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Why Denying Yourself Doesn’t Work In Diets or Personal Finance

“It’s not denial. I’m just selective about the reality I accept.”
–Bill Watterson

Bill Watterson

Several years ago, my wife decided that she wanted to try the South Beach diet. For those of you who have never tried it, the diet involves two weeks of pretty serious food detox followed by a gradual reintroduction of some foods back into your diet. I, being the ever devoted husband, felt like I’d be a real lump if I continued to chow down on the usual set of foods (most of which were not included on the “approved” list for the diet) while she was denying herself.

It was two weeks of misery. We had no energy, we were constantly hungry, and after a while, the same rations of chicken and broccoli got old. At the end of the second week, we were going to Valencia, Spain to see some friends who were living there, and I remember the entire trip as an orgy of bread eating. I might have lost five pounds on the diet, but within a week, I’m pretty sure I’d gained it right back, along with a new nickname: “Mas pan.”

A few years later, Tim Ferriss came out with The 4 Hour Body, which had a similar dietary approach to the South Beach diet, except that once a week, you could go on a binge day and eat whatever you wanted.

At first, it was tough doing the week of limited food choice. However, the thought of chowing down on wings and super salads at McGrady’s Irish Pub, as well as splitting a pitcher of beer, kept us going. We’d wolf down a huge lunch while watching English football, and then for dinner, we’d usually go to our favorite pizza joint, Brixx, and gobble down pizza while having another glass of beer.

By the time we’d finished our Saturdays of debauchery, we were miserable. Stuffed with food that our bodies weren’t used to, we’d moan and groan as our stomachs tried to deal with the onslaught of carbs and calories which we’d slammed down our gullets.

It only took about six weeks of this cycle of misery to realize that we really didn’t enjoy our binge days that much. We were gobbling down all variety of foods just because we could, not because we were being selective about what we wanted to eat. It was binge day, and, hey, we were supposed to eat crap on binge day, right?

Once we came to the realization that we were taking the binge day analogy to its unintended extreme, we dialed back. Instead of binge day, it became binge meal, and we really enjoyed it rather than trying to stuff as much food into our bodies as we could simply because it was binge day. We found ourselves happier, appreciating our food more, and not miserable on Saturday nights.

It also convinced us to try to improve the experience of our everyday meals by experimenting more with different flavors, herbs, and spices.

While we’re no longer strict slow carb dieters like we were for a while, the reframing of the thinking about what we were eating and how we were eating did stick with us and help improve our overall nutrition. Instead of thinking in terms of denial, like we did with the South Beach diet, we were focusing more on limiting caloric intake on most days so that we could create experiences which mattered to us when we had special meals. We had saved up a caloric deficit so that we could spend extra calories on experiences and not have to worry about what that meal meant to our waistlines.

It was a mindset of abundance and creation rather than a mindset of scarcity. Sure, you can’t magic a caloric deficit out of thin air. You either take in fewer calories or you burn more to create that deficit. There’s no magic there. However, by using mental accounting and really focusing on the calories which matter – the meals which we want to savor and enjoy – we got Monkey Brain to forget about the other meals and keep him from screaming about how we were throwing lettuce and broccoli into his cage rather than banana cheesecake. He looked forward to the days when we’d throw banana cheesecake into his cage and forgot about the other days.

The same holds true with personal finance. A mindset of scarcity is what Monkey Brain uses to convince you that you’ve changed your behaviors when you really haven’t. Have you gone on a “debt diet” or a “no cash Wednesday” before? Did it really change your behavior? You probably spent less for a week or spent no cash on Wednesday and then spent more the rest of the week. Why? Because Monkey Brain told you that you’d been good for that day or week and now you could spend even more.

Denial is borne from a mindset of scarcity. Instead of being selective on the things where you will spend your resources, you pare down across the board and try to convince yourself that making sweaters out of dryer lint and reusing soap shavings is fun.

It’s not fun. It sucks.

If you’ve been in debt and worked your way out of it or if you’re in debt and working your way out of it, you know this story. Across the board denial sucks. It’s like going into the South Beach diet the day that your metabolism stops working like a caffeinated squirrel. All you wind up doing is looking forward to the day when you can gobble down loaves of bread because you’ve been forced to live a monastic food existence during the diet.

