Dear Brain: How can personal marketing help me save money?

Dear Brain

Dear Brain,

How do I remind myself of the long-term value of saving money when something I want RIGHT NOW is begging to be bought?


Dear Liz

Thanks for the great question, Liz. I think you remind yourself about goals like saving money the same way the advertising industry does, only in reverse. Whereas they constantly show us and tell us about the short-term value of wanting things right now, our personal marketing campaigns aim to be just as aggressive about returning our attention to the LONG-TERM goals begging for our attention.

For example, a smart campaign identifies why you’re saving the money, so you can associate that behavior with something really important to you. Then it relentlessly reminds you about that. Such a campaign can build both familiarity and desire:

  • If you literally see yourself having the thing you want every day, it will soon seem normal.
  • And frequent reminders about the benefits of your goal can fuel a deep desire in you to have it.

Below are several strategies I’ve used with great success. Check out my RV ad campaign for specific examples about how I put three of them into action, and my recent fall marketing campaign to read about how I discovered and implemented a powerful emotional hook.

  • Save the money FOR something. You probably don’t want to save money for its own sake, but because of something else it can secure for you. What is that?
  • Find an emotional hook. Why do you want that thing? What is it about it that motivates you? Remind yourself about that.
  • Help yourself visualize the outcome. Bombard yourself with images of yourself already having it (ideally with fun, attractive friends…).
  • Be relentlessly aggressive. Use multiple modalities and repeat often. Adapt the campaign as you go along.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to do anything to see a Nike swish several times a week, year after year. It just shows up. Ideally your ads should let you be a passive recipient of your messages just like that. Aim to set up reminders that prompt you frequently to remember your important long-term financial goals — especially when you’re not already thinking about them.

What happens to the RIGHT NOW stuff you asked about while a personal marketing campaign is going on? All of that stuff may keep begging, but I find it has far less pull on me when I’ve truly stoked my desire to save for a long-term goal, and my belief that I can get there.

Our subject matter consultants weigh in

Dear Brain thanks all of our personal finance and frugality consultants for contributing some really great ideas:

J.D. from Get Rich Slowly

One problem, I think, is that often the things that demand to be bought RIGHT NOW are someplace where we cannot advertise to ourselves. Long-term, the self-advertising is the right approach, but what about coping with the urge to buy when you’re actually in the store? Are there ways to employ TBYB! techniques “in the wild”? For example, someplace on Flickr , there’s an image of a wallet. The photographer has wrapped something around his credit cards as a physical reminder not to use them. Are there things we can put in our wallets and purses in order to advertise to ourselves at the point of temptation?

Brain says: What a great idea, J.D! Liz could wrap a picture of her long-term goal around her credit card or put it in the photo flap in her wallet. Or fasten something that represents the goal on her keychain or purse, or print a reminder on a custom wristband.

Jim from Bargaineering

Brain’s response hits on all the things I always try to recommend to people who are struggling with this trade-off. The goal aspect is crucial; no one makes decisions in a vacuum so trading short term spending for a long term goal really focuses people. One thing I can recommend is that you have a cooling off period for every single purchase. Even if it’s an hour or a week, just go do something else and if you are still interested then you can buy it (and trade short-term for long-term).

Brain says: So maybe the wristband could say “Think” or “Cool off”…

Lise from Frugal in the Fruitlands

This is a tough — but good! — question. To be perfectly honest, it’s still something I struggle with myself. But here are some creative ways I’ve used to put a dent in my impulse spending.

The first step in beating impulse spending is knowledge. Before you step foot near a store, you have to have a plan:

  • You need to know what your financial goals are. It’s hard to use personal marketing against spending without knowing what you’re saving for. Presumably there’s a reason why you think you shouldn’t be buying that new phone, pair of shoes, bottle of perfume, or whatever your indulgence is. Is your goal getting out of debt? Is it taking a vacation? Is it building an emergency fund?
  • You need to figure out how much money you will need to achieve that goal. If you’re in debt, you need to know how much debt you’re in. If you want an emergency fund, you’ll probably want enough to cover three to six months expenses. If you want to take a vacation, figure out what you’re going to do, where you’re going to stay, and what you’re going to eat – and what it’s all going to cost you.
  • You need to figure out your real hourly wage. This is a concept from the book Your Money or Your Life that helps you to value how much “life energy” each purchase really costs you. I recommend MSN’s Time Value Calculator for the quickest way to calculate this.

Okay. Now you have the tools you need to fight impulse spending with personal advertising. Let’s put them into action:

1. Advertise your real hourly wage to yourself. I recommend starting with a step from Millionaire Mommy Next Door: take a post-it note (we sure do love post-it notes in personal advertising!) and write something like this on it:

Price / $12.75 (your real hourly wage here) = # of hours it will cost me!

Now here’s the important part: stick this note to your credit card. Every time you need to use your card, you’ll have to remove it, which means it will be a real obstacle to spending money.

Now go further: take a picture of the note with your cell phone, and…

2. Advertise your goals to yourself. If you’re saving for a trip to Tahiti, it’s easy to find attractive pictures to motivate yourself on Google or Flickr. Print these out and put them in your wallet. Wrap them around your credit card. Do any of the methods you’ve learned on this site to advertise that “carrot” that will remind you why you’re not spending. If you have people who motivate you to do better – your children, your spouse, your parents – include them in this imagery, as well.

Advertising is tougher with intangibles like getting out of debt or building an emergency fund, of course. Here, I suggest playing with fake money — just print out the amount you need as determined by your goals and put yourself in the picture:

  • Take a picture of yourself stuffing that last $100 payment into the envelope from your credit card company
  • Take a picture of yourself counting out stacks of bills that represent your emergency fund.
  • Go into your online accounts and pretend to deposit the amount you want into your emergency fund, taking a screen capture and closing out before you complete the transaction.

Do the same with these images as you would with the Tahiti pictures – feature them prominently using the methods you’ve learned here at TBYB!

Now it’s your turn

What about you, TBYB! readers? Have you ever used personal marketing to interrupt impulsive behavior or save money? How well did it work? What advice do you have to help Liz make better choices about her shopping? What other methods could we use to advertise to ourselves “in the wild,” at the point of purchase? Please share your suggestions for Liz in the comments.

Ask Dear Brain

Would you like to receive advice about how to use personal marketing for a goal you have in mind? We’d love to hear from you! To have your question featured in a future edition of Dear Brain, please write to us in the comment form on the Dear Brain page.

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  1. Posted March 4, 2009 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    These are all good tidbits of help ‘in the wild’.

    If Liz is in the store, it will be useful for her to stop and check if she is in a ‘hot state’ or a ‘cold state’. Is she responding emotionally (hot, the state advertisers are working to creates)? Or is she thinking about the distraction’s usefulness or thrift (cold state, weighing options)?

    Most likely she is in a hot state ‘wanting’, then the reminders of her own marketing goals will help. I consciously shake myself, saying “hey those are my emotional buttons” and redirecting my attention to my goals (in the wallet) and all the good feelings I get from being someone with goals and the gumption to reach them.

    Best wishes, Liz!

  2. Posted January 25, 2010 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Bartering is a great way to save money, or rather, not spend it. instead of spending your hard earned money, you could barter or trade out your services. For instance if you are an artist or photographer, you could trade your services with someone that has something you wish to purchase. I once traded out photographs of a horse riding school for horse back riding lessons. All that was basically spent from either side was time. Which in these tight economic times, is better than spending money when its not so abundantly available as it once was.

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