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Don’t Make Purchases to Encourage Good Behavior

One thing I’ve wanted to do better at work is stay hydrated (along with being a good employee and a hard worker…), and instead of buying a bunch of bottled water (which is bad for the environment), I figured I’d buy a nice water bottle that I’d always have by my side (think about a sweet, self-filtering hard plastic machine bottle. I made myself think that if I had a better bottle, I’d be encouraged to drink more.

That type of thinking leads us to the worst types of purchases. Instead of buying something nice to encourage good behavior (which rarely works, like the person who purchases an $80/month gym membership and ends up going three times a month), we should start the good behavior, and if we can sustain, then give a reward.

In my case, I should have started reusing a plastic bottle, and only after improving my behavior rewarded myself with a nicer, more durable bottle.

Another example is a few years back, I got myself the Nike Plus sportband to encourage running more often. I ran more often, but because my friends were doing it, not because of my expensive watch. As soon as they stopped, I stopped, and I still had the watch! (Don’t worry, I’ve since sold it to get my iPhone.)

When we buy things before the good behavior occurs, we don’t connect the reward with the action. If I tell myself that if I work hard the next quarter, I’ll buy myself a brand new C.C. Sabathia jersey, I’ll be motivated to do well and do the best work possible. But if I buy the jersey and say that it’s because I’m going to be putting in long hours over the next few months, there’s little correlation and I won’t have the motivation to keep working before going home. I already have the jersey, so why stay late?

A lot of the “stuff” we get ends up as “stuff” because we buy it before we have a full understanding of how much we’ll use it. It’s not a great idea to buy a nice set of golf clubs before we ever go golfing. Instead, use a rental set, and if you love it enough to continue despite your sub-par hardware, it may finally be time to upgrade. At that point, you can be more certain that it’s something you will continue doing and they won’t just sit in the garage gathering dust.

It’s a much better feeling to earn something than it is to be gifted it. By setting goals and making connections between our actions and our rewards, we can really motivate ourselves and avoid the useless purchases that clutter our lives.

Readers, when have you bought something to encourage good behavior? When have you rewarded your good behavior with something you really wanted?



  1. While I previously wrote about this same thing as well, a highschool track coach summed it up the best: “You know what will make you a better runner? Running.”

  2. This post is so true! It is exactly why I will not loan my kids money for some inane purchase. If I give them the money now, they will never get around to doing the extra chores to pay me back. If I make them work for it ahead of time and then they can go buy whatever they really wanted, everything will get done much faster.

  3. You have a terrific point; the behavior should lead to the purchase, not the other way around! This can apply to lots of things, especially high-dollar items. For instance, my husband likes anything with a motor on it; ATV’s, boats, etc. It would be better to rent these items since we really don’t use them that often. Then he can still have his fun, but for less! (of course, it’s more difficult convincing him of this!)

    • @Little House, I have that problem with gadgets. I got an iPhone 3G S just three months ago and I’m already upgrading to the iPhone 4 (Don’t worry, I actually made money on the trade-up).

      We always want the best of the best and we want it now, and sometimes this clouds our judgement.

  4. Recently I bought a monitor stand for $40. I was tired of looking down, and wanted something that looked nice with my set up, not just some books propping it up. I think i rewarded myself on this because I’ve been getting some good blogging done:)

    I have also bought stuff plenty of times thinking I was going to use it, but never actually do haha…. Kinda like the gold example. I am a huge stickler for Fads.. I’ll get really into something, then buy a bunch of stuff, then be done with it a few months later…sigh:/

    • @myfinancialobjectives, You should try making a 30-day rule. If you want it 30 days later, then go for it. If you find yourself forgetting about it, then pass.

      The monitor sounds like a good purchase. Pretty cheap and it makes you feel much better about your set up.

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