Financial reflexes

Do You Know Your Financial Reflexes?

A reflex is defined as an “an action that is performed as a response to a stimulus without conscious thought.” When the doctor hits your knee, your leg goes up. You don’t will it to do so. It just does. I was at a friends’ house last month. She had a broken toe. She walked into her kitchen and accidentally kicked a Lego with her broken toe that her kid had left on the floor that she didn’t see. Her reaction: Deep breath, pick up the Lego, and walk away. WHAT?! No cussing. No yelling. No throwing things. She just took a deep breath and moved on. Now, I’m a yeller. My kids know I’m working on it and they are very good about reminding me to calm down. But you know what my reflex is if I were to kick a Lego with a broken toe? YELL AND SCREAM! I don’t consciously think “I’m going to yell about this painful, frustrating experience now” and then yell. It is my automatic response. The stimulus hits and I respond with yelling without conscious thought.

Everyone has reflexes/defaults/automatic responses. These are the things you do without consciously deciding to do so. Unfortunately, some aren’t quite as obvious as yelling in a frustrating experience. A lot of financial reflexes are ones we can’t pinpoint and that often causes problems. Tracking your spending to the penny helps identify these things, but think about different scenarios. I’ll present a few, but there are thousands! Instead of thinking about what you THINK you would do or what you know you SHOULD do in these situations, try to stick with your instincts. Try to identify what your default would be. I’m also not necessarily saying there are right answers to your reactions here. They will be different for everyone based on your priorities.

  • “There are cheap plane tickets to______! Let’s go!”
  • Target toys are on clearance for 70% off!
  • The house down the street with the perfect yard and extra bedroom is for sale.
  • “We’re going to grab a bite to eat after work. Want to come?”
  • You pass 6 coffee shops (or drive-thru coffee stands if you live in Anchorage) on your way to work.
  • “Mommy, can I get a candy bar/donut/toy/_____?”
  • It’s 6:30pm and you have no dinner plans.
  • You get to work and realize you forgot your lunch.
  • You got a $10 off coupon in the mail for your favorite store.
  • Your kid brings home 17 sign-up sheets for extra-curricular activities.
  • Your Alma Mater calls and asks you to donate money to the school.
  • The neighbor girl is selling wrapping paper as a fundraiser.
  • You pass a lemonade stand on the way home from work.
  • “Girls weekend! Everyone splits the cost of the getaway!”
  • You get a $900 tax refund.
  • Your car needs a new transmission.

How we spend our money and what we spend it on is the very definition of our own “personal finance story.” You and I are different. I would definitely buy those plane tickets (or be tempted if I didn’t actually do it). Knowing your financial reflexes is a big part of taking control over your finances. If you can predict your own actions, you can take the steps necessary to stop the ones that don’t bring value to your life.

Do you know your default reaction to every situation listed? What scenarios would you add to the list?


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  1. Also “Someone just gave you a $100 Amazon Gift Card.” Do i go for necessities, spend it on “fun stuff”, or save it for the next time I need to buy someone a gift? I’ve done all 3 but have no idea what I’d do today.

  2. I definitely have instincts to spend. I used to quickly respond to things in your list with spending. No dinner – let’s order something. Good sale – but it up. Fortunately, I’ve been able to recognize these relexes as my priorities have changed over the past few years. It’s pretty crazy: I still feel the pull to grab stuff off of a clearance rack, but I recognize it for what it is and yell at myself to walk away.

    Yesterday, I had to pick up my one year old on the way home because he had a fever (he’s better now). I had planned to make lunch at home, but found myself thinking about how much easier it would be to hit up a drive-thru, especially with having to take care of Trey. But I’ve reached a point where I can recognize the thought for what it is: spending money to be lazy. And I can just say no to myself.

    • MaggieBanks

      See?! Once you recognize what you’re going to do, you can intervene! Before that, we all ended up at home with a bunch of junk before we realized what happened!

  3. What? Target toys are on sale?!?!? I’m going!!!! Yeah – I am a sucker for spoiling my kids. Especially with a donut or a $.99 matchbox car.

  4. I used to have those reflexes but I think I’ve been pretty laser focused on FI over the past few years and don’t stray too often (you need to every once in a great while though!). I’ve been lucky that my wife is in tune as well and not really a shopper in general… but she does tend to cave on impulse buys at the register with our daughter though.

