Why the Myth of Moderation is Keeping you in Debt – And How to Get Out

Jen SmithDebt, Personal Finance12 Comments

myth of moderation

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You’ve heard it said “Everything in moderation.” Like your brain will just know when it’s achieved maximum moderation and you’ll be fine. Who actually achieves their ideal of moderation?

I know a lot of people who think their addictive or impulsive personality means they can’t do moderation.

While there’s something to be said for how genetics and personality affect the purchases we make, overspending and impulsive spending are problems for everyone, regardless of personality type.

The idea that moderation must be organically practiced is a myth. Moderation is a skill that takes building and refinement.

There are actual steps you can take improve your willpower and moderation. It all starts with understanding it, so let’s get sciencey.

But first, if you like this topic I cover this and much more in my book The No-Spend Challenge Guide. Check it out to help you save more, spend less, and make the most of your time paying off debt.

In brain terms, the forehead is the prefrontal cortex of our brain. It’s in charge of executive functions like logic, planning, problem-solving, and impulse control.

According to a study on the prefrontal cortex and impulsive decision-making by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there are two types of impulsiveness.

The first is the brain places too much weight on immediate outcomes without considering the weight of future benefit, like choosing to have one cookie now instead of waiting to have two. The second is rapid habitual response without consideration of what the correct response should be.

The study further showed that people’s ability to think about long-term outcomes of their decisions was reduced by stress, distraction, even loud noises.

Got any of those?

We set these big goals for ourselves, to get out of debt, lose weight, stay off social media. Then we get down on ourselves when we’re buying cookies at 10 pm because we saw something unattainable on Facebook.

The willpower to choose moderation is finite. You wake up with the best intentions, have a great day and by the end of it you’re bingeing. Rest assured, you’re not hopeless; you’re normal.

The first step in getting your finances under control is knowing how to take care of your brain to set yourself up to make better decisions. You can have the strongest willpower of anyone you know or seemingly none at all and still be ok as long as you’re taking steps improve your decision-making brain.

There are five totally common sense, eye-roll inducing ways to set your brain up for success. But even though you know what they are they beg repeating. Because until you’re living on the beach with piles of money, you can use a reminder of the simple things that keep your brain and bank account healthy.

1. Manage Stress

When we started paying off our debt I was so stressed working multiple jobs and staring at my loan account that I got shingles. Thank God my body stopped me from living that way because chronic stress is horrible for your decision-making brain.

Chronic stress reduces resilience, impairs memory, and actually shrinks your brain cells. Stress isn’t just bad for the brain; it negatively affects your heart, immune system, and speeds aging. Nobody wants that.

Practice meditation and relaxation techniques regularly. Studies show that just eight weeks of brief daily meditation can increase gray matter in the prefrontal cortex. That means better impulse control and a bigger storehouse for willpower.

If you’re prone to stress avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. In addition to costing money, they’re stimulants so they increase whatever stress levels are already present.

2. Bombard Yourself with Encouragement

“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

Zig Ziglar

Positive thinking expands your mind and makes you believe more is possible. It’s the difference between achieving outrageous goals and giving up. But just like willpower, positivity doesn’t last, you have to refill your tank daily.

But you can’t manufacture your own encouragement. You can only top this one off with a little help from your friends. And the more the better. Find friends, family, and mentors who get what you’re doing and ask them to keep you accountable but more so encouraged. And don’t be embarrassed if you need more encouragement than you assume is reasonable, everybody needs more on the front end of a big task.

Find 7-10 friends who’ll text you once a week with an encouraging quote or quality they see in you. We live up to the expectations set for us so make sure you surround yourself with people who know you can be great.

3. Sleep More

Sleep deprivation is a type of chronic stress so in addition to avoiding stimulant substances, try the relaxation techniques I mentioned earlier right before bed. It takes just one good night’s sleep to start improving prefrontal cortex function. Studies show that 6.5-7.5 hours of sleep is optimal.

Understand that the older you get the more care you have to take to sleep well, yes even in your 20’s. I used to be able to have a few glasses of wine before bed and now if I do that I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep. Pay attention to your sleep and avoid habits that impede it.

And design your bedroom as a place for sleep. Make your bedroom a place of tranquility and do your work outside of it. Training your brain to think night time is sleep time will improve your sleep.

Experts tell new moms to keep noise and light in the house during the day and quiet darkness at night so babies will learn the difference and develop a proper sleeping schedule. If you want to sleep like one, you should too.

4. Exercise

When you’re stressed you release a stress hormone called cortisol. It’s designed to decrease your reaction time in cases of physical or mental stress. But if you’re stressed because of money and life problems and you don’t have any life-saving decisions to make, that cortisol just hangs around bullying your brain cells. The best way to burn off cortisol is through physical activity.

A mere 20-30 minutes of aerobic activity can reduce cortisol levels. So when you’re trying to work up the willpower to go to the gym know that you’re not just working your puff into tuff, you’re getting budgeting buff as well. (I’m sorry I love rhymes.)

Side note: Foods with a high glycemic index (GI) foods increase cortisol levels which can increase stress AND make it hard to fall asleep. Try consuming foods under 55 on the GI scale and see if it improves your sleep and stress levels.

5. Focus on One Thing at a Time

The less you have to think about and the fewer decisions you have to make, the better the ones you make will be. That’s the philosophy of the No Spend Challenge. By focusing on one thing you won’t have to make any other discretionary decisions about money.

I love the book The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan. I highly recommend it to anyone embarking on a major life-changing project, like paying off debt.

Instead of trying to master all your goals at the same time and inching forward on each of them only to give up one and throw yourself into another; The philosophy of the ONE thing is that by focusing your energy on one thing at a time you can get maximum results from it quickly and move from one thing to the next.

So if paying off debt is your ONE thing then make it your ONE thing so you can cut the clutter and achieve it fast. You’ve only got one brain, stop wearing it out and work it smarter, not harder, and you’ll discover an ease in budgeting and saving you didn’t know was possible.

Everything in moderation quotes got me feeling deflated. I need more than motivational quotes. This has stuff I can act on.

12 Comments on “Why the Myth of Moderation is Keeping you in Debt – And How to Get Out”

  1. You’re so right. Multitasking helps NO ONE. I need to focus on one thing more often. Congrats on paying off your student loans!! It’s such an amazing feeling!!

  2. Such great advice. I think I’m guilty of trying to do to many things at once, so I really need to take the “do one thing at a time” to heart. I also need to try meditation again. The benefits are awesome!

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