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How to use mindfulness to manage your money better

Mindfulness and meditation techniques can help you curb overspending.

by Jean Chatzky /
Image: A woman sits at her desk with eyes closed
The more familiar we are with negative thought patterns we’ve developed — whether regarding spending, saving or our overall financial pictures — the better we’re able to break them.PeopleImages / Getty Images
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Mindfulness may be a buzzword — the term’s search popularity on Google Trends rises steadily from 2004 to date — but those who practice it seem to reap real benefits. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University analyzed almost 19,000 meditation studies and found that mindfulness meditation can help improve anxiety, depression and even pain. On top of that, the practice has been shown to promote a better work ethic, productivity, listening skills, sleep — even improved financial habits.

What’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation? The former is one type of the latter, which is a broader practice of achieving calmness and clarity. Mindfulness often incorporates focusing on your breath in order to stay present. It aims to retrain the brain to focus on just one thing instead of mentally going down every rabbit hole.

As many people who’ve struggled with impulse purchases know, avoiding going down rabbit holes — and staying present — can be key to financial success. “Money is something that a lot of couples and individuals tend to avoid talking about, so once you can set your intentions and know what your goals are, it’s easier to do,” says Liz Carroll, co-founder of MindfulMoneyCoaches.com. That said, it’s important to first determine your exact goal — for example, paying off your credit cards to reach a $0 balance or amassing a $2,000 savings cushion by year-end — before building an actionable plan to meet it. Here’s how to get started in just 15 minutes a day.

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As many people who’ve struggled with impulse purchases know, avoiding going down rabbit holes — and staying present — can be key to financial success.

As many people who’ve struggled with impulse purchases know, avoiding going down rabbit holes — and staying present — can be key to financial success.

Step 1: Start off your morning unplugged

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? If it’s roll over, silence your cell phone alarm, then check your texts and emails, you’re not alone. But starting off those first few moments with thought and intention — instead of diving into the day’s tasks immediately — could transform the day ahead. As soon as you wake, pause for a few moments. Check in with your body, and focus on your breath. Then, ask yourself a simple question: “What qualities would I like to cultivate today?” says Lodro Rinzler, co-founder of MNDFL meditation studios. These could be things like patience, generosity, spending with intention or long-term thinking. “Whatever it is, starting to set the mental direction of our day goes a long way in bringing those qualities to life. Instead of going right into ‘what I need to do’ and ‘what I need to accomplish,’ think about who you want to be today,” says Rinzler.

Step 2: Focus on your breath

If you’ve got 10 or 15 minutes to spare before you dive into your day, try sitting on the floor with your legs loosely crossed. Think about lifting up through your spine and relaxing your muscles, especially your head and shoulders, says Rinzler. You can gently close your eyelids or rest your gaze a few feet ahead of you on the ground. Then, focus on your breath as it flows through your body. Start using this sense of presence — and the intention-setting mentioned above — to reframe the way you think about your money as you go through your day. You can also try a guided mindfulness meditation session online. Dr. Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, offers free guided recordings at Mindfulness-Solution.com. As for later in the day, when you're about to swipe your card? Pause to take a few moments to think. Ask yourself if you're spending out of habit or with intention — and if the purchase will bring you joy.

Step 3: Be kind to yourself when your mind wanders

Your mind will naturally wander, and it’s important not to beat yourself up when you lose focus. “We think it should be effortless, and it’s not,” says Rinzler. He says to “apply a sense of unconditional friendliness” when your mind strays from your breath — simply acknowledge it, then gently bring your mind back to the present moment. Instead of making your goal to get rid of your thoughts, make it to become familiar with them. This is important because the more familiar we are with negative thought patterns we’ve developed — whether regarding spending, saving or our overall financial pictures — the better we’re able to break them, says Rinzler. The practice should create new neurological pathways in the brain by training it to return and focus on the present moment, and you can reap the benefits in your everyday finances. If we see an item we want pop up online, it’s easy to be tempted into a spending spree. Mindfulness gives you the tools you need to acknowledge the item, then come back to the work you need to do or your long-term financial goal.

Step 4: Be consistent

Much more important than how much time you devote to this is how often you do it. It’s kind of like picking up a musical instrument, says Rinzler. If you practiced for an hour once a week or once a month, you’d likely learn it slowly — every time you picked it up, you’d have to spend a few minutes remembering how to play it. But if you practiced for 10 or 15 minutes a day, you’d learn it quickly. As for when to build it in? When you've first woken up, you haven't yet set a spending pattern for the day, and you can focus on your long-term money goals. The mind “has a certain freshness to it in the morning, says Rinzler, but “the best time of day to do it is the time of day you can consistently do it.”

Step 5: Visualize your goals

If you’ve got an extra minute or two, spend the time visualizing the intentions you set earlier — and really picturing what reaching your goal would look like. Act daily and budget monthly, but think long-term to visualize where you want to be when you’re 50 (or 60, or 70, or 80), says Carroll. Set your goals first, then work backwards from them with specific target dates and benchmarks. And if you’re looking for another way to stay mindful throughout the day with your money habits? “I feel it’s incredibly important to write down every dollar or penny spent in a day to create awareness — because once you create the awareness, you can build the mindfulness,” says Carroll.

With Hayden Field

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