Sunday, November 3, 2013

Practice Makes Perfect - About Habits

First of all: this blog is not giving any advice about physical habits (smoking, alcohol, medicines, drugs) - there are other websites to find tips on those things. This post is about other habits that we have which cost us money and get in the way of reaching our savings goals.

As far as hobbies or talents go, we all know that we get better at something when we practise. If we spend an hour every day on the piano, we improve. Well, unfortunately, if we practise doing not-so-great things all the time, we get really great at doing the not-so-great things.

We all understand "Money 101" - if we want to save money, we have to choose to stop spending it somewhere. We usually look to our "convenience" habits as places to shave down. This might be a newspaper subscription, a morning coffee, a takeaway lunch, getting hair or nails done, or things like the gym, fashion magazines, and cable tv. And one by one, most of us will reject certain changes because we consider the change too unpleasant. The key to making the changes less painful is in what you make the effort to practise, what you're used to doing already, and how you think about life's necessities.

As an example, there are a bunch of small convenience things that we probably take for granted these days that our grandparents might not have had. Washing machines, late-night-shopping, luggage with wheels. None of those are likely to break the bank, but it doesn't matter. The point is, we get used to having them around, so if we use them all time, we get very good at it. We start to think of them as normal and necessary. We practise using the washing machine so it becomes normal to have one. We don't want to switch to that "old" way of hand-washing, so a washing machine becomes necessary.

Most of us will agree there is nothing wrong with getting used to washing machines, late-night-shopping, and luggage with wheels. There isn't, and I am never going to try and talk you out of having these things. What's important is to understand is that we get used to what we always do - practise makes us perfect at needing things. It doesn't just happen with common and inexpensive things, it can happen with anything at all.

This means that if we practise buying lunch every single day, it becomes a habit. Buying lunch becomes something we're very good at - all that practice we do. Packing a sandwich in the morning looks more and more difficult because we are out of practice. We enjoy not bringing it from home and enjoy the convenience of buying it instead. We don't want to change. It becomes easier to keep a habit, than to change.

But don't despair just yet. There is good news! Cast your mind back to the first sentence: we get better at something when we practise. Have you ever thought about why some people are content without the things that we have? Some of them just don't miss what they never had, but many people have learned to go without.

UGH, THAT SOUNDS DISGUSTING. Don't panic, and don't run off just yet. We're going to approach it a different way. We're going to practise something that we know is cheaper, even though we don't like the idea of changing our habits. The idea of practising is to try and get better at it.

The Practice Period: Pick one habit that you kinda know could be done a cheaper way, and you think you could live with the home-version, but grumble-grumble-grumble you don't really want to bother changing. For this post, I'm going to use the morning takeaway coffee, but your takeaway lunch might also be one where you'd like to practise the alternative. Your practice period needs to last four or five times - so for a daily habit make it five days, for a monthly hair colour, make it four months.

Figure out a good, home-made version that you might be ok with having instead, even if you don't like the effort just now. For me, I bought some nice gourmet coffee. Home coffee is not quite as convenient as just grabbing the takeaway, but it's a good compromise. I already have a travel mug, so I'm good to start my practice period.

For a whole week, I made the effort to DIY my morning coffee. I allowed a few extra minutes so I'd have time before leaving the house. I made sure the mug was clean the night before. As I sipped it during my morning commute, I reminded myself of my savings goals and concentrated on the nice gourmet flavour.

When you feel like caving in, remind yourself it's not forever. Just 3 more times until it's done, and so on.

At the end of your practice period, physically count out the amount of cash you would have spent, but didn't. It's important to see this and feel the money in your hands. Look at that money you saved, and think about how easy it was to make that change. You're now getting better at the cheaper option, and the cheaper option is quite ok. If you continue to make the effort, it will continue to become easier and easier, until you don't even think about it - you just do it. It becomes a habit. We start to like habits. It becomes easier to keep a habit. Even the good habits :)

Don't think that this is limited to obvious "luxury" purchases. Big or small, it applies to anything that you would like to change, from buying shampoo in bulk to baking your own bread, from carpooling to recycling.

Tell me what you've changed, how it felt to make the very first leap, and how you felt as you added up the savings?