Mind Games, Money, & Me

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Self-discipline has never been my strong point.  I’ve always been very good at following direct orders, but I don’t always take the kind of initiative to do the things that I really should do.  I’m kind of a coaster… just ride the waves of life, let things go how they go… and sometimes that’s a good thing.  Other times, not so much. Those not so much times need more responsibility.

One thing I’ve done since childhood is play games with myself.  Yeah, I know, it’s immature and silly.  Grow up and do what you’ve got to do, right?  Well, sure.  That’d be the best option, I guess, but it’s not always the realistic one.  Sometimes, it’s just really hard to grab those bootstraps and start pulling.  I’ve been known to play the, “Company is coming in ten minutes.  Get the house clean!” mind game with myself.  It really works when you just need a boost and giving yourself a stern lecture fails.  I liked beating the clock as a kid and I like it today.  Sue me, it works.  The same is true of other things.

A friend once asked me for help in coming up with a painless way to pay off her credit cards.  Yeah.  Painless.  After we got done laughing, I went home and thought I forgot about the idea, but it kept percolating.  Over the next few days or weeks, it must have been growing in my subconscious, because one morning I woke up with an idea– one I’ve used in various ways since then, but I’m going to spell it out here because it illustrates one way to play mind games with yourself to make hard tasks less painful.  I don’t remember how much she had on various cards, but it doesn’t really matter.  I’m just going to throw out arbitrary numbers as examples only.  It’d work slightly differently, and that’s ok.

Let’s say you have a $2500 dollar maxed out Visa card.  Your monthly payment is 100 dollars.  (It might be more or less, I don’t know.  I’m making this up as I go.)  If I remember right, the first month my friend had a 50 dollar gift card to Wal-Mart that she used for her general Wal-mart shopping so she could take fifty dollars out of their account without feeling the pain of it.  That worked out perfectly and is the key to their success..  The way she and her husband used the card was, pay down a bit and then use it up again, pay down a bit… and so the cycle of debt continued.  She was just as guilty as her husband.  She’d tried the snowball things that most financial planners recommend.  They’d failed.  Sticking to such a strict budget for extended periods of time didn’t work for them for reasons that I didn’t ask.  None of my business.  So, that first month her bill looked like this.  I’m starting it in January for example.  I’m pretty sure this was fall when we worked it out.

January (Payment plus gift card amount)–  2500-150=2350
Finance Charge (1.5% of monthly balance)-  35.25
Total at the end of January-  2385.25
Available credit-  114.75

This is where things got interesting.  They went on a  “round up” plan.  I think they did fifty dollars, but it could be ten, twenty-five, whatever.  This is how it worked.  I’m going to call her Sally.  Sally went to the store and used the card spending $35.43.  When she got home, she immediately wrote a check for $50.00 and sent it to the credit card company (today I’d just go online and pay I think.).  So.. now her balance looks like…

2385.25+35.43-50.00=  2370.68

A week and a half later, her husband brought home a receipt for $83.22.  She immediately wrote a check for 100.00

2370.68+83.22-100.00= 2353.90

Two days later, she spent $19.91 on lunch out with a friend and groaned when she realized she put it on her card, but forced herself to go home and write that 50 dollar check.

2353.90+19.91-50.00= 2323.81

The end of February arrived and it was time to pay the bill.  Her balance was $2323.81

February (Payment) 2323.81-100.00=2223.81
Finance Charge (1.5% of monthly balance)- 33.36
Total at the end of February-  2257.17
Available credit- 242.83

One thing that happened was she often found herself not using the card if it meant that she’d have to write a check for over double what she otherwise would have spent.  For example, that lunch.  After a few weeks of doing this, the habit of sliding her credit card across the counter instead of her debit card without thinking was over.  She’d glance at totals and think about it.  “Do I really want to write a check for fifty dollars for a twelve dollar purchase?”  If she knew she had the extra money, sometimes she did it deliberately to get her ahead.  Other times, she knew they had spent too much to afford to do that– again.  So, she opted to spend the twelve dollars instead.  One friend told her she’d just retrained herself not to pay off her bill early.  We thought she’d retrained herself not to add frivolous amounts to a bill and let it pile up like that!  They also kept the original amount they’d been paying as their payment amount.  Each month the minimum payment due went down, but they kept paying the same as they had in January.  Their theory was, if they could afford it in January, they could afford it in June.  I kind of agree.

