Psychologists call it the “what the hell” effect: the cycle where you indulge, regret your actions and then do it more. You impulse-bought a shirt you saw online? Why not throw in some jeans and shoes, too. You had a few martinis and texted your ex? Might as well stay up all night writing him a drunken novella about your feelings! You ate a few chocolates, followed by the whole box. Rather than trying to course-correct, you fall off the wagon entirely.
Coined in the 1980s by dieting researchers, the “what the hell” effect is now broadly applied to the slippery slope of any setback. Researchers have found that people rationalize this doom loop because, well, what the hell — you’ve already blown it.
In my experience, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is basically a what the hell free-for-all. This is when you’ll find me in enormous sweatpants on my parents’ couch, mindlessly chomping on stale Christmas cookies while I scroll post-holiday sales and buy things I don’t need with money I don’t have. There’s something oddly soothing about wallowing in my own vices.
According to Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University, the what-the-hell effect is actually an attempt to comfort yourself when you’re feeling guilty for overdoing it. In her book The Willpower Instinct, she writes, “Giving in makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to feel better. And what’s the cheapest, fastest strategy for feeling better? Often the very thing you feel bad about.”
Getting out of this cycle isn’t a matter of willpower, she adds, or shaming yourself back into being “good.” It’s about being more self-compassionate when you disappoint yourself — and then replacing your destructive behaviors with constructive ones you’ll actually enjoy. Rather than a cold splash of reality, you need a warm, inviting off-ramp.
Come January, there’s always a push toward less. To balance out the too-muchness of the holiday season, you need austerity — or so we think. But what if you focused on what you wanted to do more of, instead? I recently asked several financial experts what behaviors they’re trying to encourage this year both in themselves and in others. Some of them might seem obvious, but the financial payoffs can be surprising. Here’s what they said.
1. Set walking goals.
“We all know we should move more, and that 10,000 steps is a good number to hit, but it can be daunting,” says Manisha Thakor, a certified financial planner and author of MoneyZen: The Secret to Finding Your “Enough.” So instead of trying to find a free hour or two, she breaks her day into 1,000-step “pop-up walks” every 60 to 90 minutes. “If at all possible, I do it outside, even if it means walking around the same block multiple times until I hit or exceed my goal.”
The financial payoffs of this practice are surprising, Thakor says. It makes her feel more awake, so she doesn’t need to buy a $7 coffee in the mid-afternoon. It also gives her more energy throughout the day, so she’s willing to make dinner for herself instead of ordering takeout. She’s even noticed that she feels calmer, so she’s less tempted by spontaneous online purchases.
Ally-Jane Ayers, a certified financial planner and the co-founder of Brooklyn FI, a financial advisory firm, also gets monetary benefits from walking. “Every year, I increase my daily step count goal by 1,000. It forces me to concentrate on walking everywhere, which inadvertently saves me money on Ubers and taxis,” she says. It also motivates her to do walking dates with friends instead of meeting them for a drink or a meal.
2. Clean out your closets.
In my experience, nothing makes you want to chop up your credit card more than confronting the sheer volume of crap you already own. “I just cleaned my closets and feel no desire to buy more clothes. I had forgotten all of the things I actually had!” says Farnoosh Torabi, host of the podcast So Money and best-selling author of A Healthy State of Panic.
Figuring out a responsible way to get rid of clothes you no longer wear can also help you make better shopping decisions going forward. Last year, I sold a bunch of my old clothes through a local consignment shop that gives me store credit instead of cash for my stuff. As a result, whenever I get the urge to buy something, I see what they have — and if I can’t find anything there that I like, the novelty of shopping has usually worn off.
Consigning old clothes also forces me to think harder before I buy anything, more generally. “Would I be embarrassed to try to resell this?” is a good litmus test for any purchase.
3. Go to bed earlier.
Following good sleep hygiene is another no-brainer with unsung financial upsides. “We all know the health benefits of sleep, but it is also an effective practice for saving money,” says Torabi. “I, for one, am guilty of making unnecessary online purchases late at night when my impulse control is at its weakest.” At the very least, she adds, “Commit to putting your phone to bed sooner … and as far from your nightstand as possible.”
I’ve also found that going to bed early feels decadent and luxurious in the same ways that my other vices do — except I feel great the next day. So when I’m feeling stressed or burned out, it scratches the itch to reward myself, for free.
4. Join something.
Probably the best $115 I spent this year was on a family membership to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. We went almost every weekend in the summer with my 2-year-old son. (By August, he was acting like the mayor, strolling around and waving to other visitors.) Whenever friends or family were in town, we brought them. It was like getting an enormous backyard, a country club, and endless beautiful flowers for 30 cents a day.
Remember to check if your memberships offer reciprocal benefits at other institutions, says Caitlin Fastiggi, a certified financial planner at Brooklyn FI who tries to join at least one new museum every year with her children. “We recently went to the Boston Science Museum for free using our membership to the Philadelphia Zoo,” she says.
5. Spend more on what you actually use.
“I always suggest that people look back at the past year and take an inventory of where their money went,” says Pari Hashemi Magura, a financial advisor at Wells Fargo. Sure, this might feel like revisiting a crime scene. But you should also find some things that provided a lot of pleasure or, at the very least, utility. Remember, spending money isn’t inherently bad.
And for stuff that you buy and use consistently, now is the time to stock up! “Take advantage of discount codes this time of year — pretty much everyone has special offers,” she says.