Code words: Why we don’t work out or handle our money

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Every time I see an Indian girl in the gym, I nearly shit my pants.

Going to the gym is not part of Indian culture. It’s like seeing an anteater casually sitting next to the receptionist in a dentist’s office. One of you does not belong here.

But beneath the surface of this hilarious finding (it’s actually not funny to my Indian guy friends) is a much-deeper pathology.

If you ask these people if they go to the gym, they will respond in code: “No, I’ve been really busy” or “I’m just not motivated right now.”

Notice that they always qualify it with external factors like time. That’s because it’s not socially acceptable to say, “I’m just not into working out (and likely won’t ever be into it).” Instead, we use code words to camouflage what will likely be a lifetime of not exercising.

You can see similar code words in money, too.

You ask people about investing, and they say: “Oh, I don’t have that kind of money right now.” They’re assuming that one magical day, they’ll have enough time and money to start investing.

What actually matters in both these cases is HABITS.

If you don’t work out when you’re single with all the time in the world, it’s unlikely that you’ll pick up an exercise habit after years of inaction, a new family, a busy job, and an entire household to manage. On its face, it’s delusional to expect to change such a dramatic life habit. Yet we assign more value to the future than to the present when it comes to changing our habits.

Same with money. “I don’t have enough money to invest” is code for “I will do this later (when I have more time/money)”. In truth, life gets busier. And it’s not about the amount you invest — it’s about the habit.

Using the Tuner Strategy

You may not have an extra $500/month to invest. But you don’t need that.

Instead, you can get started with $50/month, then “tune” that number up when you have more money to invest.

This is my 85% Solution:

Too many of us get overwhelmed thinking we need to manage our money perfectly, which leads us to do nothing at all. That’s why we the easiest way to manage your money is to take it one step at a time — and not worry about being perfect. I’d rather act and get it 85% right than do nothing. Think about it: 85%  of the way is far better than 0%. Once your money system is good enough — or 85% of the way there — you can get on with your life and do the things you really want to do.

Do you know what the hardest part of investing is? It’s not deciding the complex asset allocation (which low-cost target-date funds do for you, as I outline in my book). It’s actually getting started and sending that first automatic payment.

By tackling that now, even with $50/month, you can overcome the hardest part. Later, when you use my Tuner Strategy to slowly increase the amount you invest each month, you’ll be far ahead of your peers.

Put another way, losers wait for perfection. Winners execute by starting off simple, then ramping up, because the hardest part is not perfecting the system — it’s just getting started.

This idea of getting started is the crux of the Tiny Habits project run by one of my mentors, Stanford professor BJ Fogg, to change your behavior. (It’s free. Check it out.)

You can also get an interview where BJ and I talk about the deep psychology of behavioral change and persuasion, like how to floss more, exercise, or even how to persuade others to change their behavior. The recording is here.

For today, think about what code words you use to rationalize your behavior.

Think about how you talk about doing something “some day” in the future — and how much more you could get done by just doing it 85% of the way NOW, then tuning your behavior.

It’s better to get 85% of the way there than to dream about 100% and actually get 0%.

What code words do you use to rationalize your behavior?

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44 Comments

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  1. Ouch! Losers wait for perfection… But you are so right about that!

    For many years I did exactly what you said – procrastinated because I despised a $50 a month start. We got lucky and got a little windfall, and after that, adding $50 a month somehow was okay. Go figure…

    Excellent post!

  2. I am an Indian & I’ve been working out for as long as I can remember. Many of my friends who work out with me are also Indian.
    It is not that rare after all.

  3. Losers do wait for perfection–I should know, as I waited a long time to start losing post-heart attack weight gain (lots of time in bed with none of my usual exercise). My words were: “When I’m feeling well I’ll start exercising and dieting again.”

    Then I read a book about making tiny changes in the right direction, and started gradually changing my behavior. I’m not where I want to be yet (more heart attacks and bed time for injuries), but I don’t wait until I’m “all better” to start getting in shape. I do what I can with the shape I’m in. For example, I may not be able to lift heavy weights, but I can increase the number of steps I walk (using a pedometer as positive feedback) every day that I am up. Or I may be restricted to bed rest, but I can use whatever is handy for lifting with my arms (biology books make excellent weights and doctors never notice them as covert exercise gear).

    I can assure disbelievers that this works for money, too. As a kid, I earned a whopping $0.50 an hour for babysitting from sixth grade through high school graduation. By age 12, I used my savings to buy a horse. At 14, I bought (and fixed up) an old horse trailer. At 16, I sold both at a profit to help pay for college (I started a bit earlier than some folks). So even a tiny amount of money will add up–not so much in savings accounts these days ( almost as much interest is paid if you put your money under your mattress), but there are still viable investments out there. So listen to Ramit on this one, folks, it really pays to do even the tiniest bit to achieve big goals.