The same holds true for fighting to get out of debt. You just look forward to the day when you’re debt free so that you can go back to living your old life, spending the way that you used to. That was fun, right?

The problem was that it was those behaviors which got you into debt in the first place. Rather than making a permanent change in your life, Monkey Brain tells you that once you get out of debt, you can go back to the old ways.


YOU: “Yeah. This frugality thing sucks. Plus, these dryer lint sweaters are itchy.”

The entire mantra of self-denial and frugality drives media because it is focused on fear. How many headlines have you seen about a “retirement crisis” or a “credit crisis” in the media? Writ large, those are probably both true, but just because it is doesn’t mean that you have to get sucked into the vortex as well. Just like real estate, money is personal and local. Your situation is only slightly influenced by the greater macroeconomic factors of the world.

If you want to get to your financial goals, though, self-denial isn’t the only way to get there. While it may earn you plaudits from the monastic set, in most cases, it’s simply not sustainable. You’re not really changing your habits. You’re deferring them. I’ve done the same thing. The first time I was neck deep in credit card debt, I lived like a pauper for a few months, paid off the debt, and then went right back into the same lifestyle that I had before – one which was beyond my means, and, unsurprisingly, I went right back into debt!

There’s a different way. It’s the personal finance equivalent of The 4 Hour Body.

In a diet, to avoid gaining weight, you have to burn and take in an equal amount of calories. In personal finance, it’s income and spending. You can either spend now, or you can save some so that you can spend later. Pretty simple so far, right?

What happens when you’re overweight? You need to take in fewer calories than you burn so that you lose weight. By creating the caloric deficit, your body must burn fat to make up for the calories which are absent in your stomach. Same with personal finance, except exchange dollars and calories and introduce credit cards.

However, crash diets don’t work because you don’t change your underlying eating and exercising (or not exercising) behavior. Once you’ve hit your target or become tired of dieting, you go back to the same old behavior and soon find yourself struggling to get into those pants or deciding that sweatpants aren’t just comfortable, they’re fashionable for all occasions.

The same goes with a denial diet to get rid of debt. You haven’t changed the underlying behavior which caused you to get into debt in the first place. Instead, you need to focus on being intentional in your life. Just as the binge day/binge meal allowed us to really focus on enjoying the special meals and helped us frame our eating behavior as a matter of choice rather than a matter of denial, doing the same with your money creates freedom as opposed to constraints.

The act of choosing goes beyond choosing on what you will spend your money. It also extends into the act of choosing what you won’t spend your money on.

My wife and I love to travel. Aside from taxes, travel is the number one line item in our personal budget. We decided long ago that travel was more important to us than other things in life, such as television. While we have Netflix and Amazon Prime, we don’t have cable; one year of those subscriptions cost about what one month of cable cost. We chose to find other ways to entertain ourselves (like playing fetch with the dog, getting outside, talking to each other) than sitting in front of the boob tube and letting others entertain (or not entertain) us.

I’m not trying to be holier than thou. If you really love television, that’s great. But make choices. Don’t just live your life bouncing from thing to thing because that’s what the Joneses and everyone else does and that’s what you think you’re supposed to do too. If you live that life, you really will have a retirement crisis when you turn a ripe old age.

Frame up your life in terms of choices rather than in terms of denial. Choose to do things which enrich your life and which create more abundance for you and your family. Don’t simply deny yourself and then engage in financial equivalent of a weight yo-yo where you bounce from 130 to 180 to 130 to 180. It’s not healthy, and it’s not sustainable over the long run.

Choose abundance and let the naysayers continue to yo-yo their lives away.

Around a year ago, I wrote my ode to a beater. If you haven’t read it, go check it out!

Author Profile

John Davis
John Davis is a nationally recognized expert on credit reporting, credit scoring, and identity theft. He has written four books about his expertise in the field and has been featured extensively in numerous media outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, CNN, CBS News, CNBC, Fox Business, and many more. With over 20 years of experience helping consumers understand their credit and identity protection rights, John is passionate about empowering people to take control of their finances. He works with financial institutions to develop consumer-friendly policies that promote financial literacy and responsible borrowing habits.

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