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Zoning out for hours watching reruns, checking your PDA every 15 minutes, spending a morning surfing the Web for bargains -- these are hardly behaviors that defy social norms. And, really, what's the big whoop about checking your messages or biting your nails a wee bit too much?
Nothing. Until it's not nothing, that is.
When done in excess, harmless habits morph into something far more sinister and self-destructive -- what self-help expert Judith Wright calls "soft addictions."And make no mistake: Soft addictions can run roughshod on your emotional and financial well-being.
The signs of soft addictions
Overshopping, overeating, watching endless amounts of TV, and sporting an impenetrable umbilical cord to the Internet are common soft addictions, Wright says.
The psychological signs of sufferers can be subtle, but the emotional drain is very real: They "rob us of time, numb us from our feelings, mute our consciousness, and drain our energy," she says. (You can take this quiz on her website to see if some of your habits have become bona fide soft addictions.)
When soft addictions involve money, they inflict yet another side effect: financial drain. Left unchecked, things like boredom spending, convenience shopping, and day trading can quickly balloon out of control and become emotional and financial cement galoshes.
All it takes is a few too many clicks and suddenly:
- Convenience shopping turns into a mountain of credit card debt.
- Trading in and out of stocks eats away at your long-term wealth.
- Those winning bids on auction sites eat away at the money you've amassed for a down payment for your dream home.
How habits become harmful
You can be the most self-aware person on the planet and still suffer from a spending soft addiction. That's because the things that make it easier to manage our money also numb our brains to what's really happening with our finances.
Consider credit cards: Like poker chips, they only represent money. Studies show that when we put purchases on plastic we spend more because we don't experience the discomfort of parting with actual cold, hard currency. (This also explains why I've never walked out of Target with just the things on my shopping list.)
Online shopping, stock trading, auction sites -- same thing. Done in moderation, all is well. But it doesn't take much for our reliance on these tools to turn into a harmful addiction.
Break bad habits before they become addictions
Because of that fine line between "harmless habit" and "soft addiction," it's easy to overlook or brush aside budding problem areas. Don't.
If worry about the financial fallout of your everyday actions even occasionally breaks through the subconscious into the realm of acknowledgement, it's worth taking a deeper look.
1. Bring consciousness to your cash flow
You do this by tracking your spending -- but with a twist. This tried-and-true exercise is always an eye-opener. But we're going to add an element of depth to the spending analysis:
- For at least three days (two weeks is even better), record the factual details of every dime you spend.
- Here's the twist: Within the next hour, write down how that transaction made you feel (e.g., "a brief buyer's high, but I felt restless again 30 minutes later").
- Extra credit: Try to identify any triggers that drove you to whip out your wallet.
After several days, you'll be able to identify some mind-money connections you might never have detected if they had gone unchecked. Quite often the overwhelming feeling people experience is numbness -- not even remembering or getting much of any fulfillment from these habits.
2. Calculate the price of happiness
Sit down with your notes and add up how much money you spent. Then compare it to the amount of satisfaction each transaction brought to your life.
Did that sweater bring you $45 worth of joy? The answer is, of course, subjective. So also consider how many hours you spent toiling at work to pay for the cardigan. Now, was it worth it?
Asking questions like these will help heighten your financial awareness in a different way than simply reviewing a rundown of the previous month's credit card transactions.
3. Manage your money more meaningfully
Take some time to write down some things that truly add to your quality of life -- items, events, pursuits, and purchases that put a lasting kick in your step and were worth the time and money spent.
Then make a list of the things you are willing to change about how you handle money today to free up psychological and financial space so you can pursue things like those you just wrote down.
Start with the small stuff (e.g., turning off the TV, canceling premium cable, and joining the Y with the family) and work your way up to bigger changes you'd like to make. Just a few tweaks to routine spending habits can really add up.
If you find yourself slipping back into old habits, review your list of joy-inducing items and remember that a little self-control can keep you and your finances out of harm's way.
More ways to become financially self-aware: