How to Break “Bad” Money Habits

We all have “bad” habits with money. We spend too much on lattes or we have a gambling addiction—or our troubles fall somewhere in between. We can actually change our ways. It requires a bit of thought and understanding, achieved by digging around in our psyches to hear what our “bad” habit is telling us. And an April 15th resolution is as good a time as any when we’ve taken a financial accounting of the past year.

Here are some suggestions for changing your money habits. You may need to repeat the process several times—going deeper each time. It’s not because you’re not doing it right, it’s just how the process goes. Eventually you’ll connect the dots in a way that gets you to the core of the problem and makes change possible. I’ve included a simple example, but make sure you think of your own habit as you read through these steps.

Focus on the problematic behavior. Cut through your denial to identify the situation you are facing as clearly and honestly as you can. For example, my financial papers are in total disorder. Though I tell myself I will get with almost every late fee I pay I never do anything about it.

Uncover everything you know about the situation. Along with the dollars and cents, include all other relevant aspects—long- and short-term consequences, your feelings, your relationships with any others involved, your values, and all possible gains and losses you can imagine. Let your mind freely associate. No matter how strange and disconnected it may seem, whatever comes to mind counts. I’m frustrated that bills get buried. I hate giving so much money in late fees to the banks. I’m ashamed of being so out of control. I wish someone would clean up after me. At tax time I procrastinate for countless hours and then can’t find all of the receipts I could write off. Not finding the papers makes me feel stupid. Just walking into my office is overwhelming. As a chef I can easily figure out the cost of a meal I prepare but I’m too anxious to figure out anything having to do with my personal finances. Etc. (I’m stopping here but you should keep writing until you’ve run out of things to say.)

Look backward. See if the situation is related to your past. Does it connect to your family of origin? Think about who taught you about money and how that might be influencing your current thinking or behavior. My father always yelled at my mother when he paid the bills. My father says I’m a “mess” with money. He’s meticulous about money matters and keeps track of every cent. I was taught that money was more important than just about anything else. I consciously chose work that I loved over work that would pay well.

Talk about your money dilemma with trusted others, friends, colleagues, or professionals. Create a support team. We can’t do this work alone. I’m going to talk to my friend who is a bookkeeper to get suggestions for setting up a system in my office. And talk with a few friends about my father’s need for control and order. 

Be sure to bring your vulnerabilities and strengths to the problem. Let yourself feel the ways you feel vulnerable and the ways you feel strong. I’ve been able to support myself and stay out of debt, even with my financial matters in chaos. I know how to live within my means. Because I don’t have a system for dealing with money, I feel victimized by the process and imagine that my finances could fall apart at any moment. 

Think forward. We can’t predict the future but give thought about your future and where the possible choices might lead you. It will only get worse and cost me more in lots of ways, if I don’t take steps to make it better. Maybe it’s even contributes to my not being in a committed relationship? 

Published 4/9/13