by Agya K. Aning, Arizona State University
As a younger man, I had a pretty terrible habit of making impulse purchases. This was especially true after I first moved to China and was routinely faced with the impossible boredom of not yet knowing anybody. Because I wanted to be around people, I went to where I could find the most of them — unfortunately, those places were often shopping malls.
Making a purchase, usually in the form of a t-shirt or a pair of shoes, became a sort of accomplishment. But spending money for its own sake is one of the worst possible substitutes for doing something real. Shopping was deceptive because it had the contours of achieving something significant: It took time, persistence, discernment, and finally, bargaining with shopkeepers who wanted to squeeze every single dollar (or yuan) out of me. But in the end, all I was left with was some cheaply made piece of cloth.
After repeating this process far too many times than I care to admit, I examined what was driving this behavior. Once I realized that boredom, envy and insecurity were yanking me around like a marionette, I started to address those feelings directly. And without even intending to, I wound up decreasing my spending. Gradually, the thrill of shopping sprees began to dissipate; the activity I once used as an antidote to boredom had itself become deeply uninteresting. Thank goodness.
Living overseas wasn’t the only time I let negative emotions impact my wallet. After graduating from college, I felt completely overwhelmed by the prospect of paying back my student loans. Regrettably, I had the worst reaction imaginable: Instead of letting that fear focus my mind in order to take on this task, I shrank away from the responsibility. I did my best to pay off interest, but I otherwise utterly failed to develop a long-term strategy.
This finally changed once I began to improve my financial literacy. Things that had previously scared me away due to their seeming complexity became less intimidating. The more I learned about personal finance by reading websites like NerdWallet, the less my loans loomed over me. That fear began to turn into a challenge, something to overcome, a game that I could win at.
These days, I understand that a lack of clear intentions often results in whatever behavior comes easiest, and I find this to be especially true when it comes to personal finance. Because I didn’t set clear goals for my money, and then design and implement a plan to achieve those goals, negative emotions took control. But now, my financial intentions concern mindful spending, paying off debt, having multiple savings accounts (emergency, short-term and retirement) and one day achieving financial independence.
Each of these things is especially more important now that I hope to one day start my own business. But before I can ever hope to run a company, especially one that others may come to rely on for their livelihoods, I must first master my own pocketbook. And that begins with refining my state of mind.
Agya K. Aning is a student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.