Using the Science of Willpower to Be Better With Money


Getting better with money and achieving your financial goals do not happen through passive waiting, wishing for life to be different, or gimmicky quick-fixes that promise you instant wealth. Living a life of abundance requires a (pocket) change of heart. Thankfully, behavioral scientists have uncovered the secrets of willpower that have the power to transform the way you think and behave in relation to money.

Get ready to learn about persistence, self-efficacy, impulse control, and other topics that will help YOU create the motivation for financial change. If you are a thinking person who is ready to be better with money, this website is for you. Let’s create a community of pocket-changers! Please join in on the dialogue by posting your comments.

Mapping out better habits

Mapping out better habits

Research by Oettingen (European Review of Social Psychology, 2012) suggests that if we’re working on building good money habits, we might benefit from the “WOOP” exercise.

Although it sounds like a fancy new dance step, it’s really just a quick mental strategy that helps you to predict what problems might get in your way and to map out your alternate routes. Here are the four components of the exercise along with an example:

W = Wish: What is the healthy new behavior that you’d like to achieve? [I’d like to put 10% of my paycheck in my savings account.]

O = Outcome: What are the good things that will happen once you’ve built this habit? For instance, in what ways will you feel better about your situation and about yourself? [I will have more peace of mind because my rainy day fund will be larger. I will feel more responsible and more confident about my ability to exercise discipline.]

O = Obstacle: What are the barriers that might get in your way as you work toward this new, healthy habit? [One barrier is that I might excuse myself from saving that much if an unexpected expense (like a car repair) comes up that month.]

P = Plan: What are the specific behaviors you plan to perform in the specific future situation when the obstacles arise? [If I find myself with unexpected expenses, I will cut back on my food and entertainment budget that month so that I can still contribute 10% of my paycheck to my savings account.]

Studies show that these specific WOOP plans (also known as coping plans or relapse prevention plans) are much more likely to lead to successful habit change than vague goals, visualizing our success, or “thinking positively.”

How do you think a WOOP plan might help you?

For additional thoughts about change processes, consider checking out this week’s blog post at

Practicing Good Money Habits

The pace of change is often slow, like this dollar bill origami snail (photo by RangerRick; Wikimedia Commons).

It’s a new year and you’ve taken on a new money goal: saving more, spending less, or expanding your financial literacy.

The self-help industry proposes that it can help you with these financial goals. Be careful! While some of the advice you read in self-help books may be sound, much of the advice perpetuates myths about the process of change.

Watch out for the following myths:

  1. You can change your financial life by setting good intentions.
  2. You can get better with money by thinking positive thoughts.
  3. All it takes is willpower to transform your financial habits.
  4. Visualization will go a long way in bringing you the riches you desire.
  5. You can launch good money habits with positive affirmations.

These myths are widespread and often conveyed in a passionate and convincing manner. Unfortunately, though, they divert people away from habit change efforts that are practical, workable, and realistic.

What really works to change a money habit? It helps to take a scientific approach to the change process. Choose one small thing to work on and adjust it incrementally, a little bit at a time, until it looks closer to the behavior that you desire. Then move on to the next small thing, and so on.

The scientific approach may not be as glamorous as vision boards, self-affirmations, and the power of positive thinking, but it produces far more successful outcomes.

What life changes have you made using a systematic, incremental approach?

To read about more factors that lead to successful change, check out the current blog post at

Original photo

Original photo

Personal change is a popular topic this time of year as many individuals commit to New Year’s resolutions. As a reader of this website, you already know that successful attainment of self-improvement requires (1) setting a goal; (2) taking actions that lead you to your goal; and (3) monitoring your progress (allowing you to adjust your behavior as necessary).

We now know that there are a couple of “super-ingredients” that help you to boost your chances of success in your change efforts.

One super-ingredient is called an implementation intention (Gollwitzer, 1993, 1999). An implementation intention is a highly specific plan that you use to change your habits at high-risk times.

Here is the basic formula to use when you are building your implementation intention:

“If I [name the specific obstacle, such as a thought, emotion, or situation] and I am tempted to stray from my personal goal, then I will [choice of healthy behavior].”


If I drive by my favorite store on the way home from work and I am tempted to stop in and spend money, then I will stop at my favorite park instead.

If my friends invite me to a restaurant where I will end up spending beyond my means, then I will decline the invitation and offer to arrange the next gathering.

