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Trick or treat? What you’re really doing with your finances

We’ve all been here. We get discouraged when we have to start squirreling away money. We forget that change – real, long-term change – takes more than just a few weeks of work. We get tired or frustrated. We quit, get back on the wagon, and then quit again. But instead of just accepting what we’re doing at face value, we attempt to justify our actions. Or even emphasize the silver lining, completely overlooking the financial sabotage.

Does this sound like you? I’m not accusing you of being weak or frail because permanent behavioral shifts are incredibly difficult to manage, which is why most people fail.

Since Halloween is a few short days away, I wanted you to start thinking about your finances in a different way: trick or treat. But we’re not exactly talking about the money; we’re delving into the behavior. Let’s start by going over some common phrases we use to justify some of our actions.

What’s your excuse?

“I had a rough week at work; I deserve this shopping spree.”

Yep; you’ve said it. Who hasn’t? And it’s a trick. You trick yourself into thinking that a bad whatever means you are deserving of a treat. But instead of actually treating yourself with something healthy, you are tricking yourself by sabotaging your finances.

“I’ll just put the new iPhone on my credit card since I don’t have the money for it.”

Yet another trick. I firmly believe in investing in the things that you love – after you divide your money into your past, present and future buckets. And racking up a bunch of credit card debt is rarely justifiable.

“I save a little each month, but my next paycheck can’t be late or I’ll fall behind.”

This one’s easy, but still worth noting. As a financial planner, I of course want you to save. But I don’t want you to trick yourself into thinking you’re saving when you’re still living paycheck-to-paycheck.

All these scenarios are examples of you tricking yourself into thinking you’re treating yourself. These things feel good in the moment – and you justify them with any variation of the excuses above – so you keep doing them since it’s not really hurting anything. But isn’t it?

Trick or treat?

How long will you continue in this trick-or-treating cycle? You need to kick the habit of fooling yourself you’re doing good when you’re actually hurting yourself. Tricking yourself into thinking that a shopping spree you can’t afford is justifiable isn’t a treat; it’s sabotage. Charging your credit card to the max month-after-month doesn’t make up for the fact that you “had to have it.” And not dedicating yourself to your future through saving is only hurting you, especially when you rationalize it with “I tried.”

The real treat in saving, spending and charging is when you do it responsibly. Instead of going on a massive shopping spree, buy a few items and squirrel away the rest of the money in your savings or investments. A true treat will continue to give something positive to you for a significant period of time. Will maxing out your credit cards do that? Nope.

This week, in the spirit of Halloween, think about the things you do or say to spin those bad financial behaviors in a positive light. And when you’re out and about, try to bust yourself in the act of this trick-or-treat scam. Knowing when it happens – and where it comes from – will help you eliminate the “tricks” from your psyche.

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