How to Financially Change When You Feel Stuck


"The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change."


-Carl Rogers


We're finishing up a late shift and my coworker tells me that he has to work in the morning at his other job. He works two jobs; his other one is at Wal-Mart. He spends a lot of time telling me about how much he dislikes working there. He doesn't like dealing with customers. That's why he works in the kitchen with me.


I do what anybody does when someone complains about their job. I tell him he should quit. He wants to, but he gets good benefits. He has a 401(k) with extra money put in there to match his. He gets stock options and can buy stock at discounted prices.


I'm jealous of him. I've been fascinated by personal finance and investing for a long time now. I don't really understand what stock options are or what a 401(k) is, but I want to learn.


That was 21 years ago, and I am now an expert in investing and personal finance. I wish I could say I started learning about investing that same day, but I didn't. I wanted to invest and make a lot of money. I wanted to find the next Microsoft (because I thought that was possible). I wanted to have a retirement account and take advantage of compound interest.


I wanted all those things, but didn't do anything about it for years. I was pretty ashamed of myself. Why didn't I ever do anything about it? I knew I wanted to, but my actions didn't align with my desires. It wasn't until I decided I was going to be an investor, a saver, and a student that I was able to start saving and investing.


financial change is possible

Continuous Self-Improvement


You want to be better. We all do. We all have a deep desire to better ourselves, meaning, we have a natural instinct to grow. This drive in us isn't the same for everyone, but it's there. We're all moving forward, looking ahead for what will make us better off.


This is true in many areas of our life, including our finances. We all want something that will make our financial lives better. Some of us want a better-paying job. Others want to better communicate with their partner about money. Still others wish they were able to save more. The list is endless, but most of us have some area of our financial life that we wish would improve.


It's easy to beat ourselves up and think we only want to improve our financial lives because there is something we consider "wrong" about them. However, our deep instinct is bigger than simply wanting to correct something we consider bad.


Now, we're not always good at determining what will make our financial lives better off. But that's a topic for a different time.


we have a natural instinct toward self-improvement

Financial Change is Hard


We all want to be better. Why is that? Why don't we simply do things that would get us to where we want to be? Logically, if we want to be better wouldn't we already have done the things that would make our financial lives better?


The problem lies with our primitive brains. The first part of the brain to develop is down near the brainstem and is sometimes called the reptilian brain. This part of the brain doesn't like change - and as a result, it's very hard to change. Even though we know change would be good for us, we still don't do it. That's because even though change is good, it's unfamiliar. Suboptimal behavior and outcomes that are familiar are preferred to ideal behavior and outcomes that are new and scary. Moving to a new neighborhood might be a good thing for you, but then you have to get to know the new neighbors, new routes to our favorite places, and probably new rules.


There are terms for this in the field of behavioral finance - status quo bias, and loss aversion. We (subconsciously) fight to keep things the same, thus preferring the status quo over change. Additionally, we will (subconsciously) fight harder to keep something we already have than to obtain something we don't. That is, we are averse to losses.


By some estimates, we need about five good reasons to change for every reason to stay the same.


Change is an uphill battle against a brain that is pretty lazy.


status quo bias means financial change is hard

Ambivalence


The desire to change coupled with the desire to stay the same leaves us feeling ambivalent. In other words, we feel two ways about something. We both want it and don't want it at the same time. Perhaps you know people who want to untangle a bad habit. If there wasn't ambivalence they would have already kicked the habit. This tension between wanting to change but also wanting to stay the same can be uncomfortable, and to ease that discomfort we'll often distract ourselves. We stop thinking about change to avoid the negative feelings we get from ambivalence.


This can look different based on the situation. Sometimes we're torn between two good things. We want to both 1) increase our savings and 2) increase our lifestyle. We might have to choose between two bad things. Neither of these choices is great for us but we have to do one of them. If we're struggling to pay our bills we might have to choose between going without electricity for a while or going without our phone. Other times we both want something and don't want something, and we can't make a decision. You might want to quit your job but you also don't want to lose your income.


Ambivalence involves the discomfort around a choice you could be making, and you already know that avoiding the choice to get rid of the discomfort isn't good Money Health. Instead, I invite you to think about this differently. If there is something that you want to do that will be good for you but you are ambivalent, be grateful for that ambivalence. Without it, you wouldn't even be considering a change. The presence of ambivalence means that you are progressing through the stages of change, meaning, ambivalence is good and you should embrace it.


ambivalence means we both want and don't want financial change

Competing Motivation


Motivation to change our behavior comes from three main sources. It can come from the rewards and punishments that exist around our decisions. It can come from the context or from society.


Rewards and punishments can work, at least in the short run. Unfortunately, it's quite often the case that the reward for good financial behavior, and the associated punishments for bad financial behavior, are way in the future. The rewards for bad financial behavior are right now, good financial behavior feels like a punishment today.


When motivation comes from society or from our culture, we can call that social pressure or peer pressure. You may have noticed in your own life that when people tell you that you're doing something wrong or you ought to be doing something different, it's not likely to change your mind. You may have noticed that it makes you want to continue doing what you've been doing.


When motivation comes from others, we call that extrinsic motivation - which is just a fancy way of saying the motivation comes from outside of us. Extrinsic motivation can work...for a little while...but anything will get us to change back.


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