This article is near and dear to my heart because I lived this way for many years. The “I deserve…” mentality is a slippery slope—you won’t realize how far down the slope you are before it’s too late and you slide all the way to the bottom.
The attitude itself starts off as relatively harmless. Maybe you had a good performance review at work or passed a personal fitness milestone, so you decide to reward yourself. The reward is enjoyable, and it feels good to acknowledge the hard work and dedication that led to the accomplishment. There is absolutely nothing wrong with rewarding yourself, but the temptation to continue is hiding around the corner, waiting for the next chance to pounce. A few weeks later, you close a big sale or get a bonus and convince yourself you deserve something nice. So you go out and buy something you’ve been wanting for a while—maybe it even eats up most of that bonus you just got (notice how this tends to escalate). A few more weeks go by and you’re having a bad day; to make yourself feel better, you decide you deserve a treat. You book a vacation to the mountains the following weekend to cheer up, even though you’re on track to pay off your credit card debt in six months. And the cycle continues until you’re in real trouble.
The challenge with the “I deserve” mentality is the trigger events tend to become more trivial over time while the rewards tend to become more significant or costly. It may not happen overnight; in fact, it may take months or even years for this habit to ingrain itself in your psyche. But I submit to you the more gradually the habit develops, the more detrimental it becomes to your financial health. A relevant comparison is the fable of the frog in boiling water: if you place a frog in boiling water, he will immediately jump out because he senses danger and pain; however, if you place a frog in room temperature water and then slowly heat it to a boil, he will become acclimated, will not perceive the danger, and will be boiled alive. The same is true for this attitude—if it escalates quickly, you will likely perceive the problem and correct the habit sooner rather than later, but if it develops gradually, you will acclimate and potentially be in financial distress.
So what are some strategies to prevent this from escalating to excessive spending and diminished satisfaction from the overload of rewards?
- Set a goal or series of goals – This one seems obvious but really is one of the most powerful actions you can undertake. Setting goals solidifies the required outcomes ahead of time and prevents you from making impromptu decisions about the events required to earn the rewards.
- Establish the reward in advance – This goes hand-in-hand with the first strategy by eliminating any impromptu or ad-hoc decision making. If you tell yourself in advance what the reward will be when you accomplish the goal, it’s easier to execute on that action.
- Make the reward proportionate to the goal – It’s helpful to have reasonably proportionate rewards in relation to goals. If it’s a simple goal that required minimal effort, make it a simple reward as well. If you accomplished your goal of completing all five items on the to-do list today, treat yourself to a milkshake, not a Rolex. By contrast, if you’re the selling agent and closed on the sale of a million-dollar property, treat yourself to dinner at your favorite Michelin star-rated restaurant (and make sure to throw in a nice bottle of wine!). Again—these strategies seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to rationalize extravagant rewards.
- Focus on free rewards – This one is for the folks who are on a shoestring budget or who are trying to be diligent about reducing spending. There’s absolutely nothing that says your reward must cost something; in fact, the freebies can be some of the most fulfilling rewards. Go for a hike in your favorite state park, invite some friends over to play cards, visit the local swimming hole, sleep in late on a Saturday, etc.
- Find an accountability partner – If you’re in the depths of the “I deserve” routine, find an accountability partner you can talk to about the desire to spend excessively or often. It helps to simply talk about what you’re thinking—it can even help you realize how out-of-control this cycle has become. It’s is no different than having an accountability partner for working out at the gym, for eating healthy, or any other number activities where a support system is useful.
Master your desire for rewards by employing some of the strategies above. It may not be easy, especially if you’re closer to the bottom of that slippery slope than you are to the top, but your future financial security and well-being could be at stake if you fall into and stay in the entitlement trap. Make smart choices, resist reliance on excessive rewards, and make them reasonable when you do choose to indulge.
If there are other strategies you’ve used in the past to conquer this habit, please share in the comments section.