I was distracting myself from a training ride for a charitable bike event in which I am participating by listening to an audio book by Pema Chodron, “Don’t Bite the Hook.”
There were so many powerful things that relate to financial planning that I ignored my aching body and replayed the book at a high speed to take notes so I could share some thoughts with you.
One of the biggest issues we run into when working with clients is their interest in explaining their behavior rather than observing it. The explanation creates justification for actions that are inconsistent with what the clients want from their lives.
Clients who are overspending (as opposed to spending in ways they can better afford) explain this behavior by indicating that the spending is an exception or a one-time cost. Clients who are hoarding or frugal (as opposed to spending in less restrictive ways) explain their behaviors as the need to feel secure.
The problem is that the explanations are rarely accurate. Most of the time, the explanations are ways to justify behavior to which we are accustomed. Overspending or underspending are mirror images of each other. The explanation is personal permission for the actions to continue. A more effective strategy is to notice when you are creating a story around what you just did (or in the case of underspending, didn’t do).
Breaking these habits involves creating little successes. For someone who spends more than they can afford, the action would be keeping track of your expense (similar to a food diary for those interested in weight loss) and observing whether there are particular times when you are prone to spend more — usually out of boredom or fear. Also begin to notice the times when you were thinking about spending and decided to put a halt to it. The objective is build with little successes as a way to establish productive patterns.
For those who spend far less than they can afford, observe when you are depriving yourself. Notice what you say when you are choosing not to spend — “I don’t need that” may mean “I am not worthy of that” or it may mean you don’t actually want it.
If there is something that you can afford but keep coming back to because you haven’t bought it, spring for it. And notice how you feel after you complete the purchase. Underspending can be more difficult behavior to correct, but the long-term effect is that you are never able to fully enjoy the life you have put yourself in a position to have.
When clients are unhappy with their situations, one reason is that they didn’t get what they wanted. But are there alternative ways to look at things? A client had a job she loved and felt that she was passed over for a promotion so she was unhappy. The client was not unhappy with her actual job, but she became dissatisfied because of a story she created about why she did not get promoted. Her story is that she is not appreciated, she is not good enough, someone else was more political. But it’s the story that creates the disharmony, not the job.
We also become dissatisfied when we get what we don’t want. There are many things that happen in our lives that we may not want — big things like getting sick or old or divorced, and little things like getting stuck in traffic or suffering an unexpected car bill. We often spend so much time on the things that we didn’t want that we forget to notice all the things that went well on any given day.
Chodrin says, “Do not underestimate the things in your life that bring you happiness. Notice them. Don’t perfect gloominess.”
We all have a daily behavior practice. If we are constantly complaining, we will end up perfecting that. If we practice noticing the things that are going well in our lives, we may not perfect that, but we will certainly get better at it.
This approach will help you in your money life. We are almost always looking at what is next with our money, thinking that the next thing we do will bring us happiness. If we had the new house or the new car or the new job, think how much better our lives would be. But these are our outer circumstances. It’s not to say that these things won’t improve our lives, it is that they won’t fix them.
If you spend more time on wanting what you already have while realizing you may not have it forever, you will also get better at appreciating the new things that come into your life.
Many of our clients who are in retirement are trying to avoid suffering, but they can’t. They either get sick or their partner does. They slow down. They eventually start to lose their sharpness. Chodron points out the value of suffering — it humbles you, it can be the seed of empathy, and it helps you become more compassionate.
While none of us fully welcome the pain that inevitably will confront us, it is unrealistic to avoid it. Practice learning to accept the little things that cause us to suffer — traffic jams, late fees, — as a way to get better at handling the bigger things. Heck, Chodrons’ book even had me suffering far less on my bike ride.
Ross Levin is the chief executive and founder of Accredited Investors Wealth Management in Edina.