"Willpower is humans' greatest strength. Save it for emergencies."
I'm sitting at my desk drawing toilet stalls. This is my job - my internship, really. I work for a company that supplies construction sites with all the stuff they need to install. Part of that is toilet partitions, and I'm the person who demonstrates how the partitions will fit in the bathrooms.
It's payday and I have to save some of this money. It's not because I want to (or need to) save for the future. That doesn't even occur to me. I live in Minnesota and the company is a small firm in North Dakota. For reasons I don't understand, I don't have taxes withheld from my paychecks. No federal income taxes, no state income taxes, no Social Security taxes, and no Medicare taxes.
I fancy myself a personal finance guy. I read personal finance magazines in my spare time. I believe I've hit the jackpot! I'm not going to lend my money for free to governments. No. I'm going to save money myself, earn interest, and then pay my bills when it comes time.
But alas, tax day comes the next year and I don't have any money. It's difficult to have to make that savings decision 26 times in a year. If I would have asked to have taxes withheld from my check - or any other automated system - I wouldn't have had to make any decisions and I wouldn't be in this position.
Making financial decisions is hard in the face of temptation. There are ways to win that battle, though.
Making Decisions Isn't Free
It's funny to think about, but making decisions isn't free. It's easy to think that it costs nothing to make a choice. But, it's' a little known fact that decisions take mental effort. The more decisions we have to make the more mental effort we have to exert. We lose physical stamina. We can feel fatigued and distracted after making too many decisions. It takes a lot of work. That's why you sometimes feel drained after a busy day of work. Each time we make a decision we lose some of our mental capacity.
Willpower is basically our ability to do the things we know are right, especially when we are facing temptations and impulses. So willpower is the weapon we use against temptation.
This is important because as technology is advancing, marketers are making it easier and easier for us to pay. In the past, we used to have to dig into our purses or wallets, find the cash or write out a check, and hand it over. All of these introduced space between the impulse and the purchase. Now we are paying with cards that don't even require us to sign. We can pay by tapping the card. We can pay with our phone. Our brains are wired to take the easiest path. When temptation shows up and it's really easy to pay, it takes a lot of willpower to overcome that. These day-to-day financial decisions are very emotional - no doubt by the design of marketers. The more willpower we need, the more likely it is that temptation is going to win.
Willpower is Finite
Willpower isn't something that's just there, and we get to use it whenever we want. It's not like an arm that can be used whenever we need it. It's more like the strength behind the arm. The more we use our muscles, the harder it is to use until the muscle has a chance to rejuvenate. Similarly, once we use willpower, we have less willpower going forward. If we use willpower to say "no" to one thing, there's less willpower left to say "no" to the next thing. It's kind of like a tank.
That Feeling of Deprivation
Another issue to consider is the idea that using up willpower can very easily lead to feelings of deprivation. The more you say "no" to stuff, or the more you force yourself to save or send toward paying down debt, leaving you with less money left over, the easier it is to get the feeling that you are depriving yourself. It can start to feel like you can't have anything you want. It's frustrating to have to say "no" all the time.
This is why it's important to set yourself up to not have to drain your willpower.
Saving Your Willpower
There are things you can do to save your willpower so that it's there when you need it and you don't feel deprived. Habits, for example, are things we just automatically do without thought. There is no willpower required when something is a habit. For example, if you have a habit of not eating dessert, then you use no willpower to avoid paying for and eating an expensive, high-calorie treat. Putting systems in place for yourself and using routines to regularly check on your system, means that you spend some time upfront to design your life and set it up so that you don't have any (or very few) decisions to make. Your system runs in the background without you having to think about it. And finally, the grand poobah of saving willpower is automation. If you can automate your decisions, then you don't have to worry about using your willpower. An easy example of this is your retirement plan at work. If you set it up to have 5% or 10% taken out, that just happens, automatically, without your intervention. You can do the same thing with paying your bills, transferring money to investment accounts and savings accounts, and many other things.
Habits, routines, systems, and automation help you keep your willpower for when you need it.
Rational Decisions vs. Emotional Decisions
You might be thinking that having all this stuff done in the background feels like you have less control over your finances. That feels true, that is until you peel back a couple of layers. The reality is that by automating and systematizing your finances you let go of the day-to-day emotional decisions that arise because you already spent the time upfront making these decisions in a cool state. You made the decisions ahead of time rationally. And although in one small sense it's true that have less control, it's the emotionally hot decisions that you don't have control over, which is actually a pretty great thing.