of Life blog and most of the quotes in this post) decided to become a vegan in order to lose weight, he “deliberately and consciously” convinced himself that eating animal products was disgusting and morally reprehensible. Then he didn’t have to use willpower or even think about it–it became automatic because his whole way of relating to and understanding the category “food” was different. He tricked himself into making the change virtually automatic.

I had to completely change my mindset not only about money and spending but about shopping, eating, household management, and organization and record keeping. Instead of thinking of saving as Not Getting to Buy/Do Things I Want, I started thinking of it as Sticking It to the Man. Every time I don’t buy something, I’m secretly thinking, “Take that you advertisers! You giant corporations! You tried to convince me I wasn’t clean/healthy/smart/attractive/cool enough, but you couldn’t con me into buying your unnecessary-though-nicely-packaged junk. I WIN! Bwaa ha ha ha ha!!!”

And that works for me. How about you?

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