The Secret to Financial Change

I appreciate where this article in LearnVest titled "The Power of Pessimism: How Negative Thinking Can Improve Your Finance" is trying to go. Working with a client who is overly attached to affirmation and attraction (a la "The Secret") in lieu of an action plan can test my patience sometimes. But I don't know that I'd go so far as to say a dose of pessimism is the answer, either. Maybe it's just the provocative word choice that irks me.

The problem is that all of us have certain cognitive biases that frame how we perceive situations and approach change. As the article points out when discussing the effectiveness of affirmations, people with already high self-esteem respond well to self-directed messages like "I am lovable" and "I am worthy." People with low self-esteem tend to experience a drop in self-regard when they try to direct these messages toward themselves.

The toughest thing about trying to do something new is that we tend to approach this new thing in the same way we always approach things. Actually doing something differently is very, very hard. 

And when it comes to changing your financial life -- oy! People generally seek our financial coaching or counseling when something with their money has become unbearable. Either their debt has climbed to an unacceptable level or they are tired of not being able to afford to visit their nieces across the country. Something has happened to make them say, "I don't want to live like this anymore." They are already dreaming of a life with zero debt or buying plane tickets on Visualizing a desired outcome is not the difficult part.

The difficulty is that changing a financial outcome invariably involves changing your financial process. You have to do something differently than you've been doing it. Your attachment to a desired outcome does not overcome your cognitive and behavioral biases. That's why people usually have better results when they work with a coach or consultant who can offer them another point of view.

This article made me think of how I tend to direct people's focus when approaching financial change. In a nutshell (a very blunt, un-nuanced nutshell) I find that it depends on where you are in the process:

Focus on changing nothing. Gather information about where you are, how your life works and doesn't, examine all options. Learn to pay attention and resist urge to change something -- anything! -- just to relieve stress. Practice being a "neutral observer." This can soften up our cognitive biases because we get out of the feel -> react cycle.

Early Middle
Focus on experimenting with change. Immediate and near-term focus only. No thought for the future, or you'll lose the ability to pay attention to the present. Purposefully resist the urge to prematurely commit. Try out, "fail," discard. Play!

Late Middle
Start to practice with what has worked in the Early Middle stage. Now you begin to focus on the future. Now there is a combination of optimism with what LearnVest might be calling "the right way" of "doing pessimism."

Final Stage
Now focus on progress toward your desired outcome. When you start to get off track, go back to the beginning and go through the gather info -> analyze info -> decide and follow through steps again. Revel in your vision for the future and attach to it, love it, and let it infuse your efforts.

Every Stage
Behavioral change is a slow, many-step process. I find it helps to try to enjoy yourself along the way. Stop and smell the roses of each little thing you try out or discover. This is the gift, this is where you truly learn to live your life and make conscious, purposeful choices. This is what is more important than zero balances and even visits with family. If you can learn to change your financial behavior you have the power to change anything in your life. Simply focusing on an outcome (positive or negative) leaves out all that good stuff along the way.

Amanda Clayman