How To Take Charge of Your Finances

Big spender? Frugal to a fault? You can take charge of your finances. 

Laurent Cilluffo 

You clip coupons, scrimp whenever possible and obsess about building your nest egg. Your sister, on the other hand, is a shopaholic who never frets about the future. We often assume that money habits come from our parents, so how to explain the difference? It’s all in your head—specifically, a part of the cerebral cortex called the insula, which is stimulated by unpleasant experiences. Researchers have found people with more activity in that brain region tend to be savers, while those with less can’t resist the urge to splurge. There’s no changing your hardwiring, of course. But you can get psyched to break bad habits and take charge of your finances.

Everyone’s heard of the Marshmallow Experiment—that famous Stanford University study in which preschoolers were presented with a pair of treats and told they could eat one right away or wait a few minutes and have two. Researchers observed the kids through adulthood and found that those who delayed gratification were more successful overall. If you’re a spender, it’s hard to postpone pleasure; your brain is sending messages that the cash in your pocket is there to be enjoyed. Deep down, though, you know your behavior is unsustainable and want to change. Try these strategies.

Feel the pain by using cash, not credit cards. Paying as you go (no running up bar tabs!) takes the mystery out of how you’re hemorrhaging all that dough. Instead of making a quick run to the ATM, force yourself to stand in line and make withdrawals from a bank teller, which will drive home just how fast your balances are dwindling.

Share your plans—how much you intend to sock away and by what date—with family and friends so they’ll hold you accountable. It’s a powerful motivator. So are goal-setting tools like StickK, a website ( and app (Android and iOS, free) that lets you make a commitment contract, set a time frame and monitor your progress.

Cheat a little when you reach a target, but only by spending a responsible percentage of what you’ve socked away. Occasional rewards canhelp prevent frugal fatigue.

Put every purchase on pause until you ask yourself just how essential it is. Train yourself to be more mindful of the difference between needs and wants.

Think ahead about just how much money you’ll require for your child’s college education, your retirement and health care. Then sit down and do the math. A little future shock can jolt you to get serious about saving. 

Type B: Frugal To A Fault 

Sure, it’s great that your credit card balances are always paid in full and people are wowed by the size of your 401(k). For you, cash in the bank is way more satisfying than anything you could ever buy. But parting with money is so painful that you sometimes go without necessities, like better health insurance or new tires for your car. Your social life is suffering too, since instead of going out to see a movie with family or friends, you’d rather wait to watch it on Netflix. If you’re overindulging your inner Scrooge, here’s how to flip the script.

Don’t be seduced by rock-bottom prices. When a deal seems too good to be true, the product might be substandard and short-lived, costing you more time and money in the long run. Sometimes it’s best to pay up and invest in quality.

Budget for joy by setting aside, say, $50 a month for little splurges, like fresh flowers or a mani-pedi. With a little practice, treating yourself will become second nature.

Be present in the moment and forget the price tag. Do you want a life full of rich experiences or regrets about all the wonderful things you denied yourself? It’s a no-brainer.

Ask yourself how much is enough—both money and material goods. Once you’ve reached your goal, loosen the purse strings. Savings really should be a means, not an end. Make that your mantra.

Give unto others. It may seem counterintuitive, but research has shown that the more you donate to charity, the better you feel.