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How Hard is Financial Success? Exploring Habits

How hard is managing finances?   How is each person’s path to financial independence different?  Are the difficulties of pursuing personal finance the same for everyone?  Exploring the interplay of motivation, mindset, goals, plans, and habits in financial success.

We All Have a Different Situation or Circumstance

These are interesting questions.    On the one hand, the answers appear obvious.    Each person’s situation is unique.   It’s obvious that the son of Warren Buffet will have an easier financial path than a homeless child.      Situationally the difficulties of pursuing personal finance differ for each person.  Given how obvious this aspect is, we will leave situations as out of scope for this discussion.

Situational Equivalency Does Not Equal Same Successful Financial Outcome

Imagine instead you take two people with the hypothetical exact same situation and goals.   Will they have the same financial path?  Will they both have to work to the same degree and manner to get their end goal?  At the end of the day will their financial management difficulty levels match?

Motivation and Managing Finances

Well again the answer is no, but the reasons might be less obvious.  First, there is the aspect of motivation.   I personally am a huge proponent that mindset is a cornerstone of success.    If you can’t see yourself succeeding, you won’t.  Full stop, no matter who you are.  Mindset makes you the best you can be.  But it does not necessarily change your position relative to others. 

So if a person doesn’t believe they can succeed at financial management odds are they won’t.  I have actually seen this in media and tv sitcoms in the past.  The stereotypical couple runs into financial problems and tries to utilize a budget.  Hilarity ensues and by the end of it, they just agree to ignore the problem seeing no path to success.   The personal equivalent to an ostrich sticking their head in the sand.   They essentially choose to stay mired in financial insecurity.    Sadly the TV troupe is not far from many real-life families.

Goals and Managing Finances

As we move further into the motivational camp we reach the relative nature of a person’s financial goals.     Each and every one of us has many goals in their life.  Where does good financial management fall in the prioritized list?  Perhaps driving that luxury car or having a bigger house is a bigger goal for the person than financial independence.  While I believe that is a short-sighted perspective, ultimately it doesn’t matter what I think.  It matters what goals drive a persons motivation.  If financial management falls way down the list of goals then odds are not good the person will ever get a grasp on their finances.

But difficulty levels of financial management are not just decided by motivation.    Motivation may be the cornerstone, but plans and habits are the bedrock.    I have said before, “if you don’t have a plan, a direction at least, then you will be doomed to wander aimlessly.  A plan doesn’t have to be a budget.  It doesn’t even have to say when you plan to retire.  But it at least has to outline a vague idea of your goal and how you will get there.

How Do You Define Financial Success?   

If you truly want to achieve financial success you first need to sit down and decide what that looks like.  Each person’s version of financial success is unique.   These types of discussions often lead me to think about the most likely to succeed vote in our high school yearbook.   When I think about that category today I am left scratching my head.  How could I determine who was most likely to succeed in my class when I can’t define success for an entire group of people in the first place?

 Without knowing what success looks like to you, you can’t hope to achieve it.    Once you have that definition you need to figure out the steps you will take to get there, how you will track your path to that success, and finally how you will keep yourself motivated along that path.   The first step is the hardest, so the details of the plan might be less important than the general framework.  But still, you need to at least know how you will take those first few steps to get started.

So provided you have all the pieces above to reach financial management success in place.  Does that mean your path will be just as easy as the next guy when situationally equal?  Well no, and this brings us to my real target with this post actually.  The hardest aspect of changing your financial management path.

Habits Are the Largest Impediment to Prosperity

Every one of us is the product of our life experiences and our genetics.  By the time you reach the adult stage of life, you have been heavily shaped and molded.  With each passing year that mold becomes harder to change.    Basically you shape habits that become hard to overcome.   

And each person’s set of habits are unique to them.    No two people behave the same across every potential set of stimuli.  It’s what makes you well… you.  

Not All Habits Are Conducive to Financial Success

The problem is, some habits make achieving your financial goals more difficult than others.    This leads to an effect similar to when you discuss weight loss.  Some people can eat anything they want and sit on their butt all day without ever getting fat.  Biology plays some part but it is really the amount and relationship with food that matters in the long run. Some people take a sideways look at a donut and seem to balloon.  

Similarly, some people need to avoid credit cards, not step in a store, go on no spend weeks, or other steps because that’s the only way to break their existing habits.      For these folks, successfully managing finances is a major hurdle.

If Your Habits Already Align with Good Financial Management You Have It Easier

Then there are others whose habits already align with their financial success goals.  Take me.  I am naturally inclined not to spend much.    My background and history have shaped me to the point that I am generally content not to buy things.    It’s easy for me on many levels.    I don’t walk into the store and have to think about whether I will buy the new bright shiny gadget.  Simply it never even crosses my mind to go buy the gadget in the first place.    It takes little to no effort for me to control my spending.

But You Must Realize Not Everyone Shares These Habits

As a writer in the personal finance space, it is important I recognize that not everyone’s default position and habits align easily with managing finances.    From that recognition, I can hope to write content to help people who share similar disposition to myself as well as those who are my polar opposite      It’s not as simple for many as just finding what you value and buying just that as I have written in the past.    Sometimes it’s as much the plan as it is the actions to overcome the existing habit.  Habits play a  huge role in defining the difficulty of one’s path to success, perhaps the biggest.

