It’s easy to feel like you don’t have much control over money, at least when it comes to the big-picture things. Sure, you’d love a larger income, but your salary is what it is, and you can only negotiate so much. Or you’d like cheaper rent, but you live in a city where demand for housing is high. If anything, most of us feel the exact opposite of control when it comes to money: Our day-to-day lives are forever dictated by our financial ones.
Yet research suggests that a sense of control is critical to your financial well-being. In a 2014 study out of Stanford, researchers found that simply feeling more powerful led people to make better saving decisions. To get study participants in the right mindset, researchers put some subjects in a room where they sat in a tall chair (these people were dubbed the “leaders”) and others in a different room where the only seating option was a low ottoman (these were the “followers”). The researchers then asked both groups how much money they wanted to save. The leaders were willing to save between 34 and 42 percent of their income, while the followers saved only between 13 and 18 percent of theirs.
No, I’m not suggesting that a taller chair is the solution to your financial woes. But the study authors hypothesized that when people feel powerful, they want to keep that feeling, which drives them to make decisions that maintain their sense of control.
A spending plan is exactly like a budget but with that one crucial difference: It’s supporting something that matters to you.
“Because we can’t control the world, what we need to focus on is: What is it in our behavior, and our financial behavior specifically, that we have the power to change?” says financial therapist Amanda Clayman.
The following money moves can help you find that power. They’re simple steps, but they’ll make a big difference to your psyche — and, eventually, to your bank account.
Make Small Choices
The simple act of saving money, no matter the amount, can empower and motivate you in ways you might not expect. Like Clayman says, you don’t have much control over the economy or the job market; to avoid feeling defeated, give yourself the opportunity to make a choice about something you do have control over. Choosing to save is one small way you can have some say in your financial life.
Just ask Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. In his latest book, Smarter, Faster, Better, Duhigg writes, “Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control. The specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control.”
In other words, it’s not really about the five bucks you save or the extra $25 you decide to throw at your debt. It’s the fact that you’re making the decision in the first place. “It’s this feeling of self-determination that gets us going,” Duhigg explains.
Ditch Your Budget for a Spending Plan
Diets are hard because they’re restrictive by design. When you tell yourself you can’t eat potato chips anymore, the only thing you want is a potato chip. And maybe some french fries. Oh, and a milkshake. Yes, I’ll have whipped cream on that.
Budgets present the same problem. Most people start a budget because it feels like the responsible, adult thing to do. But when your friends ask if you want to drop $250 to go to the Beyoncé concert, that commitment to being responsible goes out the window.
To fix this problem, many experts recommend a spending plan instead of a budget. With a spending plan, you come up with a specific financial goal, then budget based on reaching that goal. Let’s say your goal is to save $2,000 for a trip to New York. Your entire financial life aims to support that visit to Momofuku and those Broadway tickets and whatever else you plan to do on your NYC adventure. A spending plan is exactly like a budget but with that one crucial difference: It’s supporting something that matters to you.
It’s not easy to say no to Beyoncé, but it’s a lot easier when you have a solid reason for doing so. A spending plan gives you that reason. (And if it makes you feel more empowered, I think Beyoncé would approve.)
Come Up with a Concrete Goal for Your Spending Plan
“When I work with clients, the way I describe it is that we’re going to simultaneously work on the what and the how,” Clayman says. “So, the what is: Rubber meets the road, what is it that you’re trying to do or achieve? And the how is: How do we have a healthy process around the work that we’re doing to reach the goal?”
In other words, before you figure out how to get better at managing your money, figure out what you want to use your money for in the first place. Your what doesn’t have to be glamorous. Maybe you’re just trying to pay off a $10,000 student loan because you’re tired of carrying that weight. In that case, you’re paying to feel liberated, and that’s worth the effort.
Make Your Goal SMART
A goal is also much easier to achieve when you have a plan for it. An easy framework for turning your goal into a plan is the SMART goal criteria, a framework for describing goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Here’s what a SMART financial goal might look like.
- Specific: I need to pay off my $10,000 student loan.
- Measurable: I will keep track of my progress through my online student loan account.
- Achievable: This is achievable in three years if I cut back on my restaurant spending.
- Relevant: This is relevant because I want to free up my income to spend on things that matter to me.
- Time-bound: By saving $277 a month, I will pay off this loan in 2021.
Boom, now you have a plan for that seemingly insurmountable goal of paying off your student debt. It still won’t be easy, but this at least gives you a blueprint for reaching that finish line.
“I would also build in markers, like subgoals,” Clayman says. “Depending on whatever the size of your debt is, find a meaningful chunk of that and give yourself a reward or even an effort vacation as you meet those markers along the way.”
For example, maybe you reward yourself when you pay off $1,000 of that loan. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive or luxurious — that would defeat the purpose. But you could treat yourself to something as simple as a long bath, or a pack of gummy bears, or a visit to your local museum. The important thing is to acknowledge those milestones, which helps you stay motivated for the long haul and focused on the process.
Write Down Your First Money Memory
Depending on the person, money can represent any number of emotionally charged concepts: fear, greed, scarcity, wealth, opportunity, anger. “The symbolic property of money is something that starts to form when we’re young,” Clayman says. “And that’s because children are programmed to be sensitive to the emotions of their caregivers.”
If your parents fought about it often, for instance, money might be something you’ve learned to avoid dealing with because you think of it as something that causes trouble. You’d rather not deal with the turmoil, so you ignore your budget, spend without much thought, and never bother asking for a raise. The way we think about money as adults always echoes some of our younger experiences with it, Clayman says, “because the first memory of money is going to have a strong emotional component to it.”
Take a moment to think about your first money memory. Think about the emotions surrounding that memory and how they might contribute to some of your current habits. (You might find it helpful to write it down.) This exercise can help you exert a little more power over your financial behavior; after all, understanding a habit is the first step to changing it.
Stop Automating Everything
One final tip for feeling more in control of your money: Engage with it more regularly. It’s so easy to automate every aspect of our financial lives. We pay our bills automatically. We save our credit card information to our favorite websites so we don’t have to type in the numbers. But the hidden cost of this convenience is that we often don’t give those transactions, or our finances in general, much thought.
“I think if most of us are trying to get to a more grounded and financially healthy place, having regular contact with our money is the best place to start,” Clayman says.
Unlink those credit cards. Check in on your budget every day. Write down your expenses. If you really want to commit, try cash-only spending — there’s some evidence, like this 2012 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, that people spend less when they pay with cash.
What works for one person might not work well for you. Maybe you end up spending more when you pay with cash. Maybe a daily budget check-in just discourages you, and you’d rather do it weekly. There are some basic financial rules that are universal, but the thing about personal finance is: It’s personal. To feel financially empowered, the first step is figuring out what works for you.