If you have bad financial habits — say, rash overspending, anxiety around money or avoiding dealing with money — you can blame it, in part, on the grey goo between your ears. Blame your brain.
But only in part.
You see, your brain is a very complex information processing system and its primary job is to keep you alive. It does this by making snap decisions about your environment. But it also can reinforce unwanted or damaging bad financial habits.
When you encounter any stimulus as you interact with your world, your body sends signals to your brain, then a message comes back to your body within milliseconds. It’s a feedback loop that allows you to interpret what you’re experiencing and respond to it fast.
The brain always decides how your body should respond to your environment by using a specific metric: Safe or unsafe? In other words, the brain unconsciously asks: “Is this good or bad for me?”
Then, you react. And in this way, your brain is always moving you towards actions that produce a pleasurable response and away from pain. Bad financial habits, however can result.
This physical response happens fast and first, before you’re able to consciously think about what to do. This is why when you encounter a snake, for instance, that slithers across the trail while hiking in a jungle, you jump and shriek, before you understand it was a snake.
But, although you have these autopilot reactions, you’re not off the hook for not being responsible with your money. (Sorry!)
All humans have a neocortex – the part of the brain that is responsible for consciousness and reasoning. It’s what allows you to override your physical desires and do something else. For instance, if you wake up and feel like lying around at home eating ice cream and watching TV, you still choose to go to work and eat salad for lunch.
So, at all times we have these two areas of the brain working against each other. The reptilian, ancient part of the brain we’ve inherited from our lizard ancestors. And the neocortex, which makes us the most intelligent species on the planet.
One triggers knee-jerk reactions to our sometimes dangerous world; the neocortex engages to provide a reasoning process, to helps us make smart, sensible and conscious choices.
Whether you’re making a money choice or a choice about what to eat for dinner, you have to deal with the same negotiations between your reptilian brain and your neo-cortex-equipped conscious self.
The important thing to understand is that a physical response always comes before conscious choice. And sometimes the physical urge is a hard one to fight.
And this is true in the case of your finances and how you relate to them.
Here are four of the most common triggers where people’s brains can cause bad financial habits and some suggested fixes:
1. Incompetence in dealing proactively with negative emotions.
Everyone has times where they get fuming angry or sad about challenges in life. The body undergoes a physiological response during these emotional states.
Some people are better than others at dealing with these intense negative emotions. These are the people who get upset and then go on shopping sprees, or get angry and then go to the casino to gamble on an adrenaline rush.
Here is the fix:
Dealing with negative emotional states is a learned skill. Anyone can train and develop themselves to be better at handling tough emotions. If this is you it’s something to take on!
2. Past experiences program unconscious responses into your nervous system
If you have bad financial habits you want to shift, it’s a good idea to do some work to think about your relationship to money. What you learned about money in the early years of your life from the people you spent the most time with gets cemented into you, often without your knowledge.
If your parents lived paycheck to paycheck when you grew up, as an adult you may have trouble managing money. Holding onto it may make you feel safe. And you will likely do this without noticing you have this habit.
Conversely, if you grew up in a household where you never had what you wanted, you may spend money as an adult on what you want regardless of if you need it. You’ll do it to prove you can.
Here is the fix:
Asking yourself some questions about your relationship to money can help you uncover why you have certain habits. Knowing will give you power because you’ll start to notice your behaviors more than you used to. This will allow you to make better choices.
3. People want to be liked and accepted
Humans possess a deep-seated desire to be accepted by their peers. In the early days of our species, being thrown out of the tribe meant little chance of survival. This is hardwired into us.
The desire to be liked can get in the way of control of money. You might buy a nice car to fit in with your neighbors. Or, foot a bill you can’t really afford at a business dinner to look like a big shot.
Here is the fix:
Bottom line: Be authentic about your money situation even if it’s embarrassing. This will give you freedom. You’ll be able to avoid making more financial mistakes.
4. Limited standards
It’s been scientifically proven that we adjust our happiness to fit our situations. So, if you don’t have the income level you’d like, you will make yourself believe you’re happy about it. You will unconsciously do things — like lie to yourself and avoid — to fool yourself into happiness.
Soon, you settle with what you’ve got and be fine with it. Problem is, now your in a safe box.
Here is the fix:
The fastest way to getting what you want is to heighten your standards. So, spend time with people who think bigger than you. Put yourself in environments that expand you. Take on new challenges.
One of the top ways to deal with any of the challenges above (or anything in life for that matter) is to model yourself around people who have what you want. This may be through observation or study.
So commit to finding yourself a mentor. Whether through books or in person. You could find yourself with more money than you ever expected in a very short amount of time.