If you’re having trouble sticking to your financial plan, it might be because your brain chemistry is working against you.
Even people who make a commitment to get their financial act together often “fall off the wagon” from time to time. If you struggle to live within your budget or to make good financial decisions, don’t worry: It means that you’re normal. You’re probably suffering from what I call “budget fatigue.” And today, we’re going to outline some strategies to beat it.
There’s a fascinating mental phenomenon that scientists are only beginning to understand that helps to explain why humans fail so often in matters of willpower. It’s called “decision fatigue,” and it works like this: Every time you have to make decision about something, the act of making that decision drains your mental energy a little bit. After a period of making decisions, your brain is tired enough that it actually loses the ability to make decisions very well, which leads you to cave in to the temptations that you’ve been resisting all day.
What this means is that if you’ve spent a long day saying “no” to unhealthy food, procrastination and sinful temptations, you’re vulnerable to blowing too much money on dinner out at the end of the night. Your brain has spent all of its energy “being good” all day, and it has run out of ammunition to fight. In a similar sense, if you struggle day by day and week by week to stick to your budget, from time to time you’re going to be vulnerable to impulse purchases. You’re suffering from decision fatigue — or budget fatigue, in this case — and it’s going to get the best of you.
I have good news, though: There are remedies for budget fatigue. Scientists have learned how successful people overcome decision fatigue and built their willpower, and some of those same techniques can go a long way in helping you stick to your budget.
So, here are our top five methods for overcoming budget fatigue.
1) Put your priorities first.
Research shows that the people who are most successful at maintaining a regular exercise regimen are the people who work out first thing in the morning. Why? Because they’re taking the most important (and often most difficult) part of their day and giving it the utmost priority. Because you’re well rested in the morning, your mental reserves are at their peak, and it’s much easier to make the right decision about things like exercise.
In a similar way, success with a budget requires you to prioritize the way you handle your most important financial decisions. Move your most pressing expenses and bills to the top of your priority list, and make them the first items that you address with your paycheck. By paying your rent, mortgage, insurance, tithe, debt payments and other essentials as soon as you have the money available to do so, you ensure that your most important financial decisions are made while you have the resources to handle them, instead of coming up short later in the month because you blew money earlier.
2) Automate your systems.
Successful people overcome decision fatigue by making decisions when they’re in the right frame of mind, and then implementing systems that keep them from reversing those decisions when they’re tired. The best way to avoid eating junk food, for example, is to make a point to only buy healthy food at the grocery store.
In a similar way, automation can go a long way to helping you normalize your spending. I’m a huge fan of automatic, electronic payments for recurring expenses. I use them for my mortgage, various insurances, utilities and virtually every other expense that I can. By automating these payments, I don’t have to make the decision every month about whether to pay them on time — the decision is already made for me.
3) Set incremental goals.
Exercise scientists and nutritionists know that people are much more successful at losing weight when they set small, attainable goals than when they try to shoot for a huge accomplishment. Achieving small goals helps us to get a taste of victory and a feeling of momentum, while chipping away at a seemingly insurmountable task eventually leads to decision fatigue.
In the same way, you’ll be most successful with your finances if you work on short- to mid-term goals instead of your lifetime financial picture. If you’re paying down debt, start with the small debts first so that you get a kick of adrenaline by paying off an easy balance. If you’re saving money, set goals for monthly or quarterly savings instead of worrying about what you’ll save in a year.
4) Reward yourself appropriately.
Researchers who study decision fatigue have found that eating actually helps to refill your mental energy reserves. And many dieters know that eating small “guilty pleasure” snacks from time to time can actually help you stick to your nutrition plan in the long term. Rewards help us to reach our goals.
The same is true in your finances. If you toil and toil to pay down debt or save money without ever cutting yourself a break, you’re going to burn out. And when you’re burnt out, you make bad decisions. Instead, give yourself small rewards as you go. Set aside a little bit of money every month to spend on unnecessary things that you enjoy. When you pay off a debt, celebrate by going to dinner with your spouse. And commemorate savings milestones with fun activities like a short vacation or a similar small indulgence.
5) Get some accountability.
Accountability and community are some of the most effective weapons in the war against bad decisions. Programs like Weight Watchers and Alcoholics Anonymous have a proven track record, and much of their success is due to accountability and community. When you’re suffering from decision fatigue, the overflow of positive energy from a like-minded community can mean the difference between a weekend binge and a decisive moment of victory.
If you’re struggling in your finances, accountability can be very helpful to you as well. Spouses must be on the same page about money, and need to help each other stay on the right track. If you find yourself cheating on your budget, enlist friends and loved ones to hold you accountable and help you overcome your moments of weakness.
These are just a few tricks to help make up for our innate weakness of willpower. What are your secrets to overcoming budget fatigue?
Photo by Hawkins. Used under Creative Commons License.