    — Jim

  5. Rue

    I’ve gotten much better about spending money on things…probably helped by not working right next to the mall anymore. My worst money reflex is definitely on food.
    I’m terrible about packing lunches, and I’m terrible about ordering in when everyone in the house is tired, or lazy, or busy. (but also because I love me some pizza)

    • MaggieBanks

      Food, travel, and cheap toys are my weaknesses. I have to learn to prioritize because obviously food and travel are good. 🙂

  6. “You get to work and realize you forgot your lunch.”

    This once happened to me. And on a day I carpooled (of course) and didnt have my own vehicle. I now have oatmeal in my office in case I forget my lunch ever again. Saves me money, is healthy, and keeps me calm. I hate forgetting things.

  7. Cheap plane tickets and I have the free time? Sign me up!

    It really down to what’s your priority I think. 🙂

    • MaggieBanks

      It completely is. I would buy those in a heartbeat. But knowing you’re going to want to spring at that chance leaves you realizing that you may want to forgo the Target clearance so you can get there! 🙂

  8. My reflex is a trained one, a consciously chosen one for almost all things: stop, take a breath, and think it through. My initial response may be ooooh! or I want! but my actual reflex, the actual action that I take is to take a step back and assess it. Like when I stubbed my toe running to LB’s room last night, I just sucked in my breath for a second and let the pain ebb.

    • MaggieBanks

      That would be great if I could do that! I’m trying! I scream instead. 🙂

  9. Huh, my first instinct for most of these is “Tell me more” which in itself is a version of “Is this an activity I actually want to do?” Which is probably about where I want to be– not taking consumerism as a good in itself, but being open to experiences in spite of my general miserliness.

    • MaggieBanks

      Yes – it’s all about priorities. And knowing what you actually value vs. what you just react to are very different things!

  10. Like this concept. One happened to me today … ‘Mummy my drink bottle is broken and leaking all over my school bag’ (on the way to school snd I was then going on to work). Walked into the local shop and spent $13 – yes!!! (About $10 US) On a drink bottle. Even though we have at least 3 perfectly good ones at home.

    • MaggieBanks

      Ugh. Kids! Amiright. 🙂 Just kidding, but I’ve been there!

      • Oh yes you are right! Despite the plan to spend in line with our values. Luckily in this case I had enough ‘blow money’ in cash so all good. Maybe I need to get them to read your post and fill in the blanks.

  11. seattlegirluw

    Store coupons go in the trash (or in a drawer, if it’s got more than a week on it) unless I need something from the store. Less temptation to rationalize that way. Still, I work at a company where I see coupons CONSTANTLY. It’s a double-edged sword: I have more temptation, but I’m also getting desensitized to those offers. Unless I actively have an item in mind. One that isn’t just a whim, anyway.

    We have a system in place for windfalls — either put it all in savings or put 90% of it in and have fun with the leftover — which helps automate our reactions. Of course, it helps to have a house/life that is constantly throwing new expenses your way. It makes you a lot less eager to spend windfalls on anything other than repairs or medical expenses.

    • MaggieBanks

      Thanks for the input. I think that’s a fascinating situation – seeing so many coupons. I agree though – right in the trash unless I need something. Otherwise I find myself in JCP spending $20 to get my $10 off! ugh.

  12. Great examples, and I love your point of being aware of your automatic responses. I think we actually can tend to be too tight with money in some areas. I have stressed myself too much trying to find free babysitters, like parents or friends. Now I am finally loosening up in this area and paying babysitters sometimes.

    • MaggieBanks

      I think about that myself. I hate paying for babysitters. Also, I don’t really know any great ones (one time I got my baby up in the morning and his jammies were put on over his clothes… ?). Also, I work from home and feel guilty if I hire someone if I get behind… so I agree, I need to work on those things as well!

  13. J

    I’m pretty sure I would’ve answered “spend money in most of the situations” had I read this about two years ago. My financial reflex these days is to walk away or think about it because most of my money are already allocated for something specific. One impulse that I struggle with to this day, though, is to go shopping when I feel sad or angry. It doesn’t matter if I get a $1 pencil or a $100 bag, I will often want to spend some money when I feel those emotions. I’m working on it, but it takes time to change a (very) bad habit.

