TAM Book Club: Changing for Good by James O. Prochaska, et al
Changing for Good describes a scientifically-proven process for making positive changes that can be help you live your best financial life.
I just finished reading James O. Prochaska’s Changing for Good and though it is a bit dated (it was first published in 1994) I was struck by its applicability for those who are working on their money management skills such as spending less. Let’s look at the stages of change that this book describes and consider how they might be applied to effective money management.
Precontemplation can be described as a resistance to change. In fact, people may believe that change is not even possible due to external or internal factors. I once had a prospective student who, even though she earned a meager income and was eligible for my financial education program, did not want to participate. She didn’t think that it could help her finances, even though she could have earned up to $1,000 for participating. She may have been in precontemplation mode.
The process to address precontemplation most effectively is consciousness-raising and social liberation. An example of consciousness-raising is learning about the power that advertisers have on influencing your spending decisions. Social liberation involves creating alternatives for the “problem” behavior (the author’s word, not mine). One example of this is the “spending fast” programs that you can find circulating through various social media platforms. The premise of this social liberation campaign is that for a set period of time you spend no money other than what it takes to provide for the basic needs of your household. This liberates you from having to respond to all the advertising messages that flood your consciousness each day. You simply say “no” to all of it!
Contemplation is the stage when people are thinking about making a change in their lives. At the same time, they feel ill-prepared and maybe even defeatist in their ability to take a step forward. They may believe that they must become experts in money management before they change, or that they need to wait for the perfect moment in time, like receiving a financial gift. I had a student once who very much wanted to have more control over her money but who refused to track her spending until she got a better job.
The processes that are most useful for contemplators are emotional arousal and self-reevaluation. Emotional arousal involves leaning into the problem behavior that you are considering. One way to do this is through watching a movie about the effects of poor money management or the impact of the financial industry on consumers. Examples include the documentaries “Broke,” “The Retirement Gamble,” or “Maxed Out.”
Self-reevaluation is the process of comparing your current behavior to your optimal self. For example, you might be an impulse shopper and at the same time you want to support your children in paying for college. But your kids are now 8 and 10 and you haven’t started saving yet because there is never enough money to do so. By defining your optimal self as someone who saves for college you can then begin to consider how you would make college savings a priority.
The key question for contemplators is “Am I intending to take action in the next 6 months?” If the answer is yes then you may be ready to move toward the Preparation stage.
Preparation is that period when a person is getting ready to change but is not quite ready to take action. A common mistake that people make is to jump into action prematurely without sufficient preparation.
The process that is most useful to people in the preparation stage is commitment. It includes both your willingness to act as well as your belief that you will be successful. This might be the time to read how-to books on money management, to look at money tracking tools, or even to create an organized filing system. One of my students started watching personal finance videos on Your Tube to get herself ready to act.
The key question for preparers is “Am I intending to take action in the next month?” If the answer is yes then you may be ready to move toward the Action stage.
Action is that magical time when the behavior you want to change actually changes! To outside observers this looks like the first step. Little do they know that you have passed through the three previous stages to arrive here. You have changed a lot of important internal thoughts and beliefs before arriving at the Action stage. Watching students in my financial education classes go through the Action stage with a sense of excitement and optimism is extremely satisfying for me.
The processes that are most useful during the action phase are countering, environmental control, rewards and helping relationships. Countering involves substituting a “healthy” behavior for the one that you are trying to change. For example, if when you are bored you head to the mall to take a stroll and do some window shopping, only to come home with arms full of shopping bags, change your destination to park or museum (one without a gift shop!). Environmental control is changing your surroundings to promote your healthy behavior. If you are trying to control your on-line spending you might cancel all the sales and promotions that appear in your email inbox or social media feed so you won't be tempted to engage with them.
Rewards are important and can be tricky during the Action phase because how many times do you “reward” yourself by spending money? The reward that you choose to congratulate yourself on spending less money might be an internal pat-on-the-back for seeing your bank balance rise, or a free activity that you enjoy. Finally, helping relationships can support you in spending less money. This can come in the form of a supportive friend to hear your spoken pledge or a walking buddy to chat with on those strolls through the park. Financial education programs with strong social support mechanisms built into them - like the ones that I run - also are helping relationships.
The key question for action takers here is “Have I taken action within the past 6 months?” If the answer is yes then you may be ready to move toward the Maintenance stage.
While some may believe that the action phase is the most difficult phase on this list, I would argue that maintenance might prove to be the most challenging. After all, during the action phase you are actively engaged in trying something new. The maintenance phase demands that you integrate your new-found behaviors into your daily life, and to recognize and be prepared for social pressures and special situations that could tempt you back into your former behavior.
It is in the Maintenance stage to continue to devote your energy to countering, environmental control, rewards and helping relationships, as described above. Some of my students want to stay in my class after they have achieved their goals because they see the benefits of using our class for their maintenance. It is also important to remember that part of Action and Maintenance will be lapses back to the old behavior. Don't beat yourself up if you engage in a spending spree. Forgive yourself and get back on track.
The key question for maintainers is “Did I change my behavior more than 6 months ago?” If the answer is yes then you may be ready to move toward the Termination stage.
Termination is the last phase and it is described as the phase when the behavior that you are trying to change is no longer something that you worry about. You have integrated your new-found way of behaving in the world and you are no longer tempted to go back to the ways you were prior to contemplating change. For some this stage is possible while for others maintenance will be the final phase and you will continually work on your new behaviors.
Either way it is important to celebrate how far you have come.