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Friday, May 9, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to frugality. . . .

Frugality became a habit! Research shows that it takes between 21 and 28 days for a new behavior to become a habit. Last November, I began tracking my spending with the ultimate goal of decreasing it substantially in certain areas---I made a commitment to start thinking about what I purchased, considering whether it was a need or a want, and making informed decisions that would have a positive affect on my bottom line and financial security.

While it was difficult at first to avoid places like Target and Banana Republic, and I sometimes felt deprived of the fun and challenge of shopping, I have internalized my frugal habit to such a degree that it's become much easier to detour around dangerous stores and avoid making purchases that won't contribute to my new goals.

For example, I recently purchased a new cell phone (to go with my new, cheaper, pay-as-you-go wireless plan). The phone happened to be on sale, a happy surprise that saved me $20. The salesperson asked me if I wanted to add a car charger with my phone, and my automatic response was, "sure"! Then I stopped myself, and realized that I've done without a car charger for the last 8 months (mine was stolen from my car) and I've survived. Not only that, I'm so rarely in my car these days that spending $29 on a new charger (when a free wall charger came with the phone anyway) would be a waste of my money. Needless to say, I turned down the car charger. Six months ago, I would have made that purchase along with several other accessories I didn't need (this is how I ended up with a Bluetooth earpiece the last time I purchased a phone).

If you're thinking of changing a habit, whether financial or otherwise, it may be helpful to realize that all it takes is 21 days---maybe 28. And you can do anything for 28 days, right?

So, what are the steps to forming a new habit, anyway?

Form a goal. First you must know what you want! Last fall, I knew that my finances were out of control. I was rapidly increasing my credit card debt while my meager savings was dwindling. I knew that I didn't want to live paycheck to paycheck for the rest of my life. Financial security was my goal, and the way I wanted to meet that goal was to decrease spending and increase savings.

Make a list of the benefits of the new goal. I knew that living within my means would create less stress, eventually allow me to work less, and would possibly mean that I could retire sooner than my parents did. Ultimately, when I thought about financial security, I felt relief.

Make the goals public. Write them down and post them around your house, put a note in your wallet, tell your friends and family. Remind yourself every day that you have an important goal. I decided to create this blog as a way to publicize my objective and validate my frugal lifestyle (my family wasn't supportive).

Start slowly. Don't expect that you'll be able to achieve your goal overnight. I started last November, and it was a struggle at first. I wanted my credit card balances to shrink substantially right away; I wanted my spending to decrease to almost nothing---these weren't realistic expectations. I took baby steps at first. I began tracking my spending. Then I created a budget. I tried to work more hours at the second job, to create more income. I read a lot of personal finance books and blogs and magazines. Every month I added a new behavior and new knowledge to my arsenal.

No shame, no blame. You'll probably have setbacks. I know I did. I spent over $100 of my tax refund on clothing, before I came to my senses and realized that what I really wanted was to pay down my credit cards quicker. I had a moment of self-blame, until I considered the fact that last year, my entire tax refund was frittered away on who knows what (I was supposed to save it for a trip with a friend---by the time the trip came along, all of the money was gone). As long as you're consistent about your new behavior, those setbacks will become fewer and farther between. I still wish I could go out and buy some new spring clothes, but buying stuff isn't the insistent, nagging need that it used to be.

Don't stop. If you've survived the first 21 or 28 days, good for you! It just gets easier from there. You've formed a new habit, one which you'll want to continue for a very long time. It is possible to slide back into bad habits (see no shame, no blame above), but if you've followed the steps listed above, you probably realize that you have the power to change your own life. You can choose how to spend your money. You can decide not to live paycheck-to-paycheck anymore.

If you enjoyed this post and you know someone who might benefit from the information presented here, feel free to email it using the link located below.

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