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I’ll Do That Tomorrow: The High Cost of Procrastination on Personal Finance

Sept. 22, 2014
Managing Money, Personal Finance
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If you’re the worst kind of procrastinator, this article could help. But experts say you’ll never get around to finishing it.

“They won’t read this,” says Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a DePaul University psychologist who has been studying the phenomena for 20 years. “If they are chronic procrastinators in all areas of their life – home, school, work, their finances – they are in need of professional help.”

Much more common are people who procrastinate in certain areas of their life, like money and finance, Ferrari says. What fuels their delay in paying bills and making financial decisions is often a psychological reluctance to be held responsible for a decision, he says.

“The married procrastinator will let their spouse decide what refrigerator to buy, because if it breaks nine months later, the procrastinator can say, ‘Hey, it’s not my fault, I didn’t buy it’,” Ferrari says. “Same is true for making decisions about investments, about retirement accounts, or paying higher prices for insurance because you waited too late.”

Waiting costs money. Last year, consumers paid $12 billion in credit card late fees alone, says R.K. Hammer, a credit card advisory firm. “My guess is that’s going to climb to $13 billion or $14 billion this year,” says Bob Hammer, head of the firm.

The number of people who identify themselves as chronic procrastinators has grown from 5% in 1978 to 26% in 2007, according to research by Piers Steel, a University of Calgary psychologist and author of “The Procrastination Equation.”

“We define procrastination as putting something off even if you expect to be worse off as a result,” Steel says. “It’s about failure to cash checks that are signed to you; it’s about putting off things that are definitely good for you.”

Why the rise? “It could be that more people identify themselves as procrastinators,” he says. Technology also could be an enabler. From the snooze button on alarm clocks to the 24/7 connectivity of smartphones, technological advances have cut both ways in terms of helping and hurting personal productivity, experts say.

“Technology is not the problem — it’s how you use the technology,” says Ferrari, author of “Still Procrastinating?”

Here are three ways to change your avoidance habits.

Make a public declaration

Want to stick to your budget this next month? Put that in your Facebook post and share with your friends. Peer pressure will help you stick to your pledge. “We know from research that you are more likely to do something if you publicly post it,” Ferrari says.

Pay off smaller debts first

If you have a credit card with a balance of $10,000 and another with a $1,000 in debt, make minimum payments on the first and work to pay down the smaller balance. Economically, that doesn’t make sense – you should pay down the bigger debt accruing greater interest. But paying off the smaller balance first creates a psychological sense of well-being and progress, Steel says.

“Strictly speaking it’s not the most rational way of doing things, but the smaller bill goes down faster – people like seeing that,” he adds. “Make it a kind of game to pay down your debt.”

Do something – anything – and reward yourself

“You’ve heard, ‘can’t see the forest for the trees’? It’s opposite for procrastinators – they can’t see the trees for the forest; they get overwhelmed by the big picture,” Ferrari says.

“Cut a few trees, cut a few branches, or just rip down a few leaves in hand” on whatever financial task you’re avoiding, Ferrari advises, then reward yourself by doing something you like — except spending money.

Procrastination image via Shutterstock.