By Joe Duran
August 26, 2015

Imagine coming to America as a young adult with a few hundred dollars in your pocket and, by the time you’re 34, selling your company to a Fortune 500 company for over $100 million.

How do you think you would feel? Ecstatic, jubilant, ready to reward yourself?

The answer for me was none of the above. My wife and I discussed celebrating by taking a multi-month vacation in Greece with our young daughters. Sadly, I was too afraid about the future to spoil myself and our family. The next few years I tracked our net worth regularly and watched our spending like a hawk. I was not behaving the way I would tell any of my friends to act in a similar situation.

I’ve spent my entire career helping people understand their financial lives, and helping them to make smarter choices. I have learned over time that people’s relationship with money is deeply personal. In our internal financial lives we each have a “protector” and a “pleasure seeker” battling it out and one usually wins out. Because of this, we find ourselves repeatedly making the same financial mistakes. Rather than simply learning a lesson and moving on, we keep repeating the same mistakes until we learn to regulate both perspectives.

According to our own research, 70% of people in the U.S. approach money from a place of abundance (pleasure seeker) or one of scarcity (protector). That has some big implications when it comes to making financial choices, and ultimately how we end up living our entire lives. So let’s discuss the two biggest mistakes, their consequences, and what you can do about it:

1. Spending money too casually: The pleasure seeker

It’s easy to spend money and it’s hard to save it, because spending provides instant gratification and saving is a deferred reward. Many people would rather have the certainty of feeling good now than the possibility of feeling good later. The early warning signs of this pattern are high credit balances on your credit cards, low savings for retirement, and inadequate saving for your kid’s education or your rainy-day fund. More subtle but important markers are whether you avoid looking at your credit card bills, or if you don’t have a net worth summary that you update at least twice a year. We all have pleasure seekers inside us, but perhaps you are allowing this trait to overwhelm your need to save and protect.

2. Spending money too carefully: The protector

This might seem like a very strange bad habit. But despite what you might pick up from the media, a large portion of society uses money for security and doesn’t enjoy success enough. These protectors feel so good seeing their net worth increase that they would rather defer any spending for as long as possible. This might maximize their net worth but lead to an under-optimized life. The following are early warning signs: updating and reviewing your net worth summary all the time, feeling guilty after shopping, and seldom feeling like you can spoil yourself. While we all need money to keep us safe from bad outcomes, some folks let their protector take too dominant a role.

As in all things, balance is the key to a stable and healthy relationship with money. That often comes with time and experience, but first you need to be aware that the choices you make are harming you. Here’s a three-step plan to taking control of your bad money habits, whichever camp you fall into:

  • Step 1: Identify if you have a bad habit that has to change. How often do you regret your financial choices? If you feel trapped by money rather than in control of it, it might be time to acknowledge you have to change something.
  • Step 2: Identify whether you are primarily a pleasure seeker or a protector. No doubt you have largely justified why you act the way you do. But if you have not learned how to control your inner pleasure seeker or protector then you will keep repeating a pattern that is hurting you financially.
  • Step 3: Take action. The easiest way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good one.

After determining if you are a pleasure seeker or a protector, here’s what to do next.

If you spend too casually:

  • Review your net worth. Take all your assets and then subtract all your debt. Create a simple way to update this regularly. Set realistic goals of how much you would like to have in savings five, 10 and 15 years from now. Create a specific list of what those savings would provide you. Take pictures, link articles or write down specifics in order to make what you’re saving for tangible and rewarding.
  • Establish a realistic monthly budget that takes into account your habits but establishes a monthly amount to deferred responsibilities like building an emergency fund or amassing a down payment on a house. Match the savings to your targets for those longer-term goals.
  • Do something that forces you to think about what you are giving up every time you are about to spend money. Some folks wrap a rubber band or a piece of bright tape around their credit cards. Some wear a reminder wristband. Do something that will remind you every time you are about to spend that you are taking away from your long-term savings and what your savings will get you. This habit of thinking about the consequence of what you are spending will train your protector to become more dominant.

If you are too careful with spending:

  • Establish your priorities. You no doubt have a very good understanding of your net worth, but have you clearly articulated what you are saving the money for? If you had free rein to spend all your money over the coming 12 months, guilt free, what would you choose to do? Create a list of things you buy that bring you the most joy: vacations, dinners out, a nice car, new shoes—whatever makes you feel good.
  • Establish a reasonable budget for guilt-free spending that doesn’t compromise your longer-term goals. Have an annual number to spend for some of the things that bring you joy. Rewarding yourself in the here and now matters a lot and relieves some of the pressure you place on building your net worth.
  • Limit yourself to reviewing your net worth on a pre-set schedule. For most people, four times a year is more than enough. Also, create a simple reminder on your phone every week to see what you did with your “spoiling budget.” And once you’ve spent the money, take time to think about, and appreciate, what you got. Do not focus on what you spent!

Life is short. I have seen people struggle financially in their later years and have to be supported by their children. I have also seen parents sacrifice their entire lives to build a comfortable nest egg, only to watch their kids spend the money buying the things the parents never bought themselves. The good news is that learning from past experiences can start right now. Thanks to my mistake a decade ago, I take every opportunity to spend time with my family, max out my vacation time, and relish our time together. I’m not sure I would have gotten there without the lessons of the past.

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Joe Duran, CFA, is CEO and founder of United Capital. He believes that the only way to improve people’s lives is to design a disciplined process that offers investors a true understanding about how the choices they make affect their financial lives. Duran is a three-time author; his latest book is The Money Code: Improve Your Entire Financial Life Right Now.

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