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Why You Should Address the Underlying Cause


"If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead."

-James Clear


I'm confident, and even a bit arrogant, as I step onto the court. I have a squash match today against Luke. Luke is 70 years old, and I've been preparing. I've been working on my speed because I've noticed the better players can place the ball in parts of the court that are a struggle for me to get to. Working on my speed will get me to the ball faster and keep me in the point. Being too slow to get to the ball seems to be one of my bigger weaknesses. I've also been working on my stamina because matches can be quite long. It wasn't uncommon for me to do well in the first two games of a five-game match because I still had energy, but fall apart because I ran out of juice. Working on my stamina will help me keep up my speed for a longer.

To win a squash match, you have to be the first player to win 3 games; it's a best-of-five competition. The first game against Luke isn't even close; Luke destroyed me. The next three games are very close, with me winning two of them. We are tied two games to two going into the 5th. I like my chances. After all, I have been working on my stamina and speed, and Luke is 70.

Luke tears me apart in the fifth game. I walk off the court, drenched in sweat, barely able to breathe. I just got beat by a 70-year-old man. It finally occurs that my lack of speed and lack of stamina are symptoms of a much bigger disease. That disease is lacking fundamentals. Luke is a near-perfect fundamental player.

Me being too slow and running out of energy were not my problems. These were symptoms of a much bigger problem: I need to work on my fundamentals. Trying to address the symptom and ignoring the disease is like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

Many of our financial concerns are similar. We're trying to address the outcomes without addressing the underlying reason for getting those outcomes. Spending some time to look beneath our outcomes it's time well spent.

without fixing the underlying cause of financial stress, you'll get the same outcomes

Money Is Stressful

Money is stressful. You probably already knew that, though. What you may not have known, though, is that other people feel stress when it comes to money, as well. Money is stressful because it touches every area of our lives, and good money skills don't come naturally. Also, since money is taboo in our culture, we don't talk about it. So we never get to hear about other people's financial worries.

Money is a top source of stress for people. Many people rate money as the number one source of stress. In addition, money is a leading source of conflict in relationships.

Add on top of all of this the fact that many people believe personal finance to be simply a math problem, and you get a situation where people struggle with money. When we struggle with money, it's very easy to look at the outcomes we don't like. We can always try techniques and strategies that will fix our outcomes.

The problem is that if we work on fixing the outcomes without addressing the underlying cause, we're likely to end up in the same place we were before.

money is the top source of stress for most people

Addressing Symptoms Is a Short-Term Fix

If you find yourself overspending habitually, it is tempting to try implementing a budget. That's what a budget is for, right? It might even work for a while.

If you find yourself avoiding your financial situation, you might think that the secret to making better financial decisions is to force yourself to look at your financials. It sounds simple.

If you don't like talking about money, the seemingly obvious answer is to schedule time on your calendar to talk about money.

These solutions seem easy because they address the outcome, or the symptom. But if we only fix the symptom, the same issues will keep happening. We can take painkillers to get our headaches to go away, but if we have headaches every day, there's something deeper that we need to address.

addressing your symptoms while ignoring your disease does give you short term relief

Finding the Underlying Cause

Personal finance is not really a math problem; it is a psychology problem. If it was strictly a math problem, then everybody could simply follow the equations and have rock solid financial health.

When we are growing up, we are doing our best to try to figure out how the world works. Our young minds create little rules and if-then statements to try to make sense of what's happening. The rules about money that we internalize are called money scripts, and they drive all of our behaviors. Money Scripts are the underlying causes of the outcomes we get.

If we implement a budget to stop our overspending without addressing the money script behind our overspending, we will overspend again in no time.

If we force ourselves to pay attention to our finances even though it pains us emotionally, we'll be right back to avoiding our finances.

If we talk about money simply because it's on a calendar without addressing why it's uncomfortable, we will stop putting it on the calendar.

Addressing the symptoms can work in the short run; it's like extrinsic motivation. We can use our willpower to get ourselves to do something that we don't really want to do deep down. This is unlikely to work in the long run, though. It's helpful to understand the money scripts that drive your behaviors in the system that you use to get your outcomes.

Taking painkillers to help with headaches is a short-term solution. Understanding that drinking too much the night before is the reason for those headaches is an important discovery. Without addressing the disease, you'll keep getting the symptoms.

ignoring the root cause of your financial stress means nothing will change in the long run

Systems Address the Root Cause

Setting goals is an outcome-based activity. Goals focus on your outcomes, or the symptoms. Attaining goals tends to rely on will power, which is finite.

Systems, on the other hand, focus on the process. For example, losing 10 pounds is a goal. Eating healthy is a system. You can address the symptom of being 10 pounds overweight by setting goals and working hard to reach that goal. However, once you reach that goal, if you've done nothing to address the disease, or the system underlying your eating habits, you're likely to get back to where you were.

If you have a child who has a messy room, cleaning the room is a goal; it addresses the symptom. You can have your child clean the room, but without addressing the underlying system, or disease, the room will be messy again in no time.

Lasting change requires us to understand why we're getting the outcomes we get in the first place. We have to understand the money scripts that drive our financial behavior. We have to change our systems and not rely on goal setting.

addressing the root cause of your financial stress will help change your outcomes and reduce your financial stress

If you've ever been frustrated because you've tried bettering your financial situation but haven't found success, it might be because you were focusing on just the symptoms. Taking a look inside yourself to figure out the underlying cause can be very beneficial.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

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Underlying Causes
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Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences

Clear, James: Atomic Habits

Kahneman, Daniel: Thinking Fast and Slow

Klontz, Brad, and Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money Klontz, Brad, Edward Horwitz, and Ted Klontz: Money Mammoth

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.


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About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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