Money

Financial Groundhog Syndrome

Do you keep making the same money mistakes?

It’s been a month since you made those New Year’s money resolutions.

And you know what that means: It’s time to assess how well you’re sticking to them.

If your fiscal forecast seems bright, go you!

But if you haven’t made as much progress as you’d like, you may feel like Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day”—you keep reliving the same problems you had yesterday, and you don’t know how to put a stop to it.

“People often get stuck because they focus on solving the symptoms of the problem, rather than understanding what’s causing it,” explains Jane Honeck, a money coach and author of “The Problem With Money? It’s Not About the Money!: Mastering the Unexamined Beliefs That Drive Our Financial Lives.”

But if you can get to the root cause of the issue, you can use that knowledge to work on not making the same financial mistakes over and over again.

To help get started, we asked behavior change pros to weigh in on how to handle six common financial scenarios that often make people stop and ask themselves, “Why haven’t I learned my lesson?”

With their advice, perhaps you’ll finally stop feeling like Punxsutawney Phil—and shake off some of that money déjà vu.

1. It’s Groundhog Day When … You Keep Swiping That Credit Card

After months, maybe even years, of monklike living, you’ve finally put your credit card debt to bed—and boy does that $0 balance feel good.

The problem? With your slate wiped clean, you start using your card again … and again … and again. Before you know it, you’re spiraling back into the rabbit hole of impulse purchases and budget-busting expenses.

So how can you keep from continuously racking up debt?

How to Not Let History Repeat Itself … For starters, ask yourself what in your past could be impacting your current spending patterns, suggests Honeck.

Not only do people tend to mirror family members’ potentially bad money habits, but they may also use purchases to fill an emotional void they had growing up.

Honeck recalls working with one 24-year-old who’d racked up $50,000 of debt, partly due to chronic overspending. Despite multiple attempts to keep his budget in check, he just kept digging himself deeper.

His turnaround moment came when he realized that he was hurt by his parents’ refusal to pay for a private university, causing him to splurge on material things to prove that he merited the best of the best.

“Once he understood that he was spending money he didn’t have just to prove himself, he [made changes, like] trading in his BMW for a used car—and paid off his debt in five years,” Honeck says.

If impulse spending is to blame for your own debt troubles, avoid making purchases when you’re feeling emotionally taxed. “When you’re rushed or stressed out, the amygdala, or emotional center of the brain, hijacks the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logical thinking,” explains Honeck.

As a result, we’re more prone to make decisions that aren’t in line with our best interests. So before buying anything major, Honeck says, give yourself a day to clear your head and think about whether you really need that purchase.

2. It’s Groundhog Day When … You Put Off Negotiating a Better Salary

On the awkwardness scale, requesting a pay raise ranks up there with the “It’s not you, it’s me” conversation.

In addition to the fact that money is a difficult topic to bring up, “you may also be held back by the limiting belief that you don’t deserve more,” Honeck says.

Luckily, doing a little pre-ask prep work can give you the confidence boost you need to finally ask for—and possibly get—the salary bump you’re after.

How to Not Let History Repeat Itself … Conjure up a clear, detailed vision of how the discussion would unfold in an ideal scenario.

For example, try imagining yourself walking your boss through your successes—boosting sales by 13%, landing five new contracts—and picture how you’d ask for, say, a $10,000 raise. Then imagine that she enthusiastically agrees, saying that she’s thrilled to have you on the team.

Even if that’s not the exact outcome, envisioning success will ensure you put that meeting on the calendar in the first place. “If you’ve already plotted out what the meeting will look like, you won’t get lost—and you’ll be more likely to follow through,” Honeck says.

Another key motivator? What that additional money could fund.

“Focus on a tangible goal, and get really excited about it,” suggests Honeck. “It could be a vacation, a house, or funneling more into retirement.” You won’t share this info with your boss, of course, but it could provide extra motivation to stick to your guns.

3. It’s Groundhog Day When … You Say You’ll Start Saving—Tomorrow

Despite your best intentions each and every payday, your savings, emergency fund, 401(k) or dream home account balances just haven’t been getting any love.

You know you should start socking away more, but it’ll have to wait until next month, you tell yourself, when your expenses aren’t quite so high.

Not so fast.

“There’s a psychological principle operating here and that’s blind optimism—the belief that we’ll be able to do something in the future that we can’t do today,” says Kathleen Gurney, C.E.O. of the Financial Psychology Corporation and author of “Your Money Personality: What It Is and How You Can Profit From It.”

So how do you stop putting saving on the back burner?

