Want to Make Better Financial Choices? Ask One Question First

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

Like many people, my 30s have been a time for some serious growing up. Hoping to mature into a more thoughtful, restrained person (financially and otherwise), I spoke with a therapist who offered this simple advice for any situation: “Before you jump in, ask yourself, ‘How do I want to feel tomorrow?’” Anticipating how a decision might affect me both physically and emotionally the day after gave me a new perspective. Sure, the bar was open, but did I want to live through a day of head pounding regret? Not really. Did I need to load up on cheap Italian food when visiting family in New Jersey? Probably not worth the shame spiral and grumbling stomach.

Fast-forwarding to tomorrow did more than steer me away from hangovers and food comas. Looking toward the future—even if it was only the next day—made minding my money easier too. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when my savings account stood at $0—and it had been that way since I opened it years before. I had “good” excuses for not saving. My Washington, D.C., rent was too damn high. I couldn’t afford groceries for today and saving for tomorrow. I would save more when I made more. (Yet there always seemed to be money for travel, clothes, and happy hours.) But asking myself if that cute new romper was worth sacrificing the self-satisfaction I’d gain tomorrow if I instead put that money in my savings account almost always led me to choose the more prudent option.

Still, perfection doesn’t happen overnight and sometimes—especially when faced with rising costs or unexpected events—I feel the urge to slip back into the “do what feels good now” mentality. Take my health insurance, for example. This year my premium jumped by more than $100 per month. When I saw the increase, my first thought was to simply take the tax penalty, pocket the extra $100 a month, and pray nothing went wrong. But then I looked toward the future: You will regret this, I thought. Just purchase the insurance you need.

It wouldn’t be long before I was grateful for that level-headed thinking. Mere months later I found myself in a Jersey emergency room with colitis. I’d flown in to be in my cousin’s wedding, which I’d have to skip. After tearfully breaking the bad news to the bride, I sank back into my hospital bed, looked at my boyfriend, and said, “This is going to cost a fortune. Thank god I have insurance.”

The final bills haven’t arrived, so I don’t know what a two-night stay in a New Jersey hospital, consultations with two gastroenterologists, and a steady IV drip of antibiotics and painkillers will amount to. But whatever awaits me at the end of the insurance claims process, I’m sure it won’t compare to what I would have owed if I’d simply opted to skip out on health insurance this year.

That forward thinking didn’t just save me money—it gave me peace of mind. As I lay in my hospital room and calculated how much I have in savings, how much work I have lined up, and how much my insurance is likely to cover, I was relieved to realize, “I’m going to be all right.” I could focus on recovering, instead of worrying about what this would all cost me—aside from the chance to support my cousin on her special day.

Those kinds of choices—forgoing the easy money or indulgent purchase now for the duller, more responsible decisions that will improve my future (like trading in a Fabletics subscription for an AAA membership)—are still all pretty new to me, and hard at times. But I don’t feel too bad about that: Human beings in general aren’t great at long-term planning. Evolutionarily, we adapted to respond to immediate, short-term threats. Thinking about future problems as though they were happening right now, and the ability to create contingencies, is a fairly new evolutionary trait that we’re still cultivating, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert.

“It’s really a very new adaptation in the animal kingdom and we don’t do it all that well,” Gilbert told NPR in 2016. “We don’t respond to long-term threats with nearly as much vigor and venom as we do to clear and present dangers.” That’s why people don’t worry about concerns like climate change until they’re impacted directly. It’s difficult to get worked up about a threat that doesn’t seem all that menacing.

But we humans are learning. I take comfort in knowing that I am slowly developing the ability to take the future seriously. After years of money chaos and anxiety, the silver lining of my hospital stay is that it’s proof that I can make better choices and change my financial future after all.