You probably know an ostrich — or maybe you’re one yourself. No, not the lanky bird known for burying its head in the sand when it is afraid (though that’s actually a myth), but a person who acts that way around anything stressful that arises related to money.
It can be very easy to get into a pattern; when you get a bill that’s higher than you expected, or you learn that you’re going to have to pay an unexpected expense, you just ignore it and hope that by doing so, it’ll go away. But in reality, the opposite happens and the problem usually gets much worse — whether it’s in the form of late fees, missed payments, or having your electricity shut off. This is known as the “ostrich effect.”
We live in a culture that encourages us to spend money — regardless of whether or not we have it — because we “work hard and deserve nice things.” That’s fine… except when you don’t have the money to pay for these nice things. “The United States is the most heavily marketing-driven company that has arguably ever existed,” Jessica Higgins, J.D., M.B.A., an entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and financial advisor tells Thrive. “Next to maybe the statues in Ancient Rome, no culture has ever been so daily reminded to take a certain action, and that action is to spend. Every social media platform, radio channel, and television show is inundated with advertising campaigns urging you to part ways with your money.”
The ostrich effect can also be a learned behavior — especially if this is the way your family handled money. “We often grow up being afraid of money because it was never talked about, or our parents were afraid of money,” Grant Sabatier, author of Financial Freedom and creator of Millennial Money, tells Thrive. “So we ignore it because it makes us feel bad, until it reaches crisis level when our home is being foreclosed on, or property taken away, or our electricity is cut off. We put it off until it threatens our survival and comfort, because it’s uncomfortable.”
“The ostrich effect is the result of the conflict between what our rational mind knows to be important and what our emotional mind anticipates will be painful,” Sarah C. Newcomb, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist, explains in Psychology Today. And, like most other behavior changes, the person in question — in this case, the ostrich — needs to be willing and able to put in the time and effort into creating new, better habits, and neural pathways.
Here are three strategies anyone can try to avoid the ostrich effect, ease their stress, and take control of their finances:
Track your spending
It’s no coincidence that the first strategy on the list is doing the exact opposite of being a financial ostrich, and keeping a close eye on your spending. Start by keeping track of your spending for a month in order to get a better idea of your patterns and habits. “Track how you spend your money, and then evaluate if that aligns with your goal and your priorities. If your goal is to save money for a vacation, but you find that you’re spending a lot of money on takeout food, calculate how a few less takeout meals can make a positive impact in your savings goal,” Kelly Lannan, Director of Young Investors at Fidelity Investments, suggests.
Another aspect of the ostrich effect is ignoring additional financial information — especially if it’s at all unpleasant. But in order to cultivate a positive relationship with money, we have to start by getting informed. In fact, Sabatier says that stress about money often comes from a lack of information and familiarity with it. He suggests starting by spending five minutes a day with your money — whether that’s checking your bank balance or credit score — to start building a relationship.
“The first week, it can be stressful, but then the next week it gets easier, and it typically starts being something that people look forward to,” he explains. “As you manage and spend time with your money each day, you’ll naturally start spending less and saving more because you will want to see your net worth.”
Make an effort to save
Part of fostering that relationship with your finances is getting motivated by your bank balance. Whether you’re happy with what you see or wish you had more, saving money is vital, and can build productive patterns in which you no longer have reason to stress over how little you have, and where you’re always fully informed about where you stand financially. Barbara Huson, a financial therapist and author of Prince Charming Isn’t Coming: How Women Get Smart about Money, recommends automatically depositing a small amount from your paycheck or checking account into your savings account each month. “You don’t miss what you don’t see,” she tells Thrive.
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