How To Overcome Engrained Habits To Achieve Better Financial Success

So how do you overcome an ingrained habit that might be holding you back?  Well, the answer is multi-fold:

1) You avoid the general stimulus that triggers the habit.    So for example when I talk about investing I always bring up automation.  Automating finances is not just a way to simplify your life or free up time.  It also allows you to remove triggers to previous bad habits.      One of my negative financial habits is a constant need to tinker and optimize.  If left to my own devices I would be forever playing with my portfolio to optimize my return.    By automating our finances I have removed the step of checking our investments on a regular basis.  I know the act of looking at our numbers triggers my habits in the area of optimization.  So I set things up so I don’t look as often.

2) You set up things so the decisions you make happen before the stimulus occurs.     So, for example, I am a big proponent of having an investment plan.  That plan details the steps I will take with our investments given every reasonably possible contingency.    If I were to try and make a decision in the heat of the moment, say after a major stock market decline, my optimization habit is likely to kick in.   

I could so see myself without a prior plan having decided like so many others to sell my investments during the 2008 financial crisis.  I didn’t though.  Why?  Because I decided long before the crisis ever happened that even if a major financial crisis occurred I would stay the course.    I had the motivation to stick to my Investment plan and I made the decisions in the plan before I reached the point where my habits would be triggered.

3) Finally, pace yourself.  Habits take a lifetime to develop.  You can’t replace bad ones in a day.  It takes time.  So remember to set short term goals towards your change at first.   Remember to celebrate the steps towards your habit change and don’t get too discouraged when you sometimes regress.    And when all else fails, see if you can find a less damaging outlet for the same habit while you work on breaking it.

How I Mitigate My Bad Investing Habits

In the past, I have alluded to my own pacing step in investing.  Simply put I have a play portfolio for moon shot stocks.  It amounts to peanuts compared to my overall investments.  But buying a high flying stock occasionally helps me resist the urge to tinker and adjust other aspects of my portfolio.    In essence, it gives my habit a less damaging outlet.  Over the years that play portfolio has continued to shrink as my need for it has greatly diminished.  But even today I keep that outlet for one or 2 small positions.  

What bad financial habits do you need to overcome?  Have you thought as to how you might do so?

9 Comments

  1. Abigail @ipickuppennies
    Abigail @ipickuppennies September 23, 2019

    I think I mitigate most of my bad financial habits sheerly out of routine. I’ve gotten so used to telling myself that I don’t need the newest gadget that I just don’t have much interest in them anymore. When I do, I save up for it.

    I do tend to spend a little more during my manic phases (I’m bipolar, but on meds so the mania is pretty low-level), but even that is pretty paltry.

    My worst financial habit is probably that I love takeout. I try to limit it to once a week. I’d have it two or three times a week if I let myself. Maybe more. But it’s not good for my wallet or diet.

    Well, takeout and vanity. Vanity leads me to spend up to $90 a month on beauty services (I get my hair cut and colored every 6 weeks so some months it’s $40 spent, others it’s $90). That’s not the best habit, but it’s one I’ve sat down and worked into the budget.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 23, 2019

      Sounds like you have the habits under control with your budget. Was there a time where you had to reign them in?

  2. Joe
    Joe September 23, 2019

    I’m with Abigail. I automate most of my finance and have a pretty good routine. A lot of it is avoidance. I don’t go shopping, wear expensive clothes, or want luxurious items. It’s working pretty well.
    The key is to cultivate good habits and try to lose the bad ones.
    I don’t have many bad financial habits. Maybe I’m too cheap? I’ll try to lose that one later. For now, it’s serving us well…

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 23, 2019

      Ha! As long as you are not depriving yourself I think cheapness is not an issue.

  3. Ant @ StudentSavings
    Ant @ StudentSavings September 24, 2019

    Most of my financial stuff is automated. Although I do find myself reverting to bad financial habits every few months or so. I don’t let it bother me anymore. I’m happy to accept it’s not always gonna be perfect

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 26, 2019

      I believe there is no need to be perfect. As long as your cognizant and don’t let things get out of control you are probably fine. I am by no means perfect with my finances.

  4. Josh
    Josh September 24, 2019

    I’m too risk-averse at times.

    We recently borrowed money to buy our first rental property as we could only purchase 50% of the selling price with our cash on hand. I hate taking on debt (even if it’s good debt like when we recently bought a rental property) because it means paying interest. But at the same time, we want to own real income-producing assets to diversify our investment portfolio.

    Even if you don’t go into debt, there are ways we can challenge the status quo in our daily routine that may improve our finances, make more free time, or simply make life easier.

    • FullTimeFinance
      FullTimeFinance September 26, 2019

      There is always room for improvement. Thanks for adding your perspective.

  5. Xrayvsn
    Xrayvsn September 24, 2019

    Learned habits and peer pressure situations are the hardest to break free from when you realize you are heading in the wrong path and need to right the ship.

    I agree that the most important step is to define what you actually are aiming for. Without a goal defined, you will really have no way to steer that ship towards it.

    Automation is a great thing as it does not fall prey to emotionally charged situations. The more you can remove emotions from the equation, the better you will be.

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