Alamy
By Martha C. White
October 19, 2015

When we have to cut back our spending, we talk about “tightening our belt” or “trimming the fat.” On the flip side, popular diet programs encourage practitioners to create a daily “calorie budget.” In today’s culture, temptations to overindulge in both food and consumer goods are present everywhere, so it’s logical to assume that the same tricks you use to shed pounds before your upcoming high school reunion can also help you get a better handle on your money.

It’s also incorrect. A new research paper takes a deep dive into the nature of self-control and determines that not all our weaknesses are created equal. Some of us will overdo the pizza and wings, while others are more likely to go on a credit-card-melting shopping spree. They’re both similar in the sense that we experience a lapse of self control. But what the study’s authors discovered is that self-control isn’t a monolithic thing—and how we train ourselves to avoid one set of temptations may inadvertently trigger another. In other words, using your best dieting tricks to try and stick to a budget or pay down credit card debt might not work, and could even backfire.

Take the “cheat day” or “cheat meal,” a common diet reward where you get to lay off the carrot sticks and have a burger or an ice cream sundae instead. If you’re trying to improve poor spending and budgeting habits, allowing yourself a monetary splurge could send you right back down the path of poor financial restraint. Instead, your reward should be in a separate category entirely, preferably one where you’re not prone to overindulgence, says Kelly Haws, an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University and lead author of the new study.

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“It makes sense for someone with poor spending control but reasonable eating control to reward good budget behavior with a food indulgence,” Haws says. Plus, a favorite treat is a good reward because even serious food splurges don’t tend to be super-expensive.

If you’re fighting the battle of the bulge as well, though, Haws suggests finding another way to motivate yourself. “If a person is low in both [food and money] control, they probably shouldn’t use rewards as self-control devices, because either type could lead to this goal abandonment effect,” she warns. Instead, go look at your growing bank account or shrinking credit card debt and give yourself a mental high-five.

Another popular diet trick is the food journal, where you log every morsel that goes into your mouth, and some budgeting guides recommend doing the same with your spending. Although it’s easy for dieters to cheat on their food journal by underestimating the sizes of their portions, Haws warns that wallet-watchers can also find ways to tweak their spending records.

“Cheating instead tends to take on the form of recategorizing expenses to make them work within our budgets,” she says. “Or we recategorize desires as necessities rather than wants or luxuries to justify breaking our budgets.” Bottom line: You need to make a commitment to keeping yourself honest for this tactic to boost your budgeting skills.

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