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None of the Boredom; None of the Guilt

Using temptation bundling to get your financial life on track.

You don’t like doing your budget. I get it. It’s much more gratifying to grab takeout and chill than to acknowledge the fact that you’ve already spent $60 on takeout this week, and you only planned for $50. Really, I get it, and you’re not alone. In fact, when I recently surveyed 100 people about their financial attitudes and behaviors, I found that budgeting was considered the most unpleasant money management task.

The problem is that we need to keep track of our money, even if the task is unpleasant. The things that people reported enjoying about money management (saving regularly, investing, having a long-term plan) all require the basic disciplines of planning, tracking, and holding on to money. We can’t invest until we save. We can’t save until we get our spending in check. We can’t get our spending in check until we take a look at how our money is moving and make a realistic plan.

The unpleasant tasks of money management precede the pleasant ones. We have to first do the not-so-fun things before we graduate to the fun stuff, but not-so-fun things are, well, not so fun. How can we motivate ourselves to do the little, tedious things required for financial success without groaning and dragging ourselves through the process? The answer may be in a simple and fairly intuitive technique from behavioral science called Temptation Bundling.

Temptation bundling has been around forever, but the technique was formally studied and published just a few years ago by researchers at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The lead researcher got the idea when she was trying to motivate herself to exercise regularly. She decided that she would impose a rule: she could only listen to The Hunger Games at the gym. The trick worked for her, so she decided to study whether or not it would work for others. The findings were published in Management Science in 2014.

The trick behind temptation bundling is to take something you love to do but feel slightly guilty about (eating chocolate, watching tv, etc.) and combine it with something you need to do, but don’t enjoy. You mix the joy of the first thing with the reward of the second thing, and it effectively cancels out the guilt and boredom. When you use a guilty pleasure to motivate a responsible behavior, it’s no longer guilt-inducing, and it’s a win-win for your present and future self because you get immediate gratification and long-term benefits.

If you want to watch guilt-free TV but your bills are chronically late, challenge yourself to pay one bill online (or better yet, set up an auto-payment) before you hit ‘play’ on the next episode. Hate tracking your budget, but love a hearty zinfandel? Pick up a bottle of your favorite brand, and sip while you look everything over. That bold red will pair nicely with the added confidence of knowing you’ve got your proverbial ducks in a row for another week.

Want to get started? Here’s how:

Step 1: List out the things you know you need to do to be better with money.

Step 2: Make a list of your very favorite things.

Step 3: Match them up! Create complementary bundles of pleasures and chores, keeping the following in mind…

Make sure the cost/benefits are well-matched.

Don’t waste a really big indulgence on a small task. If saving money is just a matter of setting up an automated transfer, and you have been too lazy to retrieve your account password to do it, then you probably don’t need a very large payoff to motivate that action. On the flip side, small rewards may not be effective enough to motivate extremely unpleasant or difficult actions.

Financially beneficial tasks aren’t limited to things like making a budget and investing your savings. Have you been putting off calling your internet provider to downgrade your cable package (because you only ever stream everything off two websites, anyway)? For some people, making that phone call is easy. For others, the prospect of having to talk to a human salesperson for 20 minutes while they try to upsell instead of downgrade is incredibly daunting. If you are in the second category, then combining that phone call with a nice foot soak or a dish of ice cream might be a better approach to getting it done. There is no one-size-fits-all to temptation bundling. Only you can properly gauge how much reward is necessary to motivate a particular action.

The bottom line is that we generally will not do something until we believe that the benefits outweigh the costs. If you’ve matched a perk with a chore and are still unmotivated, then you haven’t yet found the right benefit to balance out the perceived cost. Keep thinking.

Consider cadence.

Another thing to consider when creating a temptation bundle is frequency. Small, frequent actions are probably best bundled with small rewards that you are not likely to tire of easily. One of my colleagues shared her secret to saving money on takeout food. “I watch Netflix while I cook at home,” she said. This daily habit rewards her decision to cook while simultaneously giving her the sense of fun and relaxation she craves after work. By bundling the chore of cooking dinner with the perk of a fresh episode, she gets all the benefits of healthier eating at a lower cost with none of the guilt of watching TV. Small, repeated tasks like cooking dinner are well-suited to small, repeated pleasures like tv shows. Very complex or difficult activities like finalizing the financial details of a divorce, fixing a problem on your credit report, or refinancing your home might match better with rare but large indulgences such as a trip to your favorite salon or tickets to watch a major sporting event. Again, only you know the difficulty and aggravation level of particular money management tasks in your own life.

As with any behavioral change, expect that it will take time and effort. Still, the benefits of having an organized, well-planned financial life are worth a few minutes trying to figure out how to make doing that budget a little more fun.


Katherine L. Milkman, Julia A. Minson, and Kevin G. M. Volpp (2014) Holding Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling, Management Science Vol. 60 (2)

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