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: 

  • What am I trying to avoid? In spending money, ask yourself exactly what you’re paying for. If it’s a degree or framework to help you get the job you need, if it’s an expert to help you set up your website so it looks great, if it’s that pair of headphones you need because you lost the ones that came with your phone, that’s one thing. But if at its core, what you’re buying is inspiration or motivation or the answer to something that you’ve been too distracted to think about, then there’s a good chance you’re just paying someone to do the thing that you need to do. 
  • Is there a way to get this for free? Or cheaper? People often default to spending money when there are cheaper or even free alternatives to the thing they want to buy. After my husband gutted our kitchen and remodeled it, a friend mentioned she wanted to take a class and learn how to do things like that, too. “You don’t need a class,” my husband said. “You just need YouTube.” Granted, there are some instances, like taking a home maintenance course from an expert, in which you pay for quality. But sometimes that’s not necessary.  We immediately default to spending because it’s easier, but I also think it just feels good: we like to spend and we’re looking for any excuse to do so.
  • What will I gain from doing it myself? Finally, if you’re spending money to solve a problem, it can help to ask what you’re gaining and losing in spending that money. Sure, I’ll probably experience a sense of satisfaction if I cut down the overgrown bamboo in my yard myself rather than pay someone to do it. However, that sense of satisfaction isn’t worth the hours it would take me, much less the frustration and toll it would take on my back and Gumby arms. My husband would disagree. To him, the satisfaction of doing it himself is totally worth it. If he spends, he loses that sense of pride.

Like most money issues,  it’s personal. You can’t say spending money on X is always a good or bad idea, because the meaning and outcome of that expense can vary from person to person. Still, as human beings, we share many of the same behavior patterns and bad habits, and I think spending money as a default is one of them. I can spend $10 on that fancy new water bottle and it may just motivate me to skip the booze and drink more water. But ultimately, the key to building a better habit comes down to my own grit, determination, and patience. And money won’t buy that.

The following two tabs change content below.
Kristin writes about money, travel, and human behavior at Lifehacker, the New York Times, New York Magazine, and Mentalfloss. She's also written for NBC News, Fox Digital, and Scripps Network Interactive. Her book GET MONEY will be available on 3/27/18 with Hachette Books.