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Answering this One Question put me on Track Financially

Once I answered this one question, everything else fell into place.

Like many people, I struggled with staying within my budget. I had a perfectly good budget; idealistic enough to save for big goals, but realistic enough to cover all my expenses and have some wiggle room. But somehow, I was always over budget every month. Some months it was because I was too busy to cook, so I had to eat out a lot and that was above my budget. Other months, it was a new, one-off expense would come up. I always told myself that once I get this paid or get through this busy period, and then I can really save and reach my target next month. But you guessed it; next month was exactly the same.

Saving and budgeting wasn’t the only financial area that I had trouble with. I would procrastinate on things like opening up an investment account, and then it was procrastinating on rebalancing it or procrastinated in switching cell phone carriers when I found a much better deal. I had always chalked it up to me being, well, a procrastinator and being too busy. The procrastinator in me said; tomorrow, I’ll be productive and get these things done! Or I’ll carve out time tomorrow and finally take care of these errands. But tomorrow was exactly the same.

I knew I had a conflict between what I aspired to be and my actual behavior – as evidenced by my blown monthly budget. By answering this question, I was finally able to get to the bottom of it.

Ask Yourself One Question

The question is simple. Complete this sentence by filling in this blank: If I were good enough, I would ___________.

Here were my answers: If I were good enough, I would:

  • value my time and protect it;
  • secure my financial future; and
  • get a dog.

Keep an Open Mind

Maybe some of you would cringe at this; either because you think you’re fine and this is self-indulgent navel-gazing or because you feel that you’ll never be good enough, so why bother. But hear me out.

This question is an exercise in pretend and imagination. Whatever your situation, it asks you to pretend you were already good enough already and what would you be doing. It doesn’t ask you why you are or are not good enough, it assumes you just are. It is not asking you to convince yourself by reciting “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it people like me”. You can just “try on” the question and you can go back to feeling not good enough after the exercise.

If on the other hand, you think you are doing fine, that’s great, but something about the title piqued your interest. There must be something you would like to improve upon since you are reading this article. If the question is still too touchy-feely for you, try to rephrase it as “If I were a good enough ______, I would ______”. For example, my answer would look like: if I were a good enough writer, I would pitch my ideas to larger publications.

Preparing Your Answer

In order to get the most out of this question, we have to be truly honest with ourselves. We have to put aside our own self-image and self-doubts. We have to free ourselves from the thought patterns and beliefs we have of ourselves. We have to answer this question and remove judgment. It is asking you to see yourself in a different light.

For me, I had to step out of my own self-image that I was a good saver, that I was not an impulse shopper. I had to review my behavior and not what I thought of myself. My behavior was that I did make impulse purchases. Even if those purchases were “deals” at the grocery store, those items were above my food budget.

By taking the perspective that I was already good enough, I short-circuit the defense mechanisms my brain might put up if I had to confront that I was not a good saver. I had a psychological need to protect that self-image. The first line of defense in protecting our self-image is denial. When we are in denial our brain enters selective blindness. We only choose to see what we want to see. I conveniently “forget” about that purchase I put on the credit card (until it comes due that is).

We also start to rationalize to resolve our cognitive dissonance. This is where all our justifications come in. This is when I convince myself “I’m saving money buying it on sale, rather than buying it full price when I need it.”

The syntax of the question also helps, because it asks us what we “would” do, not what we “should” do. As I noted before, money is a trigger for shame. As soon as we think of the “we should”, we start to only look at our short-comings and that brings on feelings of shame. Shame is uncomfortable and we might ignore glaring signs or red flags because we don’t want to confront that feeling. We repress shame by turning a blind eye. Again, this question short-circuits that negative pattern.

Bias Towards Action

Another difference with asking yourself “If I were good enough, I would” bias us towards action we can take right now. This question implies a change we can implement today. We all know we can’t change who we are or our thought patterns overnight. Again, that “why bother” might start creeping in because slow slogging work is discouraging. The question just skips all that.

Many of us delay taking action. We wait for the motivation or inspiration first and then we think that’s when we’ll get off the couch. This is a fundamental fallacy; there is no motivation fairy that inspires us to go to the gym but having dragged our butts to the gym a couple of times, seeing a modicum of improvement motivates us to return to the gym. The action precedes the motivation.

So by jotting down and putting in motion a couple of easy to action items to inch towards being “good enough” would counter-intuitively, allow us to start feeling more worthy and more deserving. After I answered the question for myself, I took the small amount of time to log on to my banking platform and increased my pre-authorized savings just a bit. I took an extra 20 minutes to cook at home just one extra time per week instead of eating out. Very small changes that were easy to action.

As simple as that, the actions built upon each other. The few extra $20s from the pre-authorized savings and the extra $10/week started to add up. Week after week, my savings account grew. Every time I looked at the account reinforced the self-image that I was a good saver. This motivated me to continue and to save more.

There is that old adage: “fake it until you make it”, but recent research conducted by psychologist Ann Cuddy of Harvard University suggests we can reframe this to “fake it until you become it”. This means by taking those small actions and continuing them over longer and longer periods of time actually start to change who we are. We become those things we were once “faking”. I thought I was a good saver, but by taking those small actions; I became a good saver.

Bringing it All Together

So after answering this one question honestly and taking small actions, I do now have a plan for my financial future. I have saved more, kept to my budget and often times had money left over at the end of the month. I opened those investment accounts and took the time to rebalance my portfolio. I also took the time to negotiate a great cell phone plan with that new carrier. I now meal-prep most weekends so I eat healthy home cooked meals rather than food court fast food.

By approaching the notion of being “good enough”backward, assuming that I was before I proved it, it helped me break inertia and to start taking action. By taking action, it reinforced more of the productive behavior. The behavior also changed the way I relate to myself. Generally, I related to myself in more positive ways since I was seeing results. And by relating to myself more positively, I became good enough.

There are still many things I’m working to improve since good enough isn’t perfect. But I’m much more confident that I can improve upon those areas, again from the positive reinforcement from the small actions I’ve already taken. It is really a virtuous cycle that anyone can start.

So go ahead and ask yourself the same question. If I were good enough, I would do what? Would I dust off that resume and apply for that dream job? Would I get online and open up a separate savings account? Would I put aside money to start investing? Would I say no to a trip to the mall and call a friend for coffee instead?

Ask yourself now and take the next 10 minutes to do something about it.

I’ll wait for you.

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