The field of psychology has a history of debating just how people learn. Is it through reinforcement? Social modeling? Good examples to follow? What you want to learn is how to cultivate the good personal finance habits so you can eliminate credit card debt and get on with your life. You want this. I think I can help.
Reward yourself. The sooner after the thrifty behavior the better. Rewarding yourself before, during, or some time remote from the behavior will not have the desired effect – creating a positive reinforcing association with the habit you are trying to cultivate. So reward yourself right after you defer the impulse purchase, make a menu plan, buy gas in the wee hours of the morning… Make sure the reward is something you love, ice cream, playing soccer, spending time with the kids, whatever it is for you.
In the beginning, reward yourself often. If you are just beginning to develop habits they require constant reinforcement in order to stick. This is in the beginning. So for the couple of weeks reward yourself as often as you can, again, as close to immediately after the desired habit as possible. We start to believe, somewhere in our brains, that looking for bargains actually causes ice cream to materialize.After a couple of weeks you need to taper off the rewards, otherwise they become meaningless. But in the beginning, continuous reinforcement is powerful. It is the strongest reinforcement schedule for establishing a habit. This is well documented by lots of empirical research.
Make your rewards non-routine. When I say non-routine, what I really mean is unpredictable. After continuous reinforcement, which has limited utility, unpredictable rewards are the next strongest reinforcement schedule. A good example? Slot machines. This is why people get hooked. The reward is unpredictable, but it comes, and that has a powerful effect on people. This is not to say that routine rewards are not good, they are fine. But mix it up a little.
Make it a ritual. This may seem to contradict the last point, and in a way it does. But ritual has its own power. Going for gelato after the kids clean their room every Saturday may not be, strictly speaking, as reinforcing as a random treat, but it sure will work miracles on Saturday! More importantly, ritual provides continuity in our lives, comfort in order, and helps us focus on what we value. I would not rely solely on ritual, as it is not the most powerful reinforcer of behavior, still, having a ritual or two can be very powerful.
Join a community with similar debt reduction goals. Truly the internet is fantastic for this. You can go to personal finance blogs and read about things that people on the outside generally are very reluctant to talk about, including their big financial blunders, how much money they make, how they choose to spend it, how they got into credit card debt, and what they are doing to get out of it. Community offers a variety of food for thought, ways of looking at things you might never have come up with on your own, handy tips, as well as the emotional support that comes from knowing your predicament is not yours alone. Do not underestimate the power of being able to identify with people you like and respect.
Find a debt guru. Actually, I am not a big fan of gurus. They tend not to live up to their initial radiance. So gurus aside, find someone you like and respect who has walked the walk for longer than you. It might be someone you’ve known personally for ages, or someone you strike up a rapport with on a personal finance blog. It’s probably more effective if you actually know the person in actual time and space. Have an appreciation for their personality and how they make their finances work for them. I know a lady in her late 60’s (I’m guessing) that I’ve known since I was about five years old. I now recognize her as being a titan of frugality. We saw her during our vacation. She offered to take us and the kids out to lunch. She said “we can go to [crappy chain] or [a local Chinese restaurant].” That part was a no-brainer. The chinese food was good and inexpensive. When my wife remarked that she wished our kids were more adventurous eaters, that she wished our kids would eat sushi, my guru bridled. “You don’t want that. That’s expensive!” That might sound cheap. Her point was that if you can avoid fostering expensive habits in your kids, then avoid it. When they grow up and get jobs they can acquire whatever expensive habits they like. She had picked both restaurants because they were adjacent to parks, planning to take the kids there if they got squirrelly. She had thought of everything. Would it surprise you to know this lady grew up in the Mid-West?
Consider psychotherapy or some kind of debt counseling. This may strike some of you as very non-frugal. It is not for everyone. It may seem draconian (the expense!) or even counterproductive. It may fall under the heading of “treatment of last resort.” But some of us are really going to need some outside help if we are going to make substantial changes in our habits. Debt counseling may be an excellent option. Another is psychotherapy. If you are overwhelmed with negative thoughts that have evolved into larger attitudes and the way you are in the world, a good cognitive-behavioral therapist might be able to help you get some perspective. Are some feelings — regret, vulnerability, powerlessness — hard for you to get a handle on? Do you tend to be very energized and optimistic only to collapse when faced with the outcome of your decisions? This sort of pattern tends to be entrenched. Even when we know exactly what we need to do in order to get out of debt, save money, whatever the goal is — we stumble. This can be very frustrating and lead to plummeting self-esteem and self-punishment, not to mention mounting credit card debts. A good psychodynamic therapist, one that looks at some of the deeper meanings you attach to money, may be able to help you make sense of and even overcome this type of problem. The goals in this sort of therapy are ambitious, including making adjustments to our character. You can’t change your character, but you can modify it in ways that are helpful. Are you are confused about how your finances got to be such a mess? Then you might want to pursue psychotherapy.