How to Not Let History Repeat Itself … Since much of getting into the habit of saving comes down to self-discipline, try to remove willpower as much as possible from the equation, particularly when it comes to an important goal like retirement.

“Figure out the sum you can afford to invest in your 401(k) each month, and then set up automatic withdrawals,” Gurney says. “Make it a reasonable amount so you don’t fail, and increase that amount as you start to feel [saving becoming] a habit.” Watching those balances rise will further encourage your habit.

Honeck also suggests putting things in perspective by looking at a year of credit card statements to see how much you spent on discretionary costs, like clothing and eating out.

Then list all of the more productive ways you could have used that money. Taking a tour of Europe? Replacing your old clunker? Starting a sabbatical fund? Bring these goals to mind the next time you’re tempted to spend rather than save.

4. It’s Groundhog Day When … You Pick Up the Tab Yet Again

“A round of drinks for everyone!” “Dinner’s on me!”

Sound familiar? You’re probably one of those people who can’t resist being generous—to the detriment of your finances.

So how do you keep your munificence from sabotaging your budget?

How Not to Let History Repeat Itself … Nip the impulse to give excessively in the bud by having a “money dialogue”—essentially, an imagined conversation between you and your finances, suggests Olivia Mellan, author of “Money Harmony: A Road Map for Individuals and Couples.”

Begin the convo by letting your money “talk” first by having it say something like, “You throw me around, and don’t treat me with respect. What’s the story?” Then have a back-and forth until you get to the root of the relationship.

“The idea is that once you’re aware of the emotional load you’ve attached to money, you’ll be able to see things objectively—and thus make smarter, more rational decisions,” explains Mellan.

Perhaps, for you, money equals love—so spending is how you show people you care. Another common motivation that Mellan often sees? “You want to appear more successful than you are,” she says. “Men are particularly prone to this kind of one-upmanship.”

It can also be helpful to remind yourself why your friends and family really like you. Look back through thoughtful cards or e-mails you’ve received, or ask close friends why your friendship is important to them. Use their feedback to remind yourself that you don’t need to shell out money to be appreciated.

5. It’s Groundhog Day When … You’re Giving Out Another Personal Loan

Once you start supporting someone financially, be it your unemployed brother or a perpetually broke buddy, it can be hard to cut the cord—especially if you were raised in a culture where family always looks out for one another.

But the reality is that, while you’re habitually helping out your nearest and dearest, you’re likely neglecting the financial well-being of someone else important: you.

How to Not Let History Repeat Itself … As hard as it’s going to be, you have to sit down with your lendee and tell them that the bank of you is closed for business.

“If you’re tight on cash yourself, be frank and explain that as much as you’d love to keep helping, you’re drowning and just can’t do it anymore,” Mellan says.

If you’re not hurting financially but are tired of being hit up for money, then place the emphasis on how money is building a chasm in your relationship.

“Explain that it has been starting to make you feel weird, and you don’t want anything to come between you,” Mellan says.

6. It’s Groundhog Day When … You Keep Dating Financially Unstable People

You may not actively seek out cheaters or commitment-phobes, but for some reason, you seem to constantly attract—and perhaps are even subconsciously attracted to—the cash-strapped or credit-dependent.

In fact, this dating pattern may have become so engrained that you’ve earned the moniker “coal digger” amongst friends. (Hint: It means the opposite of gold digger.)

Although nobody’s perfect when it comes to their finances, you wouldn’t mind finding a partner with whom you can click in love and money.

How to Not Let History Repeat Itself … Let’s not forget that there’s a common denominator in all of these relationships: you.

“You might have a savior complex and feel like you need to provide help and be needed,” Mellan says, adding that being the fiscally secure one may even seem to give you the upper hand in a relationship.

To help break free of these and really any old relationship habits, try what Mellan calls “practicing the nonhabitual,” or doing something that goes against your personal grain.

In dating, this could mean seeking out the opposite of your usual type—perhaps you give the accountant a chance over the starving artist, or you give yourself the challenge of getting to know someone who lives more simply than you’re used to.

Then write down how you feel after the date, Mellan suggests. Were you comfortable, or did you feel you had nothing to offer the person?

“People are often more comfortable with a familiar pain than with a new pleasure, which threatens to take you places you’ve never been before,” Mellan says.

At its core, that may sum up what’s behind all of these Groundhog Day behaviors: You’re used to being stuck in a rut, so it seems easier to stay there.

But if Punxsutawney Phil can see brighter days ahead, so can you.

MORE:

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7 Ways We May Fool Ourselves About Money

13 Big Money Mistakes People Make—and How to Avoid Them

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