By Dr. Elaine Ducharme

It’s probably not a surprise to read that money and the economy are top causes of stress for Americans, as shown in APA’s most recent Stress in America Survey. This is certainly true during the holiday season. Beautiful ads with enticing “deals” are everywhere and most people want to be sure the gifts they give are special. But, whether it’s thinking about buying presents, indulging in post holiday sales, paying the mortgage, buying groceries or saving money a lot of brain power is devoted to making financial decisions. These financial decisions, big or small, require willpower.

One way to understand willpower is that it is like a muscle that can become tired. As you exert your willpower, it begins to lose its strength. Recent research indicates that people whose willpower is run down are more likely to spend an increased amount of money and purchase additional items than those who haven’t recently exerted their willpower. Low willpower, research suggests, can lead to less control over spending.

People who are constantly faced with tough financial decisions, such as those who are less financially stable, more readily deplete their willpower. One study suggested that shoppers with less money, who often use more willpower than richer shoppers because they face more frequent and difficult spending decisions, are less likely to resist consuming food and drink while shopping. Therefore, it appears that having to devote willpower to difficult spending decisions can deplete willpower in other areas.
Research reported by the American Psychological Association shows that certain strategies can help build up self-control around spending and saving money:

1. Make one financial decision at a time. When people are faced with multiple, back-to-back decisions that test willpower, research suggests that willpower can easily be depleted.

2. Space out your financial decisions instead of making too many at once and overwhelming yourself.

3. Track your spending. Research shows that tracking can be an effective tool. Keep a daily list of how you spend your money.

4. Save automatically. Set up bank or investment accounts that draw funds automatically from your pay check. This will prevent you from devoting limited willpower resources to deciding whether to spend or save money. Look for accounts that require you to wait a certain amount of time or reach a certain target before you can withdraw the funds, which recent research indicates are effective in helping people save greater amounts.

5. Avoid temptation. Staying away from shopping malls and stores can help you manage spending. Choose an alternative social activity over shopping. Avoid opportunities for impulsive spending by leaving credit and debit cards at home and only carry the amount of cash you can afford to spend.

6. Set up savings accounts for your kids when they are young. Hello them put away some of their own money from allowances and gifts. This will make it much easier for them as they get older to manage their own finances.

Ask for support. Research shows that having a support system can help you reach your goals. Surround yourself with people you trust who will be supportive of your financial goals and willing to help you succeed.

If you need help building your willpower, consult with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional. He or she can help you identify problem areas and then develop an action plan for changing them. For more information on how psychology can help you have a better life go to http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/index.aspx.

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