my two cents

How to Stop Cheating on Your Budget

Photo: Stockbyte/Getty Images

I consider myself to be a pretty rational person, but I also make dumb decisions every day. I buy face lotions I don’t need, hit snooze until I’m late, and spend 45 minutes mulling over what to wear to a wedding this weekend instead of working on an assignment with a pressing deadline. I know I can’t dwell on these infractions, and try not to go spinning into “What is wrong with me?!” territory. But I still wish they didn’t happen.

The chasm between our real and ideal selves is the wellspring of the self-help industry — it’s why people go to therapy, hire personal trainers, and buy Sex Dust. It’s also the subject of a huge body of economic study: Why do people spend money they shouldn’t, even when they know, deep down, that it’s a bad idea? Richard Thaler, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, has an apt but rather unoriginal name for those of us who can’t help ourselves: Humans, with a capital H. Meanwhile, those who consistently avoid such lapses in judgement are called Econs, and they don’t exist outside of academic theory. Econs are simply too predictable and measured in their decision-making, to be real.

We are all Humans, and we will never be Econs. No matter how disciplined we are, the world will outwit us with shiny, wonderful things to do and buy instead of guarding our long-term financial well-being. However, with motivation and self-awareness, we can take a more Econ-esque approach to our money, at least some of the time — the best we mortals can hope for, really. We can automate our savings, train ourselves to shop less, and stop ignoring our bank balances. And, according to a new experiment published in The Journal of Economic Psychology, we can even condition ourselves to resist temptation at the very moment it tickles our little Human brains. But how do we know when we’ve hit the point of no return when you could do the right thing (scroll past that Instagram ad) but instead do the wrong one (“Shop Now”)?

According to this experiment, which was conducted by Jennifer Pate, an associate professor of economics at Loyola Marymount, subjects were much more likely to “cheat” — lie in order to get immediate gratification — when they consciously seated themselves at a table where no one could see them doing it. Meanwhile, those who decided to sit at a more visible table, which Pate was clearly observing from a nearby podium, tended to followed the rules. And a third group, which was assigned to the hidden table rather than choosing it, also cheated — but on a much lesser scale. “The takeaway was that once you’ve knowingly put yourself into a situation where it’s easy to cheat, you’re probably going to do it — people who tempt themselves to cheat will cheat more,” says Pate. “Alternatively, if you randomly find yourself in a situation where you realize you could cheat, you still might — but probably not as egregiously.”

So, how to spot that point of temptation? The key is to catch yourself in the midst of mental gymnastics. “If I can rationalize my behavior, then I’m more likely to do it, even if it runs counter to my financial or other personal goals,” says Pate. “When I notice that I’m rationalizing my behavior to myself, that should be the moment of awareness where I recognize the slippery slope I’m on, and the point where I can actually stop.” If you let your brain feed you excuses, that’s when you bend the rules. You might sit at the hidden table and cheat, because you can, or decide to buy that $40 shirt because you’ll stay home and eat cereal all weekend to make up for it (which you then won’t do, because people also vastly overestimate their future self-restraint).

In these moments, it helps to have an “observer” — someone like Professor Pate hovering over your shoulder. “If people know they’re being watched, they’re significantly less likely to deviate from the rules,” she says. A monitor or sponsor of sorts not only exerts social pressure on you to hold up your end of the bargain, but can also push back against your urge to rationalize. For example, when Pate and a colleague decided to quit eating sugar together, they promised to run borderline “cheat” foods past each other: “I’d email him and say, ‘Hey, can I have fruit snacks? They’re natural sugar!’ And he would be like, ‘Are you kidding?’” As a result, she was much more successful at quitting sugar than she’d ever been on her own, she says. “Left to my own devices, I can rationalize almost anything.”

Interestingly, the rationalization trap is particularly hazardous for creative people: Research published in the Harvard Business Review found that “participants with creative identities” were more inclined to engage in wiggly self-justification than their less-imaginative peers. One explanation is that they’re better at making up reasons to do what they want; another, more insidious reason is that they feel entitled to do so. “In the U.S., creativity is often celebrated as a special attribute,” the study’s co-authors wrote. “The idea that creativity is rare leads to a sense of entitlement; if you are creative, you see yourself as more deserving than others.” Entitlement, the researchers concluded, was the problem, not creativity itself.

As it turns out, entitlement plays a big role in a person’s ability to resist temptation. In a recent study published in the Journal of Business Research, researchers tracked participants in a debt-management program and noticed that the ones who frequently made purchases they felt they “deserved” were more likely to fall off the wagon. “These individuals would get upset that they couldn’t live the lifestyle they once lived, and mad when they couldn’t buy something they wanted,” says Stephanie Dellande, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of marketing at Menlo College. “They had a mindset and rationale — ‘I work hard, and I should be able to buy whatever I want’ — that just wasn’t in line with their actual financial situation and the consequences of their spending.”

Others in the program still struggled with the same temptations, but could overcome them with coping mechanisms. “We found that people who were mindful in their spending asked themselves certain questions before they made a purchase: Would the item impact their well-being? Would it make their financial situation worse? What would their lives be like if they didn’t make the purchase?” says Dellande. “They were able to pause before succumbing to temptation, and put themselves into a state where they could resist.” This level of self-control didn’t come naturally to many participants, but it was learn-able. “If the subjects were not inherently motivated, they were receptive to external sources of motivation, like the counselors provided by the program,” Dellande explains. “As the saying goes, ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’”

No teacher can transform us into Econs. But if we can be taught to recognize and fight temptation we just might become slightly better Humans.

How to Stop Cheating on Your Budget