This technique is believed to work because it prompts you to identify the exact cues or triggers that lead to your unhealthy habits. This makes you more likely to notice your habitual behavior. It also makes you more likely to identify your “choice points,” which are the times when you have the freedom to depart from your automatic behavior and choose something healthy for yourself.

Another super-ingredient is called self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977, 1997). Self-efficacy is your belief in your ability to organize and execute the courses of action that are necessary to attain your goal.

In a recent study (Koestner and colleagues, 2006), participants were instructed to boost their sense of self-efficacy by doing three things:

(1)   They were asked to think about past situations in which they achieved a similar goal.

(2)   They were asked to think about situations in which an individual who is similar to them achieved a similar goal.

(3)   They were asked to think about a person who encouraged them to reach their goal.

In this study, participants who used the two magic ingredients (implementation intentions plus self-efficacy) reported significantly higher levels of progress toward their goals compared to individuals in a control group.

Just a few simple tasks, then, can help take you from choosing a resolution to actually carrying it out. Now you have the tools to make it a great new year!

I wish you all the best in 2014.

Climbing Everest

Photo by Lloyd Smith; Wikimedia Commons

Do you feel like you have some financial mountains to climb this holiday season? Perhaps it is time to pause and regroup. Take a few moments to assess your current levels of stress, motivation, and impulse control. If there is too much stress and too little self-control, now is not a good time to make significant financial decisions.

If there is too little motivation, perhaps you can draw inspiration from these words:

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start.”

-Nido Qubein

“You have a clean slate every day you wake up. You have a chance every single morning to make that change and be the person you want to be. You just have to decide to do it. Decide today’s the day. Say it; This is going to be my day.”

-Brendon Burchard

“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.”

-George Bernard Shaw

“The vision must be followed by the venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps – we must step up the stairs.”

-Vance Havner

“Life is a grindstone. Whether it grinds us down or polishes us up, depends on us.”

-L. Thomas Holdcroft

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”

-William Faulkner

Photo by Puschinka; Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Puschinka; Wikimedia Commons

Hooray! I’m happy to celebrate three years of blogging about motivation, persistence, and impulse control and their relationship to financial health.

It has been a great year. In July, I released my book Pocket Change: Using the Science of Personal Change to Improve Financial Habits. What a joy it has been to see this work come to fruition. Thank you to my readers who offer inspirational comments and insights each week. I look forward to future conversations as we continue to build a community of Pocket Changers!

Financial fitness through time

Original photo

Many of the questionable financial decisions we make occur because we act without first engaging in sufficient thought and reflection. We don’t give ourselves enough time to become fully aware of what we are about to do—and then we act impulsively.

Perhaps the most effective thing you can do to act with greater discipline in the area of personal finance is to increase the gap between your impulse and your action.

Consider a few ways to increase this gap:

  1. Give yourself a waiting period. For instance, design a rule for yourself that you will not make any non-essential purchases that cost more than $75 without giving yourself a three-day waiting period.
  2. Take a walk before you make an important financial decision. Walking can boost your mental clarity which, in turn, supports good judgment and decision making.
  3. Shift your attention. See if you can focus your attention on your breath or on sounds in the environment. Get immersed in the present moment. Then, after you have been successful in shifting your attention somewhere else, you can come back to your money decision with a fresh perspective.
  4. Use a checklist of important questions to evaluate your situation. For example, try:
    1. Is this purchase a need or a want?
    2. Do I truly have the money for this purchase?
    3. What will this purchase mean for my level of financial fitness?
    4. Will this purchase truly make my life better?
    5. Will this purchase still have value to me in one year/five years/ten years?

Remember, when your supply of self-control is depleted, it becomes much harder to think creatively about any important topic. Do a quick assessment of your current state of impulse control before making money decisions.

How do you increase the gap between your impulse and your action?

Game to illustrate money goals

Photo by Robin Parker; Wikimedia Commons

Every week in my change groups there is a “check-in” period during which group members report on the progress they are making toward their goals. I am often dismayed to hear them minimizing, belittling, or outright dismissing their weekly accomplishments because they feel they are too “small.”

Somehow, they feel that their progress doesn’t count unless it is dramatic or perfect or complete.

However, most of the time when change happens, it happens one small step at a time. We make a long series of successive approximations, getting closer and closer to our money goals in a slow and steady way.

