How You Can Use Constraints to Change Your Own Behavior

by Kristina on February 6, 2013 · 2 comments

(This is a guest post by Ben @ Ready For Zero)

Sometimes doing “the right thing” can be really hard, especially when it comes to your finances. The human brain isn’t always set up in a way that rewards long-term planning. In fact, it’s often the opposite: our primal instincts tell us to go for instant gratification, consequences be damned.

One only needs to take a stroll around the mall to see just how sophisticated companies are at playing to our psychological weaknesses and just how effective those appeals are.

So how can we shift our mindset to favor the long-term goals and encourage ourselves to do “the right thing”? By putting constraints on our own behavior. What do I mean by that? I mean that you need to put pressure on yourself by limiting or constraining your choices in some way. This is not altogether different than how Steve Jobs used to put constraints on his teams at Apple in order to produce a desired outcome.

Here are some ways you can use constraints to shape your behavior:

Freeze your credit cards

You might think it’s crazy, but this actually works. If you have a problem with spending too much and the credit card is the main culprit, what you can do is fill up a paper or plastic cup with water, then drop your credit card in it and put it in the freezer. The reason this works is it places a constraint on your behavior – in this case, a physical constraint that makes it more arduous to spend money you don’t have.

If you were to get tempted to buy something, you would have to go to the freezer, take out the frozen block of ice covering your credit card, and wait for it to thaw or attempt to break it apart – which would be time consuming and/or messy. Instead, you would likely have time to ‘cool off’ and realize that the purchase you wanted to make was not necessary, therefore helping you reach your goal of spending less!

Deposit to savings automatically

Let’s say your goal is to start saving money for an emergency fund, a retirement fund, or a down payment for a house. Whatever your goal is, it can be hard to have the perseverance to make substantial deposits into savings every month. Why? Because most people wait until the end of the month to make their deposits and that leaves open the possibility of the money getting spent during the month.

Instead, you should set up a direct deposit from your paycheck to your savings/retirement account. That way, the money goes in automatically and constrains your behavior for the rest of the month (instead of vice versa). You won’t be able to spend the money because it will already be gone and safely tucked away where it is supposed to be.

Tell everyone you will get out of debt

Another way to constrain yourself is to make your commitments public. If you tell your friends and family that you are going to pay off your debt (or save up $15,000, or run a marathon) you will feel a much greater need to achieve the goal. That’s because, when your goal only exists in your own head, it is too easy to justify reasons why you’re not getting there and back down from your plan. “Oh, I would have paid that extra student loan payment, but I had to attend that concert this month,” you tell yourself. Once your loved ones are on board, you won’t be able to get away with easy excuses like that. And that’s a good thing!

Create very specific deadlines

Similarly, you should also set up deadlines to constrain yourself. In other words, “I will get out of debt” can be improved to “I will get out of debt in 2013.” By adding a deadline you are putting that time constraint on yourself that will motivate you to take the necessary steps to achieve your goal. Once you believe that you only have 11 months to get out of debt, there will be more urgency and you will focus on taking action.

In combination with the tricks above, this can make your willpower quite strong. If you have put your credit card in ice (constraining your spending), committed yourself to paying off all debt in 2013 (constraining your timeline), and told all of your friends and family about this goal (constraining your ability to easily back out) then there’s a very good chance you will have a laser focus on your goal – and probably achieve it!

These are some of the most powerful tips we share with our readers when we explain how to get out of debt.  We hope that you will benefit from them! Let us know in the comments if you have tried any of these tricks before!

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Benjamin Feldman is a personal finance expert at ReadyForZero, a startup company that is building tools to help people get out of debt by giving them a plan and motivating them with information – like how much interest they’re paying per day. Follow him at @BWFeldman and read more of his work at the ReadyForZero blog.

Photo by Lucy



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