Self-con­trol proves key to fi­nan­cial health, wealth

USA TODAY US Edition - - MONEY - Peter Dunn USA TODAY Peter Dunn is an au­thor, speaker and ra­dio host, and he has a free pod­cast: “Mil­lion Dol­lar Plan.” Email him at [email protected]­teth­e­p­lan­ner.com.

Through­out the last 20 years, I’ve asked my­self the same ques­tion over and over: What do peo­ple re­ally want out of their fi­nan­cial lives? I keep ask­ing be­cause the an­swer keeps evolv­ing.

My ear­li­est an­swer was “a per­son wants to make enough money to live the life they want to live.” I was happy with that an­swer un­til I re­al­ized how vague and rid­dled with flaws it was. It’s the epit­ome of a wild goose chase.

Over the last cou­ple of years, I con­cluded the an­swer to my ini­tial query was peo­ple want a solid in­come, no fi­nan­cial stress and a suc­cess­ful re­tire­ment. And while this is still true, these de­sires are fur­ther down the pri­or­ity list than I had thought. We want the abil­ity to make these am­bi­tions our re­al­i­ties. But wouldn’t you rather have the tools to de­liver on your orig­i­nal goals?

I now be­lieve peo­ple are seek­ing some­thing they don’t even know they’re seek­ing, and that’s why so many are hav­ing trou­ble find­ing it. The fi­nan­cial mis­takes we make are at­tempts to gain what we so es­o­ter­i­cally seek.

We seek self-con­trol.

‘I’m in charge!’

Do you want to know why you buy things you can’t ob­jec­tively af­ford? Be­cause you want to feel like you’re in con­trol of a sit­u­a­tion you aren’t re­ally in con­trol of. “I’m in charge!” your credit card screams, act­ing as the emis­sary of your fi­nan­cial bag­gage at your fa­vorite re­tail store. But you’re not in charge if you don’t have self-con­trol.

Self-con­trol is a learned be­hav­ior that can be bor­rowed from other as­pects of your life. You can draw on other exhibition­s of self-con­trol to power your fi­nan­cial life. Have you ever quit smok­ing? Great, you have what it takes to mas­ter fi­nan­cial self-con­trol. Have you ever taken con­trol of your fit­ness and diet? Fan­tas­tic. The par­al­lels be­tween health and wealth are al­most eerie.

Wealth doesn’t re­ally mat­ter

Don’t mis­take self-con­trol for hav­ing so much money that you’re vir­tu­ally in con­trol of your destiny. Even peo­ple who seem­ingly have all the money in the world don’t nec­es­sar­ily drink from the grail of self-con­trol.

True self-con­trol is ag­nos­tic of wealth. That’s why you can rel­ish fi­nan­cial self-con­trol with­out great wealth. You don’t have to have a lot of money. You just need to not need a lot of money.

You know, or know of, a wealthy per­son who has ev­ery­thing but self-con­trol. There’s a myth that peo­ple with money or healthy in­comes got it due to great fi­nan­cial wis­dom. Anec­do­tally, that’s rarely the case.

A brain sur­geon’s fi­nan­cial suc­cess on pa­per doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily have any­thing to do with fi­nan­cial wis­dom, self­con­trol or fis­cal per­fec­tion­ism. I know this be­cause I’ve met sev­eral brain sur­geons who are fi­nan­cial dis­as­ters — and lawyers, and pro­fes­sional ath­letes, and sales­peo­ple, and CEOs (and fi­nan­cial plan­ners, for that mat­ter). Un­til those in­di­vid­u­als find self-con­trol, there will be an empti­ness un­filled by cash­mere scarves, lux­ury cars and what­ever other ma­te­rial pos­ses­sions they think lets them be a shot-caller.

Self-con­trol fills all voids, chasms and de­fi­cien­cies.

An in­ten­tional ef­fort

I’ve been ex­per­i­ment­ing with acts of self-con­trol over the last two months, specif­i­cally in the realm of health and fit­ness. The ef­fort has been worth it. The strange part about in­ten­tion­ally seek­ing self-con­trol is that it con­tin­ues to re­veal new as­pects of it­self.

For ex­am­ple, it feels good to not de­fault to a burger, fries and a beer dur­ing a lay­over at what­ever air­port I hap­pen to be in. At first it was a strug­gle, and I clung to the good feel­ing I got from mak­ing the right food choices. But now it’s evolved into the power of ef­fort­lessly be­ing able to say no to some­thing that has brought me so much plea­sure (and ex­tra pounds) in the past.

On your quest for fi­nan­cial self-con­trol, un­der­stand that it’s a process. You’ll be forced to park your emo­tions, ig­nore ac­count val­ues and re­sist the mag­netism of con­sumerism. Per­sis­tence here is eas­ier said than done. Your emo­tions alone are enough to wreak havoc on your in­tended out­comes.

Want to give it a shot?

Choose a goal with the fi­nan­cial price tag equal to two months’ in­come. Ideally, your goal is to pay down debt, set money aside for the fu­ture or fund a prac­ti­cal so­lu­tion to a ma­jor prob­lem.

Start by ded­i­cat­ing at least 10% of your next pay­check to the goal. You likely can tol­er­ate this with just a few small ad­just­ments. But at the 10% level could you han­dle this for 20 months? Or could you make 20% work for 10 months? Be­cause that’s how long it would take.

I don’t think you can do it with­out em­ploy­ing self-con­trol. To suc­ceed, you’d be forced to scru­ti­nize your cur­rent habit, and then slash other ex­pen­di­tures that once seemed un­slash­able. The whole process is a grind un­til self­con­trol kicks in.

At that point, it’s truly a plea­sure.

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