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Bad Personal Finance Habits Only Change When the Pain Spikes

frustrated, pain

Are your bad money habits causing pain?

All of us are a mixture of logic and emotion. We think and we feel. The two interact continuously with one another – mind acting upon the emotions and emotions acting upon the mind.

One of the toughest emotions we deal with is pain. We know it’s going to come from various sources and in varying intensities throughout our life. So we prepare for it as best we can, hoping we don’t have to endure great amounts of it along the way.

The personal finance portion of our lives can’t escape the issue of pain. In fact, our habits often facilitate the onset of pain because we make poor decisions with money. We spend too much, fail to pay off debts and don’t plan for what the future holds.

The problem is that we seem to be OK with certain levels of pain. We may get frustrated about it, but most pain is not powerful enough to force us to drastically change our patterns of behavior. Instead, we endure all kinds of abusive relationships, deplorable job situations, poor physical fitness levels and sinful behaviors until the pain engulfs us.

I believe for real change to happen we need to experience pain levels so severe they lead us to scream “I’ve had it!” At that moment, our mind is ready to make changes that will alter behavior and subsequently move us forward.

The “I’ve Had It!” Moment Visualized

The “I’ve had it!” moment exists as a threshold to break through and can be visualized in the graph below:

Pain graph

As life events unfold we experience ups and downs and different degrees of pain associated with our circumstances. Some actions may lead to an increase in pain but not to a level of intensity where it forces us to change our behavior. For example, a person may not like paying the interest on a monthly credit card bill. However, it doesn’t stop them from using the credit card or finding a way to pay it off each month when the statement comes due even though it’s negatively impacting their financial health.

If that scenario continues (and it may take years), eventually they will reach a point where the debt is overwhelming. There will come a time, when the stress, fear and anger over their situation causes the pain to spike. It’s at that moment a person crosses their threshold, identified in the graph by where the red line crosses the black horizontal line. That level of pain facilitates the conscious decision to change poor behaviors.

Pain Thresholds Vary

Until the pain intensity exceeds our threshold, lasting change will not occur. It’s interesting though, that pain thresholds vary from person to person. They are different for everyone. What causes me to change may not do it for you.

My pain threshold was reached when I realized how dramatically my overspending was causing frustration and security issues for my wife. I heard her talk about how we were spending more than we made each month and gently suggest that we should not be dipping into savings to pay off our credit card bill. I pretty much ignored it for years until finally it all came pouring out. You’ve had those nights with your spouse, right?

When she challenged me to look at our monthly budget and complete financial picture, I could see the downward trajectory we were on. Our financial lives were not moving forward and would be in serious jeopardy unless I got my act together. With that, I experienced my moment and began the process of change.

Where’s Your Threshold?

Are you seriously content to sputter along and put up with the painful situations your habits are producing? What’s it going to take for the negative financial behavior to change today?

You shouldn’t have to experience pain to change but that’s how it works. It would be wise to identify those poor habits and fix them now, saving yourself some frustration along the way.

What painful moment(s) caused you to turn the page? How long did it take before you said “I’ve had it!”? Do you think anything else causes change besides pain?

Image at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Next Post: Cheer Up: Your Worst Day Wasn’t As Bad As This Kid’s

Prior Post: 7 Unfortunate Reasons People Spew Hatred at Dave Ramsey

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  1. I Heart Budgets had a post today that talked about how a frog will jump out of a boiling kettle but if you put in in cold water and raise the temperature gradually, the frog doesn’t try to jump and is boiled alive. He was relating it to how we take on small debts here and there and don’t think about it, whereas if we took a huge hit, we’d notice and probably stop or at least think twice. All those small debts keep snowballing until we our threshold. I’m afraid many get “boiled alive” before they realize it.

    • I read that post…it was really good and applicable to what I’m talking about here. The small things can easily turn into big things and all the while we’ve been telling ourselves it doesn’t matter. Then we realize it does.

  2. Student Debt Survivor says

    When I used a student loan calculator and realized that I’d still be paying off my student loan debt at the same time I was paying for my kid’s college (I don’t even have kids yet) I was horrified. That’s when I finally decided to clean up my student loan mess and get my finances in order. Pain is a pretty powerful motivator!

  3. No, I think pain pretty much is the best motivator or catalyst for change. By ignoring something or sweeping it under the rug, you avoid / delay the pain temporarily, but it just gets stronger.

