Smart Spending: Flex Your Self-Control Muscles

ShopperSelf-control. It helps you resist the urge to yell at your boss. It keeps you from eating a whole pint of ice cream. And you summon it up when you want a pair of shoes, TV or car that you can’t afford.

Discipline is critical to living within your means. Sometimes, though, we all fall short.

Why is it so hard to keep ourselves in check? Here are a few basics about self-control and what you can do to make it work for your financial goals.

WHAT IS IT? Self-control comes into play any time you try to inhibit an impulse, such as eating, drinking, smoking or shopping.

A common misconception, however, is that strong self-control is something people either have or don’t have. The good news is it’s not the fixed ability that most people think, said Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist and author of “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals”.

“It’s better to think about it as a muscle that some people have developed and some people have not,” Halvorson said. “You can get more of it if you exercise it.”

WHEN IT FAILS: Self-control, like a muscle, fails when it is tired.

You have only a limited amount of self-control. Anxiety, depression, fatigue, stress, anger and frustration tap out those reserves. Making many decisions also erodes self-discipline, Halvorson said.

So after a long day at the office making decisions, you are more likely to do impulsive things like overeat, drink too much, lose your temper or spend money. The same is true if you spent the day at the mall evaluating what to buy or not buy. At the end of the trip, your self-control may be weaker.

Stores take advantage of that, trying to wear down your defenses. They are designed to distract and entice you with music, bright colors and alluring scents.

“The more you shop, the less willpower you have,” Halvorson said.

TAKE COMMAND: The key to not spending money impulsively is to recognize when your willpower is low.

Some people shop online when they are sad or hit the mall when they are stressed. Time with high-rolling friends can be a spending trigger. Some people may have to avoid, for example, garage sales or electronics stores altogether.

“”It comes back to knowing yourself, what your triggers are and what put you in that state,” said Gail Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

The critical next step is to have a plan for times of weakness. Before you walk into a store, know what you are going to buy and how much you are going to spend. The more specific you are, the more likely you will stick to the plan.

“Don’t rely too much on willpower, because willpower is a fickle friend,” Halvorson said.

Shopping lists or spending limits help check your spending. Take a cooling-off period, wait a day to make a big purchase or just take a deep breath to give your brain a break to reconsider.

Another trick: Use cash. Cunningham’s organization found that people who paid in cash spent 20 percent less without feeling deprived. She also suggests some heavy credit card users limit impulse buys by putting the cards in water and freezing them so they have to wait to for the card to thaw before making a purchase. .

“Financial discipline equals financial responsibility,” Cunningham said. “People work really hard for their money then spend it frivolously.”

HOW TO STRENGTHEN IT: Practice small acts of self-control: exercise daily, give up alcohol for a week, or get up at the same time each day for a month if you are prone to hitting the snooze button.

These minor acts can strengthen the part of your brain that handles self-control and give you the resolve to do more, Halvorson said.

Do things that enhance your mood, because that can boost your mental resources, as long as that activity is not the thing you are trying to avoid.

That battle between immediate gratification and long-term benefit, is part of human nature. Sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, which is why people skip workouts, buy a candy bar or carry too much debt.

“It’s just really natural to us,” said Meir Statman, a professor at Santa Clara Univerisity and expert in behavioral finance. “Computers can simply come to the conclusion that it is not an optimal behavior. It is human behavior. It is simply difficult.”

Statman said that it can go too far ? frugal behavior can turn miserly. It’s OK to have a treat now and then. It’s a matter of finding the right balance for your personal needs.

If you sense you are about to overspend, imagine a frugal friend or someone with strong self-discipline, Halvorson said. This can actually boost your resolve, if only enough to help you remove yourself from the temptation.

Exercising self-discipline has side benefits, Halvorson said. She said one study found that people who started a regular exercise schedule and stuck to it for two months were not just getting in better shape; they handled life better. They spent money less impulsively and didn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink as often.

“If you develop that willpower in one part of your life, you feel that in all parts of your life,” she said.

Source: The Associated Press.