Painkillers vs Vitamins: Your Relationship With Your Money

Reading Time: 3 minutes

If you are anything like me, and I know I am, you don’t take vitamins. Don’t get me wrong, you own some. You’ve got some in your house or apartment, in your main toiletries drawer, right next to your toothpaste so that you don’t forget to take one every time you brush – just like me. I do brush regularly, but vitamins, NOPE! It’s not that I have a problem with them. They aren’t hard to take. I just don’t take them.

Painkillers, on the other hand, I always have handy and will rarely ever avoid if I am experiencing any kind of physical pain.

Your relationship with your money is a lot like the way you take (or don’t take) painkillers and vitamins.

Financial Painkillers

Financial painkillers are what you take when you are hit with a financial burden; often unexpected, often at a bad time, and sometimes just often. You’ve got your choice of over-the-counter painkillers, and in the same way, you often have several choices for what to do in a financial bind. Some choices you may have:

  • panic and freak out
  • sell your liver
  • beg your parents for a little money to get by
  • sell your dog
  • eat ramen for a month
  • steal toilet paper from your friend’s house to save a little money
  • go into debt

…You get the idea. It’s all terrible, embarrassing, stuff that you don’t ever want to have to do.

Financial Vitamins

Financial vitamins are what you are regularly taking when you maintain a well-budgeted household. Let’s get real for a moment. This fun analogy doesn’t hold up all the way because real vitamins can’t fully prevent you from getting sick, and painkillers and medicine are awesome healing agents. What’s not awesome is that you can avoid financial pain if you take your financial vitamins, but you probably don’t.

Why it’s so hard to start budgeting

The painkillers vs vitamins analogy helps me understand why it’s so stinking hard to get used to budgeting. Taking a painkiller is something you only do in response to a problem. It’s an as-needed event, rather than a daily ritual. But daily rituals are hard when you haven’t made them a habit.

For painkillers, it goes like this:

Cue: You have a headache from the kids screaming at you all day.

Routine: You take a few ibuprofen.

Reward: The pain from your headache is dulled or eliminated completely.

Congrats, you just learned what’s called “the habit loop!”: Cue, routine, reward.

For vitamins, it goes like this:

Cue: My mom told me to when I was younger?

Routine: Begrudgingly take a vitamin.

Reward: Feel healthier? Climb a mountain?

Do you get the idea yet? The cue is not as strong because the reward of vitamins is more abstract and you haven’t experienced it as quickly and clearly as something like taking a painkiller. There needs to be a clearly defined reward that you’ve experienced from taking a vitamin in order to jumpstart the habit creation. If there isn’t, you won’t have a cue to signal the routine, which leads to the reward, that gets you hooked. Get it? Got it? Moving on…

In the same way that we have habits formed around taking painkillers, and most likely much fewer habits formed around taking vitamins, we have habits built on our relationship with money.

When you get sick or when you get a headache, how many times have you said to yourself, “I’m going to start eating healthier, working out, and taking vitamins!” I sure have plenty of times. I’m sure you’ve had similar thoughts when going through a financial struggle or sickness. Most of the time, you get through it and keep on keeping on. You’ll wait to eat until the next pay check…sell your plasma…borrow some money…All the while you might tell yourself that you will start keeping tracking of your money so you are ready for this next time, but you don’t. You are stuck in a habit loop of your own.

Think about it like this:

Cue: Money is tight because the car broke down yesterday.

Routine: Figure out a short-term solution to get us by, struggle to find transportation, and so on.

Reward: We got by (this time).

Now here is a habit loop for someone in the same situation who takes their financial vitamins (budgets regularly and has an emergency fund):

Cue: The car broke down.

Routine: Dip into the emergency fund to pay for a rental and/or quickly buy a new vehicle in cash.

Reward: The problem was taken care of quickly, removing unnecessary stress and anxiety.

Are you tracking with me yet? Budgeting is all about building upon a habit. You don’t have to create a new habit, just altar your bad “painkiller” habits. I know, it’s hard. Especially when it comes to taking vitamins vs. taking painkillers because the reward is simply not as clear and instantaneous. That’s why you’ve got to start small and build. It’s why you’ve got to get motivated and get angry about something (like your debt). You’ve got to want it and fight for it.

But first, be aware of the fact that your relationship with your money is completely built upon a habit of either treating your money as a painkiller or as a vitamin. Solving a problem begins with realizing and then admitting you have one. Go solve your financial problems with vitamins. Not painkillers.