Work smarter, not harder

Reducing your spending, especially when you’re in the habit of spending a lot of extra money on things you don’t need, is hard work. And anything that requires hard work, if you’re relying on willpower alone, will eventually stop getting done.

That’s just human nature.

The good news is that there is something you can do to make stopping your impulse spending a lot easier. That thing is finding your why. 

My why is that I believe, with every single cell in my body, that the key to living a richer, fuller life is to reach financial freedom. Becoming financially free is what I see as the key to doing the things I love—waking up naturally when the sun comes up, not at 5 am, putting my effort and energy only into things that I truly believe will make the world better, and having more time flexibility so that I can spend a greater percentage of my life with my family and friends.

That is the why that gets me through those hard moments when I want to buy a frivolous new Patagonia shirt or a sexy new pair of F1 Scarpa touring boots. By focusing on the joy of my why, instead of feeling the pain of not satisfying my impulse spending urges, I am focused instead on saying yes to something much, much deeper. By choosing not to buy shirts and ski boots, I am saying yes to sleeping in and exercising when I feel like exercising. I am saying yes to spending time with my friends and my family. Ultimately, I am saying yes to taking control of my life.

Say yes to your future

If you’re going to make any real change in your life, you are going to have to find your why and say yes to your future. Maybe your why is that you want to be able to provide for your children, or be a good role model for a niece. Maybe your why is smaller. Maybe your why is that you haven’t been able to see your sister in three years and you are saving up to fly across the country and visit her. But whatever your why is, finding it and understanding it in crystal clear terms will make changing your habits to save more money ten times easier.

Don’t make saving money about saying no to yourself. That is punitive and stingy and mean spirited. Instead, let your why guide the everyday decisions we all make that compound to produce our lives. Think your why, sing your why. Burn your why deep into the sulci of your brain and don’t forget it, ever.

Nothing extraordinary was ever accomplished without a strong why.

Don’t use force to stop impulse spending

Finding your why feels a lot like rock climbing to me. When you’re new to climbing, the temptation is to muscle your way through a difficult climb. You use force instead of precision to reach the top of the climb, and the result is that you are exhausted and shaking and barely able to reach the top of one climb, let alone three or four or five climbs. That’s why so many people fail to save money: They try to force themselves and deprive themselves and focus on what they can’t have instead of what they can have. 

Once climbers gain some experience, though, they know to focus on their foot placement and body mechanics when they reach a difficult place in a climb (actually, they never stop focusing on those things). With far less effort, these more experienced climbers (and money savers!) are able to top out on one difficult climb after another, all because they know where to put their effort.

My point is, don’t try to muscle through your budgeting goals by nickel and diming yourself. You’ll do more work for fewer results and ultimately shortchange yourself. Instead, stay laser-focused on your why.

The power of the wait-one-week rule

One thing that I do before I buy something I want, but don’t need, is ask myself a simple question: Is this imperial stout or $100 trip to the hairdresser or full suspension mountain bike worth slowing down the pursuit of my goals? If, after forcing myself to wait for one week, the answer is still yes (and it almost never is), I let myself spend the money.

Some people, like Jordan over at Fun Cheap of Free, advocate for a longer wait period (Jordan advocates waiting for three months so you can save up). J.D Roth at Get Rich Slowly advocates for a thirty day wait period. Everybody is different. Figure out how long it takes to curb your impulse buying urges, and then promise yourself you will stick to that timeframe.  

By having the preconceived plan to wait for one week before buying anything extra for ourselves, we take the power away from our impulses, urges and insecurities and give it back to our hearts. More often than not, a little time is all we need to frame the question as it really is: Beer tonight? Or more time with my family for the rest of my life? A fancy haircut today, or complete control over the way I spend my time?

You don’t have to be a spreadsheet wizard like Mr. Money Mustache to see that those decisions are easy ones to make.

So don’t wait. Focus on finding your why, harness the power of the wait-one-week rule, and achieving your goals will become exponentially easier.

Plan for failure

You know your why. You have already thought ahead and know that the next time you want to buy something impulsively, you’re going to implement the wait-one-week rule (or whatever timeframe you settle on). You’ve won the battle, right?

Not so fast.

When implementing any change in your life, you have to plan for failure. Sometimes the wait-one-week rule isn’t enough, and I still find myself longing for something I know deep down I don’t need. When that happens, I lean back on my pre-established clear, concise language.

The power of clear, concise language to stop impulse spending

I stole the clear, concise language I use with myself from David Green from the BiggerPockets Podcast Show 307. When I feel myself standing on the brink of an irresponsible purchase, I tell myself that I don’t actually want financial freedom. I just wish I had financial freedom. Because when you want something, you hustle for it. You pour yourself into it. You bleed for it and suffer for it and give yourself to it all the way. 

When you wish you had something, though, you just sit around and daydream about it. And hearing that message from myself—you just wish you had financial freedom—is usually enough to smack me out of my consumption trance and remind me how very deeply untrue that is, and that I do want financial freedom and that because I want it I am ready and to tame my impulses and sacrifice for it. 

A repeatable formula

Writing this piece has reminded me that managing our own behavior is not too different from managing other people’s behavior. When I taught ninth grade English, the first thing I would do when a student was being disruptive and loud was remind them why the classroom needed to be calm and quiet. Nine times out of ten, a quick conversation about the why in the hallway was all I needed to get a student back on track.

Sometimes, though, a bit of time would pass (I’ll equivocate this to the one-week-rule) and they’d still be acting out. At that point, I always had clear, concise language on tap so that I could quickly and efficiently deal with their behavior—sometimes to let them know I would be writing a referral, or calling their parents, or whatever level of negative reinforcement matched their behavior.

My point is, this stuff works. Once we find our why, implement the wait-one-week rule, and establish clear, concise language to use with ourselves when we are pestered by the urge to spend impulsively, we are on the firm path to success.

Now, our challenge is simply to stay on that path.

To read more about how you can take control of your financial future, check out my post on why you should track your spending, even though it’s scary.


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