    But yeah, I would have screamed or cried if that was me stepping on/kicking a Lego.

    • MaggieBanks

      Having money allocated elsewhere is definitely a helpful tool to stop our reflexes!

  14. thejollyledger

    Yelling. I am so guilty. Plane tickets? Guilty.

  15. • “There are cheap plane tickets to______! Let’s go!” – But the accommodation, food and events will still be as expensive, maybe in a few years we can go there.
    • Target toys are on clearance for 70% off! – These are the toys most people don’t want, plus we already have loads of toys. Let’s go through the current toys and donate some if we need some new ones
    • The house down the street with the perfect yard and extra bedroom is for sale. – We can’t afford to buy a house yet, we need to save up a deposit first, maybe we can have a nosy look.
    • “We’re going to grab a bite to eat after work. Want to come?” – Thanks for inviting me, but we’re working on our finances at the moment (for the rest of our lives), maybe a BYO picnic at our local park at lunchtime?
    • You pass 6 coffee shops (or drive-thru coffee stands if you live in Anchorage) on your way to work. – And keep on driving, I don’t drink coffee.
    • “Mommy, can I get a candy bar/donut/toy/_____?” – I think you need glasses honey, if anything.
    • It’s 6:30pm and you have no dinner plans. – We do have dinner plans, we planned out our meals last week before doing our supermarket shop.
    • You get to work and realize you forgot your lunch. – I’ll have some of the spare quick outs I have in my work drawer for this very scenario 
    • You got a $10 off coupon in the mail for your favorite store. – I’ll have a look, but I’m still spending $50 more than planned if I do buy something for $60.
    • Your kid brings home 17 sign-up sheets for extra-curricular activities. – I’m happy you really want to do extra things Pick a few that you really want to do, you don’t have enough time to do them all.
    • Your Alma Mater calls and asks you to donate money to the school. – What for and how much? Depending what it is, may or may not.
    • The neighbor girl is selling wrapping paper as a fundraiser. – I would buy the least amount (1 roll?), or maybe just give her that money, as we actually already have a large amount of wrapping paper in the house.
    • You pass a lemonade stand on the way home from work. – I really don’t like lemonade/lemons so I wouldn’t buy any.
    • “Girls weekend! Everyone splits the cost of the getaway!” – A friend of mine would know that I’m not that spontaneous, if I’d agreed to go previously then that would be fine.
    • You get a $900 tax refund. – Save in bank / Invest
    • Your car needs a new transmission. – Take it to the mechanic, I don’t want to become a mechanic myself and with cars, you can get things dangerously wrong.

    No seems to be the reflex, lol.


    • MaggieBanks

      You’ve got some amazing reflexes! (I don’t drink coffee either.) But the travel would ALWAYS get me!

  16. My biggest surprise of the last few years has been that some behavioral reflexes are changeable. It’s probably because working with sometimes-crazy clients over the years has trained me not to react outwardly, but whereas in the past I would have screamed at kicking something, like you do, now I don’t. (And, shockingly, I also feel less reactive on the inside.) Same with financial stuff — in the past I would have booked that flight, but now I don’t even have the impulse. Not sure if it’s the slow retraining from work, or just maturity, but I’m happy to be less reactive overall… at least outwardly. 🙂 Happy Friday to you and the family! xoxo

    • MaggieBanks

      If you and your wisdom could train me to be as centered and internally calm as you… it would be much appreciated. 🙂

      • It’s easy: Just work as a hired gun for crazy clients for 15 years! Lose your sanity, sacrifice your health and give up tons of sleep. Then you’ll be a zen master! 🙂 (Actually, that may not be TOO different from parenting — hahaha.)

        • MaggieBanks

          Yup – you just described my life. 🙂 ha ha ha. My oldest is only 8, so I guess i have 7 more years until I lose my mind and enter the zen-like state.

  17. My default response when any school I’ve attended calls me to ask for money is to yell, “LIKE I’D REALLY GIVE YOU ANY MORE MONEY THAN I ALREADY HAVE!!” But so far I’ve (luckily) managed to override that reflex and just say, “Sorry, no thank you, have a nice day.” 🙂

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