You Can’t Buy Your Way to Better Habits

After going at it a little too hard in December, I decided to make January a dry month. Yep, thirty days, no beer, no cabernet, no overpriced craft cocktails.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it. You know the old cliche of being single and seeing couples everywhere? Y’know, they’re happy and holding hands and rubbing their love all up in your face? That’s how I’ve started to feel about people boozing it up. Everywhere, all around me, people are throwing back shots, clinking their glasses, being served massive margaritas with upside-down beers in them.  Meanwhile, I’m over here alone with my water.

Spending money is often the default when it comes to building a better habit. You want to drink more water, so you buy a fancy new water bottle to motivate yourself. But eventually, building a habit comes down to your own determination, grit, and patience. And money won't buy that.

Aside from trying to be healthier, part of the challenge is also to think a little more about my habits. And I noticed something interesting along those lines: the temptation to buy my way to better behavior.  For example, to encourage myself to drink more water and less alcohol, I briefly considered buying a new, fancy water bottle.  Or maybe some of those water flavor drops. What could I buy, I wondered, to help me behave better? Maybe you’ve experienced this, too: buying new Lululemon pants to motivate yourself to exercise more, splurging on a new Le Creuset dutch oven to cook at home more.

Why is spending money always the default?

We’re so quick to assume that, in order to solve our problems, develop a better habit, launch a project, try a new hobby, we need to spend money. But you don’t need a bunch of state-of-the-art new equipment to launch your podcast. You can start with a pair of headphones and your phone. You don’t need to buy a $1,000 lens to learn photography, use what you’ve got.  All too often we spend to delegate these things, believing that money is the means to our end. This happens on a larger scale, too. Ramit Sethi once wrote about a friend who was planning to spend $150,000 on business school to “figure things out.” The friend was, in a sense, paying to delegate a major life decision, Sethi said.

Don’t get me wrong. Sometimes it works. You buy the new oven, you cook at home enough, and it pays for itself. Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with spending your money on kitchen supplies, workout gear, or fancy water bottles.  At the same time, doesn’t it kind of seem like — at the risk of sounding like your mom– the easy way out?  We often spend to avoid what it really takes to develop better habits: determination and patience.

I guess the lesson here is twofold. First, you can’t buy your way to better habits. Second, spending doesn’t have to be the default. It feels good to spend. It feels productive to spend. But sometimes, you gain more from solving a problem yourself than you do throwing money at it.

On the other hand, there’s a blurry line between throwing your money at a problem and spending money to save time.

For example, If I need my website rebuilt, should I spend 40 hours doing something I don’t enjoy, am not very good at, and have no desire to get better at, in order to save money? Research shows that I’ll be happier if I spend my money and save my time. But am I taking the easy way out? Would my life be richer by learning a new skill and building this website myself? Wouldn’t I feel a sense of pride in going at it alone? How do you know if you’re spending to delegate your goal vs. spending to save your time? 

It might help to answer these questions with more questions:  read more…

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