How to Break Your Bad Financial Habits

I have plenty of bad habits.  I tend to use my credit cards without thinking of how I will pay off the debt before interest starts to be charged, I don't keep much of an emergency fund, and I don't shop around enough when making major purchases (or really, most any purchases).  And those are just my bad financial habits; if we get started on all my other bad habits, we'll be here all day just listing them.

As with any bad habit, it's hard to break bad financial habits once they get established.  When you already have a substantial amount of credit card debt, it becomes much easier to mentally justify adding even more.  If you haven't been investing for most of your life, it's all too easy to just keep on the same path.  Once the habit is established, it takes much more effort to break it than to keep up the habit, even if it is hurting you.

Case In Point...

All of this means that if you want to improve your life, whether that means doing more with your money, cutting down reckless spending, or otherwise getting yourself on a better financial footing, you need to put in some work to get it done.  I know, I know, it's going to be tough; I feel your pain, particularly because I'm going through the same pain.

Luckily, there are some steps that we can take in order to change our habits, if we're willing to put in the work.  While there is no single ‘#X-Step Plan to Defeat Your Bad Habits' that will work for every bad habit, or even for all the bad financial habits, but there are some common steps that should help you to get your financial life back in order:

1. Define your problem: Before you can make any progress, financially or otherwise, you need to define your bad habit, and figure out how you would defeat it.  You also need to make sure that you can tell when you have accomplished your goal, by making it precise and measurable; ‘less stupid spending' is pretty vague and unmeasurable, but ‘spending less than $100 on frivolous items each month' is a decent goal (presuming you have a decent definition of ‘frivolous', of course).

2. Publicize your goal: Now, by ‘publicize', I don't mean that you need to buy a billboard to advertise that, for example, you are deep in credit card debt.  (Particularly because doing so will only get you in more debt.)  No, you should try to share it with those close to you, your friends and family.  Assuming any of them have the same problem (and unless your habit is truly unusual, it's likely that you have at least one or two people in your circle with the same financial problem), you'll have a ready source of support, encouragement, and possibly even suggestions to help you deal with your problem.  (You could also consider sharing your financial issues on a blog or similar forum, at least if you comfortable doing so and trust those who are likely to read about your bad habits.)

3. Replace your bad habits with good ones: Trying to break a habit without a replacement habit is going to leave you with a feeling of emptiness, which you'll end up trying to fill with…well, the old comforting bad habit.  To break the bad habit, you need to find something that you can do to help satisfy that urge, while being better for you (and your wallet).  If you spend too much on books (like me), for example, you can replace trips to the book store with trips to the library to get that same feeling of looking through hundreds of books you'd love to read (with the advantage that you won't have to pay anything to take some of them home).  Trips to a new clothing store could be replaced by trips to the thrift store (preferably with a collection of your own clothes for donation).  It doesn't take much to build up a new, healthier habit.

4. Don't let yourself slip…: I know, it's tough to keep up and avoid slipping up.  The problem is, if you don't take a hard line approach, if you let yourself slip back into your bad habit ‘just this once' or ‘only in this situation', it'll be that much easier to slide back into doing it more and more often, and before you know, it's a bad habit again.  Be firm with yourself (and allow anyone helping you accomplish your goal to be even firmer), stick with your goals, and if you do slip…

5. …And figure out what happened if you do slip up: Things happen, and plans, however well intentioned and useful, get thrown awry.  Chances are, you WILL slip at some point in your attempt to defeat your bad financial habits.  When it does, though, rather than berating yourself for your failure (or worse, deciding that you just can't do it and giving up), try to find out what went wrong.  Did you put yourself in a situation where temptation was all but unavoidable?  Was there an unusual circumstance that you didn't foresee, and therefore, hadn't prepared for?  (With financial bad habits, this is particularly relevant; unlike, say, smoking, there are situations where you might NEED to add on more credit card debt in order to, say, get your car fixed or handle a medical bill.)  When you see what went wrong, you'll be able to adapt your plan to take similar circumstances into account, and avoid making the same mistake again.

There you go, a simple plan for keeping those bad habits under control.  It'll be tough (believe me, I know how tough it can be), but if you keep up with it, you'll end up in a much better place financially.  Good luck!

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