Did you know you can practice invoking certain thoughts and feelings? It’s true, many times our thoughts and feelings, just like our actions are habitual; meaning we just do them on autopilot without thinking about them. By consciously bringing to mind certain thoughts and feelings around certain stimuli, we can set ourselves up for creating helpful cognitive habits.
How can we take this knowledge and use it to improve our financial well being? I recently wrote an article about lifestyle creep and how it can not only destroy our finances but perhaps also our subjective well-being. I mentioned there that we could practice being satisfied with what we have and that may lessen our desire to accumulate more and more junk. We could then buy more wealth producing assets that will give us the ability to enjoy ourselves later in life. Well, if we practiced provoking feelings of gratitude when we are in our homes with our families and amongst our “things” maybe those feelings can reach a habitual threshold and take over on their own. (Read here if you are interested in an empirical connection between gratitude and well being.)
Here’s my suggestion to go about doing this. First, get your thoughts out into the world. By that I mean, you can’t just keep the thought that “I’m going to practice gratitude until it is a habit” in your mind. You need to make it part of your environment. The simplest way to do this is by writing or typing out your thoughts. Our minds generally have the perspective of being on the “inside” looking out. We can better leverage our thinking abilities by taking what’s inside our minds and putting it out into the world. Doing this will allow you to evaluate your thoughts next to each other, modify them, move them around, combine them, re-evaluate them under different circumstances, etc. These are things that you can’t do very easily inside your mind. So get your thoughts out into the world. They can’t go anywhere once they are out in the world. Keep a journal, make to-do lists, get as much of it as you can out into the world where you can leverage your thinking abilities.
Once you develop that habit, leverage it to turn your thoughts inward. Be mindful of your inner dialogue throughout the day. Start checking in every so often, particularly when you are in situations you encounter every day and make notes of what you notice. Start reviewing your day every evening before you go to sleep. Write down what you experience, how you felt, and the thoughts you had. Hopefully, with enough time you’ll begin to notice recurring cognitive themes. Pay particularly close attention when you experience an impulse to trade your money for a new possession.
Once you’ve developed a habit of checking in on your thoughts, start shaping them. We all know what it’s like to experience gratitude; try invoking those feelings. Give yourself room to develop them. This is a process, not a pass/fail test of your abilities to shape your cognitive world. Think about the incredible convenience afforded to you by 21st-century technologies; think about being thankful for these possessions. Try to imagine valuing your possessions for the comfort, convenience, and efficiency with which they provide you rather than the status they signal to your peers or their dollar value. Make a special effort to congratulate yourself when you invest in wealth producing assets (e.g. stocks, bonds, real estate, a new business). These are the things that will allow you to trade more of your time for things you actually enjoy doing later in life. With enough practice, you may begin to notice yourself experiencing these thoughts and feelings without prompting from yourself. That’s the goal.
My profession is wealth management, but many times wealth management comes down to cognitive management. We have limited cognitive resources; you shouldn’t have to pick and choose between financial well-being and subjective well-being. If foregoing frivolous purchases to save an appropriate amount of your income is making you unhappy, maybe the problem isn’t that you aren’t cultivating enough money. Maybe the problem is you aren’t cultivating enough gratitude for what you already have. Give it a try. It’s free.
Erik Goodge is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and the President of uVest Advisory Group. He holds a B.S. in Economics and Cognitive Science from the University of Evansville. Erik is a Marine Corps veteran of the Afghanistan campaign and Purple Heart recipient. He is from Evansville, Indiana, and currently lives in near-by Newburgh with his wife and daughter.