It’s an embarrassment of riches on the milestone front for us these days. We recently hit a rather significant financial milestone. That was after we technically became FI earlier this year. And next Monday our mortgage will drop a digit. Unlike the 1500 Days family, we have not celebrated any of these milestones with a brownie sundae (D’oh! #doingitwrong), but we have used the excitement of the achievements to propel us forward toward our other goals, namely retiring early sometime next year.
While we’re making fast progress toward FIRE, it’s not because we are especially gifted in the discipline department. We still slip up and make occasional impulse purchases, even now, multiple years into our FIRE journey, and 150 posts into blogging about personal finance. (That’s another milestone — this makes 150 posts! Wohoo!) We still sometimes cave and get take-out because we’re feeling too lazy to cook dinner. I could give you more mundane examples, but it’s probably simpler just to say: discipline is not something that comes easily to us.
But, we’ve found a way to fake it.
Moderators and Abstainers… and Streakers?
The writer Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project and a series of books which are all about building habits that lead to happiness, writes often about the theory of moderators and abstainers. Basically, it’s the idea that some people can eat just a little ice cream and be good with that — these are the moderators. While other people need to eat ALL the ice cream, and therefore should avoid ice cream entirely if they don’t want to be miserable about the caloric and financial ramifications of said ice cream ingestion — these are the abstainers.
I’m a total abstainer, or at least I’m an abstainer when I’m actually abstaining from bad behaviors. I’m definitely not a moderator. To me, a moderator is someone with natural self-discipline. A person who can somehow, magically, take a single bite of cake, make yummy sounds, and then say, “I’m good.” (How do some people do this???) Someone who makes the bed every morning. Someone who procrastinates far less than either of us do.
I read Gretchen’s theory several years back, and wondered if there was a way to flip the abstainer concept from being about something negative — deciding not to do something — to something positive — deciding to do something. A more affirmative notion. And I realized that whether you’re deciding never to do something or to do something all the time, you’re still talking about the same thing: consistency.
And for undisciplined abstainers like us, consistency is way easier said than done. We’d need a way to force consistency, since it wouldn’t just come naturally to us. And I realized: the areas of my life in which I was most consistent and unerring were those in which I was maintaining a streak of some sort, and I felt powerfully motivated not to break the streak.
Not wanting to break the streak is why there has been a new post every single Monday of this blog’s life (except for last Memorial Day, when I posted Tuesday instead, and one random Sunday in October when I accidentally hit “publish” on Monday’s post instead of “schedule”).
Though I am not super disciplined about most things, I have forced myself to be disciplined about writing because I really, really, really want to keep this streak going here. I love this blog, I love everyone who reads and comments, and knowing that the streak is intact helps me maintain what could feel like a daunting posting schedule. (Though I really do believe that it’s easier to write two or three posts a week than one, because you stay in better practice, and get more used to generating ideas. Blogging tip of the day!) If I missed a Monday or Wednesday, then the streak would be broken, and it would be easy to justify letting more time pass between posts, or even fall off the wagon entirely. I don’t want to go there, so I’m actively focusing on keeping the streak alive as a way to force myself to stay disciplined. And in the end the result is the same as if I had been disciplined to begin with. Definitely a win in my book.
Creating Financial Streaks
Creating and maintaining streaks can be useful in all aspects of life, like maintaining a workout routine or sticking to other good habits — it’s why people recovering from drug and alcohol addictions keep track of their streak of days/weeks/months/years sober, because it has such a positive reinforcing effect. And you can use that same effect to accelerate your progress toward your financial goals. Best of all: this doesn’t require any lofty planning. You just do something, and then do it again, and do it again and again and again and again.
Let’s say you know you need to save more, but the idea of saving some huge amount for a down payment or early retirement or any other big goal feels too daunting to process. Maybe you’ve tried to save in the past, but you couldn’t get in the habit, and you feel discouraged now. The good news is you don’t have to think about that stuff, or at least not right away. Just save a little today. Then save a little next week, or from your next paycheck. Then do it again the following week or paycheck. Now, all of a sudden, you’ve got yourself a streak.
Over time, that streak can lead to bigger and better things, like optimizing your spending, increasing your saving even more, and aiming higher with your goals. Our entire FIRE journey started simply by saving $250 out of every paycheck, and watching as the amount in our savings account started to grow. Though we would have preferred to spend that money frivolously at the time, we didn’t want to break the streak of growing that amount every month.
And now, we have a whole bunch of streaks going, and despite our nature, we’re crazy motivated to keep the streaks going, including:
- Eleven years in a row of putting $250 from every one of my paychecks into savings (that’s now up to $66,000 saved just from that!)
- Eight years in a row of hitting our annual savings targets
- Five years in a row of banking our year-end bonuses instead of spending them
- 30+ months of putting almost our entire second paychecks of the month into our Vanguard account
All of that started from one little streak, and kept building from there.
You Have to Know It’s a Streak
Of course, for a streak to be a streak, you have to know it’s a streak. And that usually requires keeping track in some way. While great, free tools like Personal Capital and Mint will track your net worth over time, nothing replaces a journal, a spreadsheet or a note-taking app like Evernote for keeping a tally of a streak. Maybe it’s a chart on the wall, a la Your Money Or Your Life. Or maybe you just keep track in your head. Whatever helps you stay motivated.
Cut Yourself Some Slack
The moderator versus abstainer model suggests that abstainers and the discipline-challenged need to practice total consistency to be successful. And that’s just not realistic. Even Cait at Blonde on a Budget, creator of her famous multi-year shopping ban (and “ban” is an awfully abstemious word with no gray area), makes exceptions here and there. If you don’t allow yourself a little slack, one slip-up could feel like the end of the streak and the end of whatever you’re working toward. That’s silly. Just accept the blip and keep going.
Automate As Much As Possible
You’ll notice that our first positive financial streak wasn’t something we manually did every paycheck. I filled out a form with HR, and they deposited part of every paycheck into my savings account. All we had to do was not spend that money, which was now easier because the money wasn’t “visible” in the checking account. We still considered the not spending the money part to be a success, but we were helped enormously by the automation factor, which helped take the willpower and decision fatigue out of the equation.
Having your paycheck automatically split between different accounts, doing automatic investments every month or every payday or scheduling extra mortgage principle payments — all of these can get you going on a powerful financial streak that can change everything.
What’s Your Take?
Any other streakers out there, who use the power of streaks to keep your motivation running high? Can you see areas in your own life or finances where the power of a streak could motivate you to reach bigger and higher goals? Tell us all about it in the comments. :-)
P.S. That vibrant red sunset in the header photo has zero filter of any kind applied. Shout out to the Oregon coast for making such picturesque scenes! We’re such suckers for that kind of thing.