Since the COVID-19 pandemic, people have been forced to reassess how they spend and save their money, especially as a third of U.S. citizens have now been forced to dip into their savings. At the same time, people across all income brackets are finding that they have saved less money over recent months.
People want to be financially resilient whatever the economic circumstances – it means having monetary protection during unexpected events, and actively improves your quality of living. The challenge is to take control of your finances during the good times, not the bad, or it will already be too late. For many people, that means overcoming bad financial habits that have prevented them from building a solid savings foundation.
As with any habit, how you manage money can be driven by emotions, avoidance triggers, and memories – and you probably don’t do it consciously. There’s even research showing that people with ‘agreeable’ traits have a more careless attitude towards money. It’s a complex relationship, and nurturing new habits takes commitment and time. Nonetheless, you have the power to improve your situation and become more resilient.
Here’s how to break your bad financial habits:
Pinpoint the problem areas
There are a number of common bad financial behaviors people have: not having a budget, impulse buying, viewing credit as free money, spending beyond your means, ignoring debt, and not planning for known events like retirement or a child’s college fund. Still, any behavior that actively prevents you from saving should be considered high risk.
Make a list of the bad habits you believe you have. Then, ask people you know well if they recognize any further bad financial patterns in you. Having an outside opinion can be more objective and identify behaviors that you miss in yourself.
Afterwards, devote some time to thinking about your general attitude to money: does talking about it make you uncomfortable? Does it make you feel an instant sense of dread? Consider the scenarios when you most often have to look at your savings. Is it during stressful periods, like when you’ve received your third letter from the bank? Or is it when planning a long-overdue family holiday? Identifying your feelings and environments around money will help you realize if you’ve formed negative habits and how to thwart them.
Re-route the cues
Behaviors have triggers, meaning something stimulates them. For example, when you go into a particular store, you might always spend too much. In response, purposely aim to go to another, cheaper store, or change your route to avoid the store altogether. If you find that you often shop out of boredom, dedicate yourself to a hobby or have a distraction readily available if you ever get the urge. These are small steps, but they will retrain your brain away from your bad habits.
It’s helpful to write down your triggers and the times when you struggle to ignore them. This will help you pinpoint in what situations and moods you’re most vulnerable, and also constantly remind you of what you’re working towards. It’ll be great to reflect on your progress and see how far you’ve come as time passes.
Ease in new behaviors
This is the tough bit – not only avoiding triggers, but replacing your bad habits with new ones. Psychologists say this can lead to an initial increase in anxiety as you face your behaviors, yet if you push on, your overall levels will decline.
The idea is to substitute damaging behaviors with productive ones. For example, if you’re prone to buying goods purely because the price has been discounted, make yourself calculate how many hours worth of work the price equals, or how much food you could buy instead. This will keep you grounded with genuinely essential purchases. Another way is to set up monthly direct debits to pay off your credit card, and then leave your debit card at home when you go out. This not only reduces the amount of interest you have to pay back and helps establish good credit, it also prevents you from overspending.
Another tip is to put a barrier between yourself and tempting expenses by calling a friend every time you open your wallet. The physical act of paying then becomes an inconvenience and you’ll find you don’t do it as frequently.
Be sure to attempt new behaviors that are realistic, appropriate for your lifestyle, and focused on long-term results. Additionally, keep it simple. The more basic, the easier they’ll be to integrate into your life and stick for good.
Be patient and persistent
Consistency is key: do it, do it, and do it again.
Just as your habits today are a product of your previous behaviors, your new behaviors will ultimately lead to new habits. In fact, new behaviors get wired into the part of your brain known as the basal ganglia. Here, things become an automatic reaction so long as they are persistently repeated – something that approximately 54 percent of people fail to do beyond six months.
To keep at it, start small and work your way up to more daunting changes, and look for enjoyment along the way. Your mood may well improve, and you could pick up a hobby or have more time for friends and family. Always reward yourself by checking-in on your savings as you go, and celebrating each successful day’s achievements.
Everyone has bad habits; they’re a product of automatic responses we establish to make life easier, or at least seem easier. When you’re crafting new habits, remember to be kind to yourself during the process. It won’t happen overnight, but you won’t regret a single day looking back.
Make a plan, make sure it’s realistic, tie yourself to it, and you’ll be well on your way to financial resilience and peace of mind.