After only three months, I remember that they’d managed to drop almost eight hundred dollars from their balance.  Doing it this way retrained them in several ways.

  1. They learned not to purchase anything that they couldn’t afford to pay off immediately.  Sure, I think I remember her calling discouraged because they’d bought something or done something when they couldn’t pay for it once or twice.  However,  my theory was, who cares!  Once or twice instead of every single time was still better!
  2. They learned to think about the impact their purchases made on their bank account.  It was simply too easy to pay for things with a credit card when that money felt “free.”  However, knowing you’re going to go home and not only pay for it but pay MORE for it right away really makes you think!
  3. Paying the round up amount instead of the actual amount gave them an instant taste of interest with every single purchase.  It felt like they were hit with interest charges from the second they got home.
  4. They learned to communicate about purchases.  Prior to that, each of them had spent money without thinking much about it until bill day came and the balance was much higher than either of them expected because they didn’t know the other had been spending.  That was the first time I understood the concept of separate credit cards for husbands and wives.  When you’re the only one adding to the debt, it’s much easier to keep track of expenditures.

Obviously this worked for two reasons.

  1. They wanted out of debt.
  2. They could afford the extra money (it wasn’t easy, but they COULD)

It would have worked even if they’d have rounded up to the next ten dollars.  Oh, it would have taken longer, sure, but it would have worked.  The next twenty-five would have worked.  If they’d been able to spare the resources, once they got going, Sally told me they’d have rounded to the next hundred.  It became liberating and exciting to see those numbers drop so rapidly.  I remember feeling so excited for them.

I’ve heard of people doing the same thing with savings.  If they normally would have bought a coffee but refrained, they stuck the money in an envelope in their purse or section of their wallet.  If they had something in their cart at the store but returned it to the shelf before checkout, they tucked that money away too (either physically or wrote it down and got cash for it later).  If they had a store return, the cash went into that same envelope.  And, at the end of every week, they took that money and deposited it in savings.  Voila.  Instant savings without a whole lot of pain.

I’ve also heard of people doing something similar with their check registers, but I’m not sure how many people still use those.  They’d round everything up to the next dollar.  A purchase of 19.32 became 20.00 in the register.  18.24 became 19.00.  5.99 became 6.00.  Simple easy way to let their change add up even when it was just on paper.  They went by the total in their checkbook register rather than whatever the bank balance said (one woman, unable to stand not balancing to a penny, kept a pencil ledger going under the ink one.  Cracked me up to read about that.)  Bank of America has a similar savings option with their debit card I believe.  You sign up for some thing or another (or so the commercials say) and voila.  Every purchase rounds up and puts the change into your savings.  Brilliant.  No, I’m not switching banks for it, but it’s still pretty cool.

I mean, come on.  Isn’t it pretty amazing to see banks helping people play the same kinds of head games that the rest of us do?

Whether it’s pretending company is coming, that you’re being paid to do the dishes, or that Jesus is sitting on your couch with you while you watch that movie (and really, isn’t He?), playing mind games can really give you a fresh perspective– particularly when life is feeling pretty stagnant.  You know, I’ve been rounding up my teeth payments each month.  One is 69.00 and change and the other is 90.00 and change.  I’ve been rounding up to 75.00 and 100.00… but what if I rounded both up to 100.00?  We’d never miss that other 25.00, but we’d pay off the balance several months sooner and save on interest.  I’m thinking this walk down memory lane has given me the inspiration to get rid of my own debt… and maybe clean my kitchen while I’m at it.  Maybe.

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