Treat yourself and stay on track

Sticking to your budget doesn't mean you can't treat yourself. In fact, occasional rewards can help keep you on track.

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"I can resist anything except temptation."—Oscar Wilde

We often offer rewards (bribes?) to kids who do a good job, but we rarely do this with ourselves. Why not? It turns out that building rewards into our plans can help us to not only stay on track, but enjoy the process more. 

After all, financial prudence is all well and good, but everyone knows that chocolate is better. So, instead of resorting to the sad state of resisting temptation, here are three ways to make it as indulgent—and financially savvy—as possible.  

Delay gratification instead of saying no

If you're trying to shop less, eat out less, or avoid other expensive outings, you might consider saying "Let's do it later" instead of "No, thanks." There's some evidence that delaying gratification instead of refusing it uses up less willpower—and because willpower is a limited resource, you want to preserve it as much as you can.

So, for example, delay that trip to the mall until the last week of the month, when you've saved up for it. But don't stop there: make the indulgence as fun as possible. Invite your friends, plan what you'll buy in exquisite detail—whatever it takes. Anticipation will make the splurge all the more worthwhile.

In fact, research has shown that anticipating something fun brings more happiness than the fun thing itself. This means that by delaying the treat, you're giving yourself both the benefit of saving money and the singularly pleasant feeling of knowing you'll get to enjoy it later.

Make it positive

Rewards aren't just useful when you've effectively avoided something; you can also tie them to the activities you do want to do but struggle with. There are many aspects of financial planning that make most peoples' eyes cross—paperwork, checking budgets, reviewing accounts, calling banks, etc. You might be groaning just thinking about them.

However, if you can tie one of those unpleasant tasks to something that you consider an indulgence, you might find it a lot more palatable.

For example, if you really hate to look over your spending but really love to drink expensive coffee, try putting the two together. You can have your $10 cup of joe at that fancy place—but only when you bring your laptop and do a thorough review of the books, or the paperwork, or whatever else it is that's been sitting on your to-do list. Not only will it take some of the pain of the task away, it might even help build a nicer association in your mind.

Be aware of how you describe the reward

There is evidence that we find it easier to delay gratification when the "reward" is described in a certain way. For example, researchers found that asking people, "Would you prefer to receive $6 today or $8.50 in 46 days?" had a much different effect than asking, "Would you prefer to receive $6 today and $0 in 45 days, or $0 today and $8.50 in 46 days?"

How so? When people were given the more descriptive set of choices, they tended to pass over immediate rewards in favor of bigger, delayed one.

You can use this to your own benefit. Instead of saying, "I can buy these artisanal pickles right now, or I can save this money and buy a ticket to the chamber orchestra next month," try being more explicit: "I can buy these artisanal pickles right now and do nothing next month, or I can leave the pickles here and go to see the chamber orchestra later." 

Whether it works for you might depend, of course, on your love for pickles versus chamber music, but either way, give it a try. You might find it easier to delay gratification and put your money to the rewards that give you the very most pleasure.  

After all, as Wilde put it, "An inordinate passion for pleasure is the secret of remaining young."

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This article was written by Anna B. Wroblewska from The Motley Fool and was licensed as an article reprint. Article copyright March 24, 2015 by The Motley Fool.
The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Fidelity Investments cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any statements or data.
This reprint is supplied by Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Member NYSE, SIPC.
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