  4. My painful moment is well documented on my blog and that’s when my car was towed near my house. I literally had a break down that day and realized I was at my own version of a financial rock bottom. Fortunately, my “emotional” pain threshold is not that high, so I still had retirement savings and immediate savings, but that was the moment everything changed for me. Sure I still make mistakes, but everything is so different now. Great post!

    • If we could all only learn before hitting rock bottom…but that’s what it often takes. I’m sure that mental image will always be with you (like mine has been for me) and you will never want to go back to that.

  5. I have to second the dental issue. I’ve never had a problem until my wisdom teeth decided to show up, but it’s scared me enough into thinking I need to stay on top of my dental hygiene. It’s tough when you find yourself at the bottom through no fault but your own. We put things off until we’re in too deep, which forces us to do something about it. This is why I try to be proactive and think things through before it’s too late!

  6. Love this, Brian! I agree that most people can endure quite a bit pain before they are willing to make permanent changes. But once they cross that threshold, then the gloves finally come off and they fight back. It is interesting how people do have different pain thresholds. We, at times, have a remarkable ability to look at the world with huge blinders on. My biggest wake-up call was a few years back when I made the decision to return to private practice. I actually think I made before the “pain” became unbearable but only because I recognized that it the pain was imminent. 🙂

    • It’s as though the pain completely breaks our spirit, almost like what happens with a wild horse. We throw our hands up and say, “All right, I’m done. What do I have to do to change?” Good for you in dodging the train wreck before it happened.

  7. Unfortunately I think you are right. It seems to take an emergency before we are really motivated to make a change. I think about my teeth. I never flossed up until 2 months ago when I went to the dentist and found out I had a few cavities. Now I floss everyday and watch my sugar intake. Even though my dentist told me for YEARS to floss I just managed to tune it out. It’s a hard behavior to change : )

  8. SO true Brian!!! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could “figure it out” before we reached painful levels? That being said, I also think that we learn in good times and bad and sometimes the most important lessons are learned through pain. I had a spending issue as well and felt the pain of it when we were struggling to get everything together to buy our home recently. If I had been better at saving, the home buying process would not have been as stressful. The good news is that I have learned my lesson and feel like I am in a better place because of the pain.

    • Yes…I’d rather figure it out sooner rather than later so I don’t have to crash and burn. I would say the best lessons I’ve learned have required I deal with pain, either intentional (choosing to go through it) or unintentional (place on be from the outside).

  9. Bre @ The Weight of Debt says

    Great read! For me it wasn’t so much a “I’ve had it!” Moment. More of a holy moly what have I gotten myself into moment with my student loans. However @dcyoungadultmoney:disqus’s comment made me realize that my other half does seem to be a lot less stressed about the future now and I think it is because we actually have our emergency fund now. It really does make the unknown future a lot less scary. Now we can talk about finances and the conversation isn’t “How are we going to make it to our next paychecks”.

    • You are absolutely right Bre…that emergency fund reduces stress levels significantly. No more worrying about how to pay for the next bump in the road. I love saying to our emergencies “Take that!” and smacking them down with the money from our e-fund.

  10. Great post. I’m not sure we’ve ever felt this type of pain with money per se, but we have definitely been in this place with our jobs. It’s taken us going to a bad place in terms of work-life balance (we almost got divorced a few years ago because of this) to be able to come out the other side with great clarity about what we want our lives to look like. My hubby and I are now on the same page and working to get to a place of balance with our jobs- where happiness and life satisfaction is the number 1 priority- while still paying the bills of course! We’re closer to the goal now- but the biggest change from where we were a few years ago is that we now HAVE a goal!!

    • “…in this place with our jobs.” Yes…the idea can definitely apply to any area of life. That’s a great testimonial Dee and I’m glad things are on track for you. I know that time must have been difficult but I’m sure your relationship now is much stronger for having gone through it. Thanks for sharing and encouraging those in a similar situation.

  11. Excellent point, Brian. When you aren’t feeling pain you just think “things will get better over time.” This isn’t necessarily false, but most times it takes something a little more proactive. I think a couple years ago when I realized we had little to no emergency fund I hit a tipping point where I just had had enough of having no ‘backup plan’ in case of emergencies. It really sprung me into action!

    • In my experience, things usually don’t get better over time…they get worse or at best stay the same. I’ve realized that’s not a place or scenario I want to be in. And it’s why some big, shocking moment is often needed for us to change.


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