As a kid, every Friday my brother and I got a 25-cent allowance. As soon as the quarter landed in my palm, I flew out the door and straight to the candy store where I’d stuff a brown paper bag with shoestring licorice, Black Cat bubblegum, and stacks of paper strips dotted with pastel coloured candies meant to resemble LSD blotters (hey, it was the 60s—see how far that quarter went!). By the time I got back home, I had eaten most of the candy and spent the rest of the day in a sugar-and-chemical additive-induced stupor. My brother, on the other hand, quietly slid his quarters away where they piled up.
I’m happy to report that, while my candy habit today is nil, my spending habit has been much harder to break. Like the person who wants to lose weight but eats cake because she “had a hard day”, or “it’s a party”, “or I’m on holiday”, it’s easy for me to find a rationale for spending money.
When you've just got to habit
Habit formation is a hot topic today. Gretchen Rubin, the bestselling author of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, calls habits “the invisible architecture of daily life”.
Just like having good lifestyle habits can help us maintain health, sensible spending habits can make us secure and grounded in a tumultuous world. In terms of money, the sooner we can implement them, the wealthier we’ll become through the magic of compounding. Still, many people know they should save more—especially with low interest rates into the foreseeable future—but find themselves succumbing to online shopping, dining out, or pricey vacations.
For me, a pivotal moment came when I got interested in investing. The cost of admission for that little hobby is, well, capital. Whenever I would be tempted to shop, I’d ask myself which would make me happier—the item in front of me, or buying shares in another company? By taking this short pause to assess my feelings, I’ve become a better saver and been able to grow a decent-sized nest egg. The best part is that I still get to be a spender—but on investments!
The thoughts that count
Rubin believes that a little self-knowledge can go a long way in developing better habits. She identifies four types of mindsets that drive how we respond to internal and external pressures. (According to her quiz, I’m an “Upholder” so I take the long view and tend to stick with the program.) She also believes that “everything counts”. Even the smallest change, like my brother’s quarters, adds up.
This kinder, gentler approach is sometimes called “mind whispering”. Similar to “horse whispering”, it’s a more empathic way to create lasting change without using brute force. In my case, if I had forced myself to become a super-saver, it would have been a flop. Instead, I gently nudge myself to make better spending decisions. And when I “fail”, I avoid self-recrimination as I’ve found it to be counter-productive.
Research has shown that we tend to believe what we hear ourselves say. Our self-identity then shapes our behaviour/habits. Simply replacing the phrase, “I’m a spender” with “I’m a careful spender”, or “I’m a saver”, influences future actions. Other ways to make good habits stick is to have a support network, whether it’s a friend, therapist, life coach, or investment advisor—or all of the above!
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, the key to success is setting a low bar. Because exercising self-control is cognitively taxing, the beauty of acquiring good habits is they operate on cruise control requiring minimal energy to maintain.
Find your style
Of course, not everyone wants to change. In this case it’s critically important to identify your spending style and create workarounds. Luxury market expert Pamela Danzinger has studied spending patterns among investors. According to her research, 28 per cent are “self-expressives”, followed closely by “careful indulgers”. The other groups are “conflicteds”, “impulsives”, and “bargain hunters”. Working with an advisor to structure a portfolio with an optimal asset allocation that also matches your spending style is likely to lead to a happy and secure life.