Thursday, October 29

Frugal motivator: Answering to others

My mom once told me this great story about a man who needed to lose weight. He was severely overweight, but he couldn't seem to stick to a diet. He was a well-educated, successful lawyer with a family who loved him. But no matter what he did, he couldn't make losing weight a priority over his love for food.

His solution? The African American man put several thousand dollars in an escrow account and drew up an airtight contract; if he failed to lose a certain amount of weight (50 pounds, I believe?) the money would be donated to the KKK.

As you might suspect, the man lost weight. He simply couldn't allow the money to go to such a hateful organization -- especially one that despised him and his loved ones based solely on the color of their skin.

I think there is something to this sort of plan.

I'm not suggesting you go to a lawyer or even set money aside that will vanish if certain goals aren't met. Most people reading this blog need their money too much for that kind of arrangement. But the story does serve as a reminder: We're not always great at working without incentives.

Often, we use positive incentives. Once we get the debt down to X amount, we can have a small indulgence or a few more discretionary dollars. Something like that. It can work wonders for a lot of us. We have something to look forward to, and so we are motivated to keep working for that goal.

But perhaps some of us also work better with the stick, and not just the carrot. This doesn't have to be as harsh as it may sound. I'm talking more about implied punishment than actual. We don't need to create a spiral of guilt and depression -- certainly that's not going to help our ability to keep finances well in hand. Still, many people (myself included) function better when there are negative consequences, as well as positive ones.

Yes, yes, anytime you get deeper into debt -- or, at the very least, don't get further out of it -- you are experiencing a negative consequence. But is that always enough?

Most any fitness program/magazine/guru will advise you to get at least one friend in on the action. That way, you have someone else expecting you to exercise. It makes it harder to get out of, because you're letting someone else down. Similarly, programs like Weight Watchers and, yes, even the dreaded Jenny Craig are successful in large part because you have to answer to other people. They have expectations, and, more importantly, you know that they'll see if you've been slacking.

It's not much different for living frugally. When you're alone in your efforts, it's easy to get off-track. And you can be alone, even in a relationship. Ideally, of course, both partners are equally committed to, and capable of, a frugal lifestyle. They support each other, rally spirits, and all that good stuff.

But what about reality? Most savers marry spenders, though the degree of disparity is entirely case-by-case. That leaves one partner more in charge of finances, which often includes keeping the other partner in line. It can be an exhausting job, even when the other person is trying his or her best to behave frugally.

Tim is committed to being free of debt, but he is willing to take a more relaxed time line. I'm getting sick of the debt and, more importantly, worried that we won't have the same finances in a few months' time. So I've been cracking down. Which means, unfortunately, that I have to be the heavy -- a position I do not at all relish.

I was dreading the extra responsibility, honestly, but I didn't know what else to do. We have a very-probable deadline looming in the near future. Tim's unemployment will only last another 8 weeks. My contract work is looking increasingly imperiled, though no official word has come down. So I started really putting the brakes on our spending.

What I found, though, was that, in laying down the financial law, I was creating a system I couldn't easily break. That was new. In the past, we had rules about how much we could spend. But there were always reasons to bend those strictures. Not a lot, but enough to make our budget work harder.

I'm not saying that it was wrong. Most of these times, both of us were sick and exhausted. But at that point, we had more of a buffer: my contract work was secure, Tim had some time left on his unemployment. Now, those conditions don't apply. And, by making Tim stick to the budget, I am finding an equally stern partner in him.

I'm not saying there aren't fights. He was not happy to hear that I was cracking down -- especially since he was already getting sick of living so carefully for the past three years. The first week or so was pretty rocky. It included a fight over a $2.50 bag of candy (in my defense, it was the third one in three days, which is when I put my foot down) and a cheeseburger (we had food in the house, but Tim wanted a burger instead).

These arguments, though, have set some basic ground rules about spending, or lack thereof. Now, when I want some chocolate, I have to remember the arguments we had about that candy and that cheeseburger. So even when my frugal resolve fails -- I'm trying to only buy bagged candy when it's under $2, and then only 1-2 times per week -- I have to stick to my own rules. Otherwise, I become a hypocrite and Tim would, quite rightly, have a large bone to pick with me.

In other words, I'm answerable to him. My guess is that, by and large, that fact alone will keep me on the straight and narrow spending path. When it doesn't, I am quite sure that Tim will. That's one good thing about marrying a guy with sibling issues -- you have to abide by the "if he gets to, then I get to" rule.

I'm not saying it's easy. I've had to fight chocolate cravings every night. Thank goodness for FiberOne bars which have some small amount of chocolate. But I also know that Tim and I are in this together, and risking that isn't worth any amount of chocolate.

(And, for the record, when we no longer had much edible food at home, Tim did get his burger... with a buy-one-get-one coupon.)


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