  4. I used this approach with trying to lose weight, and I lost 10 pounds in 5 months. Sure, it was slow, but it’s permanent. I was eating a lot of sugar, so I slowly cut back. I gave up my daily soda (is there anything better than Coca Cola??), cut back on ice cream and ate 1 cookie instead of 3. People ask me how I did it. I just say no magic, no tricks. Just regular, disciplined, boring action.

    I’m not going to get into a convo about Indian girls at the gym because I think Ramit just said this to provoke us…or possibly get us to his gym?? ;)

  5. Here’s my red-flag code phrase: “I’ve been trying to…”

    Sometimes this phrase is fine, as in “I’ve been trying to get in touch with my sister but she won’t answer the phone!” But I’ve learned to be super-wary of using it to describe any ongoing goals, desires, etc., because “trying to” is a state that can go on basically forever, and can become a pretty tempting replacement for doing things. That’s because you can get lots of credit from friends/family for “trying to” work out, eat better, write a novel, be kinder to your partner, save money, and so on.

    Rephrasing this one is scary and uncomfortable but really useful. For example, instead of saying “I’ve been trying to eat healthier,” I start over and say: “I’ve been eating way less sugar lately by only eating desserts when I’m out with friends, but still having lots of trouble eating reasonable portions. So I’m going to go buy some small containers and pre-divide snack portions.” The formula here works (for me) for lots of things: every time I find myself with that “trying to” framework, I start over and say what I’ve actually been doing, what I still want to change, and what *specifically* I plan to do next. This way, I get credit for the actual things I’ve already done (I like praise) but that credit is now tied to the actual other things I plan to do, not to the fact that I’m “trying to” do something. Uncomfortable, but effective.

    • We all need to take ourselves outside of our comfort zone to grow. It looks like you are doing just that. :-)

    • I agree with what you said about ‘trying to’. The same thing happens with the word, ‘can’t’. Sometimes we really can’t but very often the more correct word would be ‘won’t’. It changes how I feel about something instantly to change from can’t to won’t. “I can’t get my blog post done!” Woops, looks like it’s my responsibility when I say, “I won’t get my blog post done” :)

    • A coworker had a post-it note on his computer that said “DON’T TRY.” I was a little horrified, until he explained that it meant “Don’t TRY to do something– either DO it, or DON’T do it.” He said that too often “trying to do something” means wasting time BY not doing it! :)

  6. code words we used to use: should, maybe later, not a priority

    We stopped the excuse game in our house a few years ago. ‘Should do it’, whether it is retirement savings, exercise, learning to ride a bike (I am very proud of my eight-year-old), is met with ‘do it now.’

    Success stories include:

    My wife participates in monthly money management.
    My daughter rides her bike everywhere.
    I applied for a Board of Directors position
    I updated my linkedin profile with my resume
    We upgraded systems in our home, like the furnace and the kitchen floor.

    Next barriers to conquer:

    We want to save more for retirement — my goal is 25% of gross pay!
    We want to pay all annual bills in full when we get them (car ins., home ins.,membership dues), and save 5% in fees.

    We don’t tolerate crybabies in our house!

  7. I did this before I found your book. When I was in college, it didn’t make sense to me (or my friends, for that matter) to try and get our finances in order. “Why bother when you’re so far in debt with no job?” was the common thought. Thankfully I read IWT and now my friends think I’m some sort of financial wizard, when in reality I just started crawling and now I can walk.

  8. I will start a business when I have more money.

  9. This is especially true of Indians who want to start a business but cannot gather enough courage to leave the job!

  10. code words: “I’m working on producing a short film”… as opposed to “I’m producing a short film”

  11. What code words do you use to rationalize your behavior?
    “Well, maybe I’m crazy….” or “Well, maybe I should just plug away at it…” when I ought to make real changes. Fear-based hesitation, so I rationalize things.
    Case in point: I should have quit a job after the first year because I was not a) paid correctly and b) was not treated respectfully. I stayed and after the 4th year, finally quit. All the while I was using my rationalizations. It tired me out to keep putting off a big step and so instead of having a ton of energy to face the next step, I’m tired.
    Now I try little steps each day & try to complete 3 tasks tops per day.

  12. The usual . . . not enough time, not enough $$ . . . but changes are in process through RS programs/emails. Albeit slow, but at least it’s happening.

  13. I think a code word (phrase) I’ve heard other say and myself is something along these lines: “I have to do [inseart important task]. I should have done it by now, I just need to do it.” I feel this does encourage one to be a procrastinator. I noticed when I used to say “I have to do” something I felt forced. I noticed it evoked a feeling of resistance from wanting to compltete the task.

