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Become a Financial Action Figure

Credit Wise (featured column)
by Jennifer Wallis

When behavior changes require a big commitment such as money management or weight loss, making lasting changes becomes even trickier. As a financial educator, I have always been confounded by the fact that for some of our clients, receiving financial education doesn’t always result in better money management practices. I know that no matter the context, behavior modification is a tricky thing.

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Even when we know what we should do and what we shouldn’t it doesn’t mean we will always choose correctly. Sometimes, it’s a matter of wanting to learn things for ourselves. I remember my mom warning me about not getting into credit card debt before I ever got my first credit card. I told her that I only wanted to build up my credit and that I would be fine. Ten store cards, two major store cards and heaps of credit card debt later, I realized that I should have listened to my mom.

I once attended a great conference that was hosted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City , Oklahoma City Branch, and the Oklahoma Jumpstart Coalition for Personal Finance. Our keynote speaker, Dr. Tahira K. Hira, talked about some interesting concepts. His research had shown that just because financial education had been shown to raise one’s awareness and intent to make good financial choices, it didn’t necessarily make them follow through with actions.

Apparently there’s a missing link between having the knowledge and putting it into action. I think for most people there needs to be a serious motivating factor to keep them focused on their financial goals. We have to have deep commitment and follow through to keep making the right choices. Everyone’s motivating factor is different but it’s important to identify yours. For some, this may come in the form of collection calls. I know that’s what worked for me. After I didn’t heed my mom’s warnings and ended up behind on my bills, I would get a burning pit in my stomach every time I answered the phone (back before the days of Caller ID).  I was afraid it was a collector and sometimes it was. Since I wasn’t willing to keep curling up in the fetal position whenever the phone would ring, I knew I had to get help.

For others, it may be that they are fighting with their spouse about money. After all, financial issues are the #1 contributing factor to divorce. If you find yourself in that situation, please know that it is possible to have a healthy relationship with money and each other at the same time. All you may need is a little advice from a financial expert. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling has member agencies in every state. To find one near you for free or low cost counseling visit www.nfcc.org.

I’ve heard more than a few times that people sought help because they were so stressed about their finances that they weren’t sleeping at night anymore. For others, the stress can manifest as depression, or other health issues such as ulcers. For others, they may be so worried about debt that they can’t focus at work and then face job performance issues.

The key is that once you begin to make positive changes and see an improvement in your financial picture, you still need to remember where you’ve been. I love to journal and it is always interesting to go back and see how I felt at certain low points in my life. Those entries are so rich with sadness, worry and despair, so it helps me in two ways. It makes me thankful that I don’t feel that way now. More importantly, it makes me never want to feel that way again. I try to keep making smart financial choices because I don’t want to hit bottom again.

For all of us who have struggled with money, or are struggling now, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can learn things like saving and getting out of debt. But you can’t just stop with knowing what to do. You have to actually do it. Once you break the information down into manageable steps, they really aren’t that hard to work into your everyday routine. Look for compromises when you’re cutting expenses instead of taking drastic measures. Just as crash diets don’t work, neither do crash budgets.

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Copyright © 2011 by Jennifer Wallis. All rights reserved.

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