If change happens gradually, bit by bit, perhaps the proper check-in question is not, “What did you accomplish this week?” Instead, it should be “What did you do even a little bit right?” After all, it is these small steps that we need to celebrate and build upon if we are working toward a long-term goal.

How do you stop to acknowledge the small steps that you have made in the direction of your money goals? Send your ideas!


Photo by Francesca Cesa Bianchi; Wikimedia Commons

Many of my blog entries are devoted to the topic of what to do when you are thrown off course in the process of changing a money habit. Although it is critical to have a clear process to use that will steer you back in the direction of your financial goal, it is also good to have a method of celebrating the right behavior when it occurs. Behavior you celebrate grows even stronger!

Ways to celebrate your new, healthy behavior include:

  1. Identify what went right. What choices did you make, what thoughts did you think, and what actions did you take that allowed you to do the right thing in this situation? How can you set up your circumstances to increase the probability that you can do this again?
  2. Appreciate the strengths and skills you are building as you stick to your goal. Pause and pay attention to what you’ve accomplished. Are you building discipline, character, patience, impulse control, persistence, or stick-to-itiveness? Great! These traits will continue to get stronger with practice.
  3. Admire yourself for having the courage and strength to start a new change journey. Even if you’ve just started practicing your new, healthy money habit, you’ve started—and that’s more than many other people can say!
  4. Share the good news with a friend. Call a trusted friend who can celebrate the moment with you. Together, you can dream what your next healthy step will be.

How do you celebrate successful execution of a new habit? Send your ideas! 


Photo by Harald Hoyer; Wikimedia Commons

One of the most common complaints I hear in my change group is that people feel “stuck” or “paralyzed.” They are ready to change a habit, and yet despite their good intentions, they feel unable to begin taking concrete steps.

Here are three ideas that might help to mobilize you into action:

  1. Stop the exhaustive search to understand every aspect of your problem and where the problem came from. Human problems are complex; many times, we cannot know with 100% certainty where an issue came from or what will make it better. The important thing is to choose a solution and try it out.
  2. Stop waiting for the perfect time for change. You can create the optimal time for change by getting all of your ducks in a row and preparing yourself to make things happen.
  3. Stop participating in wishful thinking. Wishful thinking involves the expectation that your desired outcome will occur without you having to be inconvenienced in any way. This rarely works. It makes more sense to be realistic about your goals and then work hard to achieve them.

We’ve all been stuck before. Think about your own financial goals. Are you stuck on any of them? What are you gaining and losing by being stuck? What works for you to get “unstuck?”


Photo by Oren Bochman; Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever found yourself getting hung up on the things you did wrong in the past? “I always give in to temptation and spend my whole paycheck instead of saving part of it.” Or, “I already blew my budget, so I might as well keep on spending.”

At times, your self-disappointment may grow so strong that you start making assumptions about who you are as a person: “I must be lazy.” Or, “I must not be disciplined enough.”

Regret, guilt, shame, and self-disappointment typically get us nowhere. You cannot change the past. And the past does not define what you are capable of in the future.

Your power lies in the present. You can choose to be kind and compassionate to yourself and to interrupt feelings of regret. Here are several things you can do:

(1)    Distinguish between a setback and full-blown relapse. A setback is a temporary lapse, while relapse is an ongoing pattern of setbacks. Remind yourself that setbacks are normal and temporary, and you can easily take small steps to get yourself back on track.

(2)    Borrow another perspective. After you have given in to temptation, ask yourself two questions: If my best friend were beating herself up for having blown her budget, what would I say to be supportive of her? If my best friend knew that I am beating myself up for having blown my budget, how would she gently encourage me to get refocused on my goal?

(3)    Remember the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. People with a growth mindset understand that setbacks are a normal part of the change process, and they can use them to glean important information about the path to success!

(4)    Create a rational response to your irrational thinking. For example, “Just because I blew my budget, it doesn’t mean that I have to continue giving in to temptation.  I can be kind and forgiving of myself and gently redirect my attention back to my money goals.”

(5)    Practice positive self-talk. For example, give yourself a hearty “Good failure, my friend! Failure means that you have taken on a challenge that is worth pursuing and that will be rewarding in the end.”

For an additional way to express kindness to yourself, the “self-apology,” check out this week’s blog post at