By Dr. Joshua J. White, Guest Writer

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Who doesn’t like a burger and fries every once in a while? It turns out most people do. It is estimated that the average American spends $1,200 per year on fast food. Why do we spend so much money on fast food? Is it because we don’t know how bad it is for you? Likely not.

In 2004, the Super Size Me documentary showed what happened to a man’s health after only eating at McDonald's for an extended period of time. It didn't go well for him. Did that change the habits of daily McDonald’s eaters? In 2017, McDonald's made a whopping $37.5 billion in sales in the US alone. That's almost three times as much as the runner-up in fast food—Starbucks. Clearly, knowledge of what we should do or what we are “supposed to do” is not enough to change behavior. We know more and more each year about health, and yet, the lines at McDonald's have never been longer.

If knowledge isn’t enough to change behavior, what is?

Knowing what you are supposed to do usually isn’t enough to create lasting change. People usually don’t drastically change their diet or lifestyle based on a simple recommendation from a physician or other professional.

Instead, they find the reason they want to change inside themselves. To effectively change financial behavior, each individual needs to dig deep and find their “why.” Finding a reason to change helps you remember motivation when hard decisions come and when you need to sacrifice for your priorities.

Will I allow things in my life to stay the same, or am I committed to, even desperate for, a change? Will I keep on waiting in line for a Big Mac and fries, or can I become a healthier person, at least on a financial level?

When I found my “why” for financial behavior, I wasn’t content to remain the same anymore. The desire grew within me and prompted me to make sacrifices. What made the difference? I found reasons that matter more to me than the sacrifices I had to make. Below are some of my reasons why. These include being inspired by others enjoying financial freedom, learning from my parents' mistakes, looking forward to eliminating my student loan burden, and more. Everyone has different reasons to change, but I invite you to deeply consider your financial “why.” Focusing on these personal reasons will make it easier to change.

Your financial “why” might include some of the following:


Seeing Other People Enjoy Financial Freedom

In 1954, medical student Roger Bannister redefined reality when he ran a mile in less than 4 minutes, something that had never been accomplished. Seeing what other people have accomplished has expanded my dreams. I didn’t even know it was possible to plan to retire early, pay off debt in only a couple of years, or realistically live off the interest of your investments. Because I’ve been surrounded by good financial mentors, I have a better idea of what’s possible, and I’ve adjusted my dreams. If you want to change, get inspired by the financial Roger Bannisters around you.


Avoiding Others’ Financial Mistakes

While it is good to learn from your mistakes, it is even better to learn from the mistakes of others. My parents are wonderful people, and I am very grateful for them. However, when it comes to finances, I have learned from their mistakes. They didn’t plan well for retirement (or even know how to do so), and they never learned how to invest their money.

Because of my close relationship with them, I've seen the results of their cumulative financial behavior. I know I desperately want different results, and so I know I need to live differently. It is natural to emulate the behavior of your parents or those who raised you; the default is to be similar. To be different, there needs to be intentional, consistent strategic effort.

Although this situation can be less than ideal, it can provide powerful motivation to propel you to be successful. Some of the most life-changing lessons we learn from others come from observing their mistakes. I am grateful to my parents for allowing me to see both their strengths and weaknesses intimately so I could have the gift of their experiences in learning who I want to be. These experiences have been essential to help me develop my personal motivation. Taking the time to think about and decide what you want to do differently can be an important part of finding your motivation to change.


Eliminating the Bondage of Debt

J. Reuben Clark, a corporate attorney and religious leader who lived through the Great Depression, said this about debt: “Interest never sleeps nor sickens nor dies; it never goes to the hospital; it works on Sundays and holidays; it never takes a vacation; it never visits nor travels; it takes no pleasure; it is never laid off work nor discharged from employment; it never works on reduced hours . . . Once in debt, interest is your companion every minute of the day and night; you cannot shun it or slip away from it; you cannot dismiss it; it yields neither to entreaties, demands, or orders; and whenever you get in its way or cross its course or fail to meet its demands, it crushes you.”

Through the course of my medical training, I have acquired more than $400,000 in student debt. That amount sickens me, and it is a companion I want to eliminate as soon as possible. While some may argue that debt can be good, this debt isn’t tied to a tangible asset—just to my medical training. There is enough in life to worry about; I don’t want my student loans to add to them. However, because of the astronomical amount of student loans I carry, it has motivated me to learn how to become free. I am determined to do so. Developing a financial plan has turned my student debt from an oppressive burden to an incentive to fight for financial freedom. Instead of ignoring it, I invite you to let the hope of eliminating debt add to your financial motivation.


I Have a Dream

If you have seen the Disney movie Tangled, you know that a dream Rapunzel had motivated her to leave her tower and her comfort zone behind. I have found that taking time to dream has dramatically increased my motivation to improve my financial behavior. I’ve got a dream, do you?

What would you do if you had an additional $5 million in your bank account, tax-free? How would this change your behavior?

These are questions I like to ask because it allows you to dream. Listening to both the Physician on Fire and the White Coat Investor talk about what they did when they became financially free is really intriguing. I love being in medicine, but I have a lot of other interests and dreams, too. When I become financially independent, I plan on working less and chasing down some of my dreams. These include teaching, serving another mission for my church, starting a health and wellness center, and maybe even living in another country for a period of time. The possibilities are exciting! Is it worth living like a resident for a few more years to achieve some of these dreams? Definitely.

If you were financially independent, what dreams would you pursue?


Desire to Improve Relationships

In my time with people near death, I never hear regrets that they wished they would have worked more, made more money, or purchased that nice car. The things that seem to make the biggest difference in a person’s life are their relationships. Becoming financially free allows you to create more time with those you love, and as one of my favorite speakers and religious leaders Dieter F. Uchtdorf says, “Love is really spelled T-I-M-E.” Is this a motivation for you to become financially free?

Additionally, research shows that spending money on experiences with loved ones influences your happiness to a much greater degree than spending money on possessions. When status symbols fall into their proper place in your priorities (far below relationships), it is easier to avoid superfluous purchases and instead use your money to create lasting memories. What can you do today to change financial behavior to improve your relationships? 

Find Your Why


Be Happier

If nothing else motivates you to change your behavior, do it to be happier. At the end of the day, if your financial behavior isn’t maximizing your happiness (both short-term and long-term), I encourage you to re-evaluate your financial priorities. The goal is to enable you to be happier now and happier later. In some cases, that might involve spending more, and that's OK. Sometimes you make sacrifices now to ensure you have more freedom later in life. Maybe you’ve decided to work a few more years so you can spend quality time with your family in the present. Whatever you decide, I have found when my focus is on maximizing my happiness, my desire to change my financial behavior increases.

Focusing on my financial “whys” has increased my desire to make real changes today. Instead of wishing I wanted to be more frugal, keeping the “why” in mind has focused me to do so. If you find yourself wishing you had more desire to make financial changes, I invite you to find your “why.”

Have you found your “why” that has changed or will change your financial behavior? If not, is searching for that “why” something you think can help? Comment below!

[Editor's Note: Dr. Joshua J. White is a PGY-3 finishing his residency in Emergency Medicine, and he enjoys playing sports, cooking, and singing. This article was submitted and approved according to our Guest Post Policy. We have no financial relationship.]