    I changed my wording to “I will do…”

    What I liked about this particular post is that you point out how people have the hardest time getting started. More often people focus all the tasks that needs to be completed instead of starting with one small task and building –gradually– from there. Thinking too much about it ALL can lead you to mental exhaustion

  14. Definitely “no time” or “haven’t had the chance.”

    While I agree it’s Ramit when he says “the time isn’t right” is not a valid excuse for certain activities, I’d disagree for others.

    The time for investing isn’t right, for example, when you’re trying to clear your credit card debt.

  15. Not so much a code word as a defeatist attitude from the start: “After all the hard work, I know the reward isn’t going to feel THAT great.” Kind of seriously jaded, I know. So how does one inject more passion into life?

  16. “I’m not in the mood right now.”

    “I’ll do it when I feel more motivated.”

    “I’ll do it on such-and-such-slightly-more-convenient-close-in-the-future date when the such-and-such-stars-align.”

  17. Simply put the writer seems – ABCD – American Born Confused Desi. Feel sad for this writer.

  18. My husband and I used to have this kind of attitude before we decided to organize our finances and start saving and investing. Now, our attitude is, “If not today, when? Now is the right time. Now is the best time.”

  19. I nuke anything I don’t really want to do with pure depression. “I don’t deserve it.” It’s how I avoid eating meals out, how I avoid making/saving/investing money, it’s why I almost never approach women anymore, why I sometimes don’t brush my teeth or bathe, and why I frequently sleep on the floor. I haven’t felt right sleeping in my bed in months — I just can’t bring myself to do it most of the time, and it’s not worth the investment of willpower. I’d kill myself, but I can’t be bothered. You ever been too pathetic to even die? Of course not, you guys rule. Have a nice day.

  20. Behavior. The hardest thing to change. But change I MUST. I am 54 years old and my biggest excuse of late is “it’s too late”. Then depression sets in and I wind up doing nothing about anything, And it is very difficult to find the motivation. I have ridiculous debt, I am in the process of getting divorced, I have kids in college, I have good health but I’m in lousy shape, and on and on. I bought and read your book cover to cover and subsequently bought one for each of my kids. I started an IRA with $3000 and automatic deposits of $75 per month, which now is $75 every two weeks. It’s not much and at this point I will probably never be able to truly put away enough, but it’s not zero. Now is the time to figure out how to generate more cash. I wish you had been around and had written this book and I had read it when I was in my 20s, but hey, there’s nothing I can do about that now! Anyway, thank you, I’m working hard, and will keep you posted. Jerry G

  21. Ramit—

    Your email totally called me out. I’ve been putting off making the choice to start investing, with the excuse “I don’t have enough extra money yet”. But extra money is easy to get soaked up no matter how much of an increase it is from where you were before, isn’t it?

    Using your simple, common sense techniques I was able to negotiate a modest $6,000 raise at my day job several months ago. Instead of letting that extra couple hundred per check get soaked up and disappear, I want to start investing my increase. Where can I learn the smartest way to do this? I have a Roth IRA already set up, and I’m wondering whether I should put $100/month in there and find something like Vanguard to start a separate investment at another $100/month. Or should I dump it all into my IRA?

    I have incredible respect for you and your content. You are truly helping people. Thank you sir!!

  22. My biggest code words are trying, and watching. I am trying to do something or watching my weight. Ever since I read your book I have been working on an80% principal. If I can do it 80% of the time I am fine. I also say “why not?” Alot more. If I do have a lazy or unproductive day I just get back into the game the next day, I don’t let it snowball.

  23. I am either not Indian or not a girl since I have been a gym regular for 18 years – starting in India!

  24. My code words are “I want to…” and “I’ll try to…” and “I don’t know if I can do…”

  25. I nearly shit my pants every time someone says “I just haven’t had enough time” when I know for a fact that person spends many many hours over beers.

    Probably one of the biggest takeaways from your book for me Ramit was automation and just getting something in motion. It took a conscious effort to get started, but it was a lot easier when I sat back and thought about it like a small step in the right direction, rather than a massive undertaking to tackle.

    It’s like that really hot girl you’ve always been chasing. If you put her up on a pedestal and freak yourself out, you’ll never be able to get her.

    This kind of mindset has worked out really well for me in a lot of areas of my life, automated investments included, although I still have some work to do, what I have now is far better than nothing.

  26. I want to invest and have no problem using a decent amount of my monthly earnings to do so… But I don’t TRUST putting my money anywhere. That’s MY problem…

    • You can keep it to yourself until you are ready to make the full investment. But if you cannot trust the financial institution to store your money properly, you will have a hard time growing your money.

