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Track Your Habits, Save Money

Written by Alexander Huls

Monday, May 1st, 2017

I couldn't resist the chocolate croissant.

For years, whenever I walked into my local coffee shop, a latte always came with a chocolate croissant. They were as inseparable as Bert and Ernie. Even on days where I felt I didn't need one, come order time, I'd suddenly hear myself adding "...and a chocolate croissant" to the end of my sentence.

It had clearly become a persistent habit, but I didn't beat myself up about it. What was the harm (aside from the effect on my waistline) in indulging in the inevitability of starting my day with a tasty, crispy, flaky, gooey chocolate croissant?

The Struggle of Breaking Bad Spending Habits

That "Zen" attitude got a wake-up call when I decided to rework my budget and scale down my daily spending to boost my savings. My croissant's days were numbered: it was an unnecessary and easy expense to cut.

But knowing what spending habits should be eliminated is different than being able to actually do it. No matter how much willpower I mustered, I couldn't quit the French pastry. Sure, sometimes I'd succeed in going a day or two without it, but to paraphrase The Godfather: just when I thought I was out, the chocolate croissant pulled me back in.

The habit seemed permanently programmed into my brain and I couldn't find the factory reset. It was discouraging. It made me think, “I can't do this."

The (Money Saving) Power of Habit Tracking Apps

If you're unfamiliar with apps like HabitBullStreaksBalanced, or Strides (to name only a few), they're designed to help you cultivate and reboot habits. Based on findings that it can take an average of 60 days or more to form a habit (or as little as 18 days, and as many as 254 days), many of these apps operate on the principle of creating streaks—setting a goal for a new habit and fulfilling it as many times in a row as possible. The logic? The longer a streak goes, the less likely you'll want to break it, and the more your new habit will sink in.

I've been using a habit tracking app (I'm partial to HabitBull) to push myself to floss, meditate and work out more regularly (not all at the same time), and I realized I could apply the app to solve my croissant conundrum. I made “resist treats with coffee" my goal for Monday to Friday, and began tracking.

It worked. Whenever my eye longingly wandered to the pastry display case, I thought, “But then I can't keep my streak going." In the same way I once looked forward to that croissant, I now looked forward to the endorphin-filled reward of not ordering a croissant, and the knowledge that I was saving $2.50 a day, $12.50 a week, and, ultimately, $650 a year. I felt empowered by the proof that I could form better spending habits and demonstrate willpower I didn't know I had.

Other Financial Uses for Habit Tracking Apps

Inspired by my success, I began eagerly looking for other ways I could use habit tracking apps to adopt better spending habits. My overindulgence in eating out for lunch was reduced by tracking the goal “make lunch three times a week." My habit of browsing Amazon when bored—and inevitably buying several books a month—was reduced by tracking the goal “buy one book a month."

There are, of course, other financial habits the apps could be used for. Someone could use them to start updating their budgeting software twice a week. Or, someone could encourage the habit of putting $200 aside for vacation every month. The possibilities are as diverse as your financial goals might be.

Now, these apps don't take away financial ownership. I still had to be the one to decide what my financial goals were, what habits I wanted to develop, and be willing to see them through. But with all that in place? Habit tracking apps are a great and robust tool to help promote good financial habits and better saving. Without them, I wouldn't be where I am now: finally (and financially) liberated from the delicious tyranny of the chocolate croissant.

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