Financial Decisions: Taming unhealthy habits

I’ve always been fascinated by how and why we continue with habits (behaviors) we know to be intrinsically out of line with what we want. There’s plenty of literature to explain the biology, particularly related to marketing and Artificial Intelligence (AI), that illustrate how our brains make decisions. I wrote an article some years ago on the science behind financial decision making (“Taming Our Irrational Brain,” Association for Women in Science Magazine, Summer 2009, Vol 39, No 3). If you’re interested in the science you may find it a good place to start. In summary, I think understanding how to change our decision making process begins with a deeper understanding of ourselves.

Choosing among competing options is a fundamental part of life. Historically cognitive processes or reflexive stimulus-driven automatic reactions. To deal with the massive and complex number of choices we face on an ongoing basis, individuals use multiple “systems” that offer tradeoffs in terms of speed and accuracy, but can optimize behavior and decisions under different situations. We shift quickly from “use your head” to “go with your gut” making daily decisions heart wrenching. This clutters the brain and adds uncertainty to decisions – making decisions stress-filled.

Ideally we would have automatic behaviors that keep us aligned with our planned (cognitive) objectives. I believe that sustainable change has to be linked to a simple consistent and believable process that can support you during stress-filled times. Though there are different approaches to creating these behaviors I will focus on Charles Duhigg’s three-step process for changing habits (he refers to them as CUE-REWARD-ROUTINE) and add my own thoughts as we go along. Obviously, my focus is on developing healthy financial habits.

  1. First, we need to acknowledge what it is that we want to change and what it is that we wish to attain. What financial behavior are we interested in changing? We need to visualize what we’d like to see instead of our current behavior.
  2. We must then identify the triggers for this behavior (or “CUEs”). Duhigg suggests that we ask ourselves what we were doing right at the time, who were we with, where we were, and, what we were doing just before the behavior. One of his best examples is when you get up to get a snack in the middle of your work – what were you doing just before you got up? What was your trigger? Some people have similar triggers for spending beyond their budget and, yes, even for making buy/sell decisions on their portfolio.
  3. Next, we must understand what “reward” we obtain from this particular behavior (habit). This step is essential because we need to find something equally rewarding to successfully implement a change in our reaction when we next experience the same trigger. The new reward must be one that is both doable and strong enough to replace the current reward but also in line with our plan. Was the reward for getting a snack really to satisfy hunger, or were we bored, or in need of social interaction or just anxious? For example, consider the person who checks their portfolio every time they feel the trigger. Their reward may be to talk to people about it (social interaction) or it may be boredom (interacting with a different software) or it may be something else. This individual will first need to identify the trigger that prompts them to check their portfolio often and determine what reward they receive for doing this action.To change a reaction to a particular trigger, the goal is always to identify a substitute reward that is aligned with your well-being and your plan. For example, going for a walk alone or with friends, taking up a mental or physical activity that is positive–anything that will actually yield the change you are hoping to make.
  4. Then lock it in, so to speak, by establishing a “routine” around both the triggers and reactions that will make the new habit permanent. If the reward is strong enough, over time it will seem less and less routine, even enjoyable. In our fast moving world more and more decisions are made quickly, even without thought. It doesn’t help that marketers are out to manipulate our choices at every turn even if it means deviating us from our personal wishes (after all that is their job). This imposes a degree of stress if not countered by healthy habits. Ultimately, a well-lived life is all about making daily choices that enhance our chances of achieving the goals we set for ourselves.

It is evident that establishing any new behavior (habit) needs a belief system and a support system that you can reach out to during stressful times to ensure that you don’t revert to the original behavior. I find that for some clients Aikapa has become this support system as they strive to adjust financial habits and align them with their financial plan. It’s our job to help clients remember the reason(s) why these behaviors are important and to help them visualize their financial rewards on an annual basis. We do this through client meetings and by examining savings, investment portfolio and retirement plans.

In short, attaining financial wealth and peace of mind are indeed possible when you can develop habits that work for you. It is our mission to educate and help you build a stress reduced financial life while maximizing your wealth. If you are working on building a new financial habit to support your dreams, don’t forget to include Aikapa as part of your support team.