Lying to yourself about money: Why you do it and how to stop

Self-delusion can cause us to undermine our own progress and goals and can lead us into ever-greater problems.

Mary Knox Merrill/ The Christian Science Monitor /File
Tourists Maija Kaapo (left) and Hanna Laiho of Finland shop in Times Square in this April 2005 file photo. For those of us who spend too much, self-delusion about our money habits can exacerbate the problem.

Connie writes in with a great question whose answer got far too long for the Mailbag:

My biggest problem with money is that I lie to myself. I keep telling myself everything is going good and at first it is. Then I start slowly falling back into old habits but I keep telling myself everything is good. Eventually, everything is worse than before but I still keep saying everything is good, and then I’ve racked up thousands of dollars on the credit cards again. I don’t know what to do anymore.

I think that lying to ourselves is something we all do to some extent. Most people tend to believe they’re above average in most categories, which indicates some degree of self-delusion among practically everyone out there.

A little bit of self-delusion is very good, actually. It gives us self-confidence, something we need to have to overcome difficult situations. We can tell ourselves we can do something just a bit beyond our skill and talent level and thus by pushing ourselves to doing it, we’re able to achieve something that was previously just beyond us.

Yet, as Connie points out, self-delusion can sometimes be a very, very dangerous thing. It can push us into making some terrible mistakes under the guise of “everything being fine.” It can cause us to undermine our own progress and goals. It can sneak us into ever-greater problems, like an endless sink into debt or obesity or career mediocrity.

My biggest current problem with self-delusion is with my weight. I’m not gaining any – that’s not the problem – but I often delude myself into thinking I’m doing very well at losing weight when I’m actually treading water or losing it very slowly.

In the past, however, I’ve been able to battle self-delusion in many different areas: my career, my personal hobbies, and my time management abilities immediately come to mind.

Here are four techniques I’ve found that really work for cutting through self-delusion.

Make yourself directly accountable to others
This is the top strategy I’ve found. You’ve simply got to make yourself accountable to others in your life. Lay out your situation to them. Explain where you’re at and where you’d like to be.

Most importantly, you’ve got to report regularly to them on how you’re doing with your goal.

The added pressure of reporting your progress to someone you trust goes a long way towards keeping you on the right path. Plus, a trusted person can often give you feedback, positive support, and assistance at the very times you need it most.

You can do this face to face. You can do it on Twitter or on a blog or on Facebook. Just do it.

Keep the reason why you’re doing this front and center all the time
Why are you trying to save money? Why are you trying to get out of debt? Why are you trying to lose weight? Why are you trying to make whatever change it is in your life that you’re trying to make?

What you’re looking for here are extrinsic motivations. Are you trying to lose weight and get in better shape for your kids? Are you trying to save up for your dream house?

Whatever that reason is, put reminders of it everywhere. Use an image editing program and literally put a statement reminding you of your goal on top of a picture of whatever your motivator is. Then print off fifty copies of it and put it everywhere – on your desk, on your rear view mirror, on your bedside table, on your bathroom mirror, wrapped around your credit card, everywhere.

Use a clearly-defined measurement as your metric for success
Never, ever trust a general “sentiment” of success. If your idea of success is that it “feels” like you’re doing well, then it becomes very, very easy to delude yourself into a false picture of success.

Instead, try finding a specific way to track your success in a specific area. Keep track of your net worth every week or month. Track your weight every day.

It’s really hard to lie to yourself when the number so easily reveals the truth of the matter.

Drastically change your routine
Many people tend to fall back into bad habits because they don’t change their overall life routine. They try to quit smoking, for example, but their life routine involves holding something in their hands and going outside regularly for smoke breaks. They try to quit overeating, but their metabolism is wired to constant snacking and overeating. They try to quit overspending, but their life routines constantly put them in places where they overspend.

One effective way to buck all of this is to go for a radical change of scenery. Make a major life change while traveling, for example. Give up smoking while visiting your sister for two weeks. Give up overeating while on a series of business trips. Give up shopping while picking up another time-consuming hobby.

When you’re out of your normal environment and context, it becomes much easier to break bad habits and adopt new ones.

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