Bad Money Habits--and Eight Steps Toward Changing Them

dollar cut in half - bad money habitsThey say humans are creatures of habit. And this is especially true when it comes to how we manage our money -- which is probably why revising our bad money habits ranks as the most popular New Year's Resolution, hands down. Not only are bad money habits pervasive and dramatically impact our everyday lives and our futures, changing them seems to be an enterprise of its own.

What exactly are the money habits that Americans so desperately want to reverse?

Impulse spending, for one -- a recent survey conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education (NEFE) revealed that four out of five American adults have made impulse buys in the past year -- and 66% later regretted at least one of these impulse purchases.NEFE's Spendster YouTube channel recently held a contest offering the spendy a chance to publicly confess the impulse purchases they regretted, in return for a cash prize to assuage their lingering bad feelings -- and that lingering lightness in their wallets -- from the bad buy; entrants confessed overspending on everything from coffins (for the living) to cigarettes, sweaters to CDs -- even dismembered clown and babydoll heads at Goodwill!

NEFE-operated not only allows users to confess their spending sorrows, it also offers a "money wasted" calculator, which helps users quantify how much cash they are wasting on unnecessary purchases and credit card interest, and how much they could have had toward a trip or savings had they not wasted the cash. (Currently, users have calculated money wasted of nearly $2 BILLION -- that's a lot of vacationing or retirement fund cushioning that could have been done.) Surfacing the opportunity costs to credit card debt and overspending makes sense given the two bad money habits that dovetail with overspending: undersaving, and too much debt. Not saving toward retirement and emergencies ranked as Americans' biggest financial concern, with 27% of the respondents to another NEFE survey pegging saving as their top money issue, and debt was a close second, at 26%.

Clearly, impulse spending, failing to save and invest and overdoing it when it comes to debt are some of the top money habits Americans hope to reform in the coming year. The glaring question is: how to change them?'s Lisa Bertagnoli offers eight steps to change bad financial habits that New Year's Resolvers can put into play:

1. Determine Spending Triggers. Maintain a money journal documenting each thing you buy, as well as when and why you buy it, to begin to understand what stresses and behavioral patterns result in dysfunctional spending.

2. Distinguish "Wants" From "Needs." Don't go into debt for things that are purely discretionary, like private school tuition if you live in a district with great public schools.

3. Think Before You Buy. Put strategies in place that require you to pause and consider the implications of your purchases before you pull the trigger. G. Alan Marlatt, a psychologist and Director of Seattle's Addictive Behaviors Research Center, told Bertagnoli that he recommends would-be buyers work through a four-part matrix of the immediate pros and cons of making an impulse buy, and the pros and cons of not making that same purchase, prior to making a purchase.

4. Take the First Step. No matter how small. Paying off even a single high-interest credit card can create massive confidence and relief, snowballing into the momentum required to eliminate other debt.

5. Euphemize. The mere word "budget" strikes fear into the hearts of many consumers. Calling it a "spending plan" shifts the emphasis to what you can buy, rather than what you can't.

6. Work a Plan. Set your shopping trips up for success at rational spending by taking along a shopping list, only enough cash to buy what you need, or even a trusty pal who can rein it in.

7. Allow for Small Treats Along the Way. Extended deprivation is a setup for failure; plan to give yourself inexpensive rewards for meeting financial milestones, like saving a certain dollar amount benchmark, or paying a bill off.

8. Push Through the Glitches. Relapsing into a spending fit or making a late monthly payment is not cause for you to call off your whole money management mission. Have some compassion for yourself -- if you backslide a bit, get right back on your financial fitness program (and return those shoes!).
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