      It’s kind of like saying you are afriad to drive on the interstate or larger highways. I had a friend with this fear. So she only used local roads or drove with a friend. This is fine if you only intend on living or exploring the local areas of your community. But to experience the community fully and be able to explore other communities in an independent fashion, you’d have to overcome the fear.

      I doubt you could take advantage of any automation techniques until you can trust banking.

  27. Nice one Ramit, I see this all the time concerning food and exercise choices with my clients.
    I have some rationalising thoughts myself, especially when I’m tempted not to work out or to eat something unhealthy. Most of the time it’s “I’m a personal trainer, I have to do the healthy thing.”
    But sometimes it works in reverse too “I’m a personal trainer, I’m already healthy, so I’m allowed to treat myself.”
    I wonder if this dual logic can be applied to other situations too? I think it’s possible, especially when it comes to identity.
    So “I don’t have the money to invest” can be turned into: “I’m a financially conscious person, I need to find a way to invest.” or “I work in a corporate job, (And I assume many IWT readers do), having investments is part of that image so I should learn how to invest”
    Any thoughts as to whether linking identity to positive rationalisations works?

  28. I NEED MORE CODE WORDS NOT LESS. People are always trying to get me to do something that they want me to do…. They’re always trying to get me onto THEIR stupid agenda. I’d rather spend my life doing what I want to do. But there’s no reason not to be polite, so I could use a few more good code words to let ‘em down easy, make it sound legitimate and acceptable.

  29. Just listened to your recording with BJ Fogg. Really awesome insights – have already forwarded it to a couple of my friends :)

    My code words – I can’t make a decision/ commit to the next step until I gather more info/ learn more. Analysis Paralysis. Sometimes it’s def better to ACT first and then TWEEK as you go along!

  30. I have a relationship/love/dating one for you. I don’t do this anymore but it’s one that I know a lot of single guys and girls do.

    I can’t/won’t ever meet anyone good at a bar/club. Which if they gave it any though they’d realize it defies common sense.

    It is used to justify inaction due to a fear of rejection. If you don’t put yourself out there and try to talk to people, well, you can’t get turned down.

  31. Funny that you mentioned you never see Indian girls at the gym, this is so true. They only have a couple medals in the Olympics compared to similar size population, China…wow

  32. I don’t know enough about it and I don’t want to pay for a financial adviser.

  33. Thank you Ramit for this piece,it is a wake up call for folks like me.

  34. You know, I am one of those people that says that I will wait to invest when I have the money to invest. I don’t really like to deal with money in the first place, so I think that’s where most of my hesitation lies in managing investments. I don’t know though, when you put it the way you did with the $50/month to start, it doesn’t seem so *gulp* scary. I mean shoot – I go through $50 in a second without even thinking – so I’m sure I could put it to the side. Hhhmmm…now where to invest it…. and…I’m stuck.

  35. [...] to start tackling tasks I want to do rather than just making lists and talking about it.  Read Code Words: Why we don’t work out or handle our money.  Note: There’s a little profanity in the first line, but the post is worth [...]

  36. I totally recognize myself in this post. I had been postponing to invest for years, and only recently (well, a few years ago) I started investing small proportions of my salary. Now, a few years later, I already have a few thousand in mutual funds. It might not be the world, but I am a bit disappointed that I didn’t just start doing this much, much earlier.

  37. I was amused at your comparison with gym absentees, and those that are inclined to not invest, and the excuses they give, and yes, I see what you’re driving at. In my case, the excuse is a little different but I also use the standard excuses, too, or at least I used to when I was younger.

    In earlier life, it is fair to say that most of us have not accumulated sufficient funds for reasonable investments. So partially an excuse maybe but I would think with a good many there is truth in it. The other excuses I used to make were that I don’t really know or understand the best way to invest and the lack of experience makes you reluctant and somewhat unconfident.

    I am at an age now where I really should have the knowledge and experience but I’m still hiding a little behind such excuses. I’m also aware that soon I will be saying I can no longer fit into my gym pants so it’s too late anyway.

    So in some respects, your comments are a bit of a wake up call and as I still don’t know what would be a sensible investment for my savings, I guess its time to speak to a financial advisor and make some kind of move before I really do outgrow my gym pants. I genuinely am not sure what way forward would be the right route but I wont make it an excuse anymore.

  38. [...] which, as I’ve been learning from Scott H Young’s Blog, Ramit Sethi’s Blog, and Cal Newport’s Blog, is limited and not very effective. Indeed, I chicken out, so [...]

  39. [...] Code words: Why we don’t work out or handle our money [...]