I love making bets with delusional people. This usually means my younger brother or my female Indian friends, who insist, implausibly, that they’re not getting married until their thirties. Listen — I have two Indian sisters. I know how quickly things change when you get to be of “marrigeable age.” No, I don’t care if you’ve never had a relationship. I strip away personality and just go by the stats: On average, women marry at 26 and men at 27. You could be a social mutant and I’d probably take that bet.
That’s why there’s a moment in your life when you open your Gmail account, look in your “bets” folder, realize that all the bets with friends you’ve made equal $8,000 over the next 13 years, and whisper “Oh dear god.” As these bets come due, I’m either going to have many gigantic blowouts in Vegas, or things are going to go horribly, horribly wrong.
I’ve previously written about how food and personal finance are similar. Today, I thought I’d write about how a recent bet I made to force myself to achieve a specific goal — and how you can use them to get started managing your money.
You may have seen me write about my Indian frailty on this site before. So when I bet my friends a few hundred dollars that I could gain 15 lbs within 3 months, they were already used to my antics. “It’s about time,” one of my friends said, noting that I was considered ectomorphic. I decided to set a goal of working out and eating right to hit that goal by December 31st. No, I’m not a psycho about my weight, but I had already decided to bulk up, so I thought throwing in the bet would be fun. Along the way, I learned a few things that are directly applicable to personal finance.
First, everyone has a god damned opinion. “What!? You can’t run! You’ll lose too much weight!” more than a few people shrieked upon finding out my strategy (working out, running, and eating more — as usual, there are no secrets). All I could do was point out that it seemed to be working within seven days, as I completed 1/3 of the . There’s not much they could say about that.
Other people told me I would get fat (as if I would let that happen for a few hundred bucks). And of course, everyone had theories about what to eat, drink, and even what combination of weights to lift. It was like my minutiae article was happening in real life.
I ignored every one of them.
I picked one person to help me: my co-worker, Brian. No, he isn’t a huge bodybuilder. And no, he doesn’t read Men’s Health every day or bring a giant jar of creatine to work every day. But out of all the people who offered advice, Brian is the only person I know who consistently goes to the gym almost every single day. I’d rather learn from the person who is boringly disciplined rather than someone who has sexy ideas. (My favorite quote of his when he asked me what I like to eat. “Do you like eggs? Peanuts? Mexican food?” I spent 5 minutes describing what I liked, and Brian sat there thoughtfully for a second. “Yeah,” he said, “you just need to eat all of them.” THANK YOU)
Then, I set up a PBwiki and invited all the bettors to get notified every week when I updated my weight. I then proceeded to talk an incredible amount of trash to psych out my bettors:
Using psychological principles to crush my opponents
This also uses the psychological principle of commitment to force myself to win my bet. (For example, how do you think I’ll be affected by the fact that this blog post will be read by 40,000+ people?) For the two best books on practical applications of psychology, check out Influence: The Science of Persuasion by Cialdini and Propaganda: The Everyday Use and Abuse of Persuasion by Pratkanis and Aronson.
As I’ve updated the wiki every week, I’ve noticed how tracking is the most effective mode of persuasive technology there is. For example, while I was on vacation, I thought I went a couple of weeks without updating the site. Looking at the data, it turns out it was nearly a month. The same is true for my gym attendance, which I thought was much higher than it really was. Read more about tracking in Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do (Fogg).
What I learned
- Getting feedback from other people is important, but all that ultimately matters is long-term results. People warned me that I had to understand how lipids and carbs and fatty acids worked before I started. That’s such nonsense. What if I just started working out and ate more? Could I learn all that fancy stuff later? You don’t have to be a genius to get rich — or gain/lose weight.
- Thinking long-term is critical. It would be easy to start using all those weird weight supplements, which I equate to get-rich-quick schemes, but is that really the point? Brian once reminded me to pick a weight that would let me finish all my sets. “Not finishing is very demotivating,” he said, noting that lifting less — but making it sustainable — is more important than maxing out. I wrote about this in Set smaller goals: impress friends, get girls, lose weight.
- Using systematic techniques like public commitment, tracking, and even betting can help you get started and sustain your changes. And if you can get a friend to motivate you, all the better. Imagine if you emailed your entire family and told them that you were going to have a Roth IRA open by the time you see them for Christmas. Would you have enough self-induced pressure to do it?
- Writing down your incremental achievements keeps you honest. We’re not cognitively wired to accurately remember how often we went to the gym or how much we spent last week. Use technology to help you.
How my bet relates to personal finance
It’s easy to think that personal finance or gaining/losing weight is this abstract concept that we “should” do. Whenever the S word comes out, this means we’re never going to do it. Instead, we’ll just keep feeling guilty and plan on doing it tomorrow.
Give me a break. It’s December 11th today. Did you start this year by promising that you’d finally start managing your finances this year? If so, I recommend getting your basic personal-finance infrastructure set up by Saturday, December 22. Pick one thing: Setting up your bank accounts with no-fee, no-minimum checking/savings accounts, get a high-interest savings account and transfer $100 there, set up your credit cards, or set up your investment accounts.
Not sure where to start? Read this site from the bottom up, check out a few of my favorite personal-finance blogs (The Simple Dollar, Get Rich Slowly, and FreeMoneyFinance), or pick up a book on personal finance (here are 50 books I recommend).
Everyone’s got an opinion about what you “should” do with your personal finances. But the truth is, most of them are full of hot air and you can get it done using a few simple steps. What if you picked a specific goal and forced yourself to do it? Would it be worth it to get one major part of your personal-finance infrastructure completely done before Christmas?