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Income & Thrift: The Two Strategies to Improving Your Finances

Income & Thrift: The Two Strategies to Improving Your Finances

    Every newspaper has ran a story about how to improve your finances in the past few weeks. The same goes for every news show — and most online media as well. No matter the source, though, every tip or trick falls into one of two categories: increasing your income or decreasing your spending. Basically everything you can do to improve your financial situation boils down to one of these two strategies: refinancing your mortgage is just a way to reduce the amount you’re paying on housing. Selling stuff on eBay that you don’t need is just a way to increase your income.

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    The Trouble With Time

    Most people have the same issue with these issues: time. It takes time to be thrifty and it takes time to have a second job. There are thousands of ways to cut costs — quite a few of them amount to doing something yourself rather than paying for, like cooking at home or mowing your own lawn. And while there are many ways to build up passive income, even those ‘passive’ streams require some effort on your part — advertising, maintenance and such. In general, you have to trade time for money. That means we have to manage our time as part of managing our money.

    On the surface, it seems like finding the time to cut expenses would be easier than finding the time to make more money. After all, if I was to cut out one hour in front of the computer a day, I would have all sorts of time to spend on projects that would save me money. I could make my own cleaning supplies or clip coupons or walk to the store instead of driving. But there is a limit to how much money a person can save. It is theoretically possible to get your expenses down to zero, although I don’t know anyone who has actually done it. But at that point, you would have to spend all of your time saving money — you wouldn’t have any time to earn money.

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    In contrast, it is possible to buy time if you have the money — if you’ve increased your income. You can outsource a significant chunk of your task list: hire a maid or an assistant or someone to handle whatever task you don’t have time to deal with. That approach can get expensive to the point of being painful, but it’s easier to increase your income than save money you don’t have. At least in theory, increasing your income can get you further financially than simple thrift.

    The Balanced Approach

    In practice, however, just chasing income isn’t enough to straighten out your finances. Instead, it’s a question of just how much you can earn and just how much you can save. Taking a look at those numbers can show that, at least in the short-term, it’s far more practical to take a combined approach. To decide just how to balance your own efforts, you’ll need to know how much you earn in an hour. Whether you’re thinking about taking on some overtime at your day job, picking up cash freelancing or even selling plasma, your hourly rate will help you decide just what thrifty tips actually make sense for you.

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    You can generally estimate how much a particular thrifty tip is likely to save you: going to the library to borrow books instead of buying them will save you the cost of a book, for instance. You can also estimate how long that task is likely to take you: going to the library might be a couple of minutes out of your way on the drive home and you’ll need a few minutes to browse, rather than the seconds required to purchase a book on Amazon. That means you can easily calculate what your hourly savings is. Those savings methods that save you more money than you can earn in an hour? Those are low-hanging fruit — actions that are valuable than working for the same amount of time. But those savings methods that don’t save you that much — less than what you can earn in an hour — well, they just aren’t worth it in most cases. If you can earn more money by working during the time you could have been making your own soap from scratch, it makes sense just to pick up the soap at the local Wal-Mart and move on.

    It’s possible to make the calculations far more complicated, of course: you can factor in the distance you might have to travel for certain savings, the costs of working and so on, but that sort of calculation takes time. Time, as we have established, is money.

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    Your Thoughts on the Matter

    There are a lot of bloggers who have made their support for either increasing income or decreasing spending quite clear (Get Rich Slowly, I Will Teach You To Be Rich and The Simple Dollar all come to mind as blogs that have discussed the matter). No matter whether people say that there should be a balance between the two strategies, most folks wind up prioritizing one over the other. I know I have — I generally find earning more money to be a better use of my time than extreme frugality — but I’m interested in which approach you feel more comfortable with and why. Please let us know which technique you favor in the comments!

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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