When Good Habits Go Bad: A Christmas Story

when good habits go bad - a christmas storyI had a very happy childhood. Great parents. Supportive brothers. Lots of love.

Christmas in particular was always a very happy time. My mom loved to make Christmas feel special and never disappointed. From putting up all of our quirky ornaments (which would inevitably weigh down the tree and cause it to come crashing down), to watching The Santa Clause for the 100th time, to our Christmas morning routine of waiting for everyone to wake up so the kids could be videotaped walking down the stairs on the way to the presents (this still happens), our family traditions were things I looked forward to year-round.

Last year was the first Christmas where my wife and I had a child of our own and were in the position to really start crafting some of our Christmas traditions. Yes, we had been together for Christmas before, but the game changes with kids. Now it was about creating a magical experience for our son.

This is where I messed up.

My natural inclination was to go back to the traditions I knew from my childhood and try to replicate them. Which sounds pretty logical on the surface, right? After all, they were happy memories. Why wouldn’t we want more of those?

Well, the thing is that while those traditions created a lot of happy memories for me growing up, they weren’t necessarily right for my life now. See, my wife hadn’t grown up with any of these traditions. Neither had my son. So when I attempted to emulate them it became a form of self-indulgence that the two of them didn’t really know how to participate in.

I was making a very common mistake.

It would have been productive to use my past experiences as a guide to help create new traditions for my new family.

What I did instead was blindly try to cut and paste those past experiences into my current life, without any thought as to whether they truly fit.

We often do the same thing with our money habits

This is a mistake I’ve also made when it comes to money, and I think it’s a common one.

We all have money habits we’ve built up over the years. Some we learn very early on from our parents. Others we learn from friends. Others we learn from our own experiences, or from things we read.

Some of these habits are good. Some aren’t so good.

But whether we’re talking about our good habits or our bad ones, the mistake we often make is in letting them continue unchecked.

With bad habits, this is clearly a harmful cycle.

But even good habits left unchecked can keep us from reaching our full potential.

The reality is that our lives change and habits that worked well for us even just a couple of years ago may no longer fit our current situation.

When good habits go bad

When I was fresh out of college, my dad convinced me to open a Roth IRA. Luckily I took his advice and set up an automatic monthly contribution to the tune of $250. Pretty good start for a recent grad!

But here’s the thing. While $250 per month was a great way to start, that amount was only leaving my with a $3,000 contribution per year. Given that the maximum contribution to an IRA at the time was $5,000, I was leaving $2,000 on the table.

Now at the time, $250 a month was what I could afford, so that habit worked really well for me. But a year later I was making a little more money and had developed a few more budgeting skills. I was in a new position in my life, one where if I had made the effort I could have saved that extra $2,000.

So what did I do? Nothing. I just assumed that my good habit was still good and kept on living my life. By failing to re-evaluate my habits in light of my new situation, I was basically throwing away $2,000 (actually much more than that with the investment returns I could have earned over the years).

Eventually I smartened up and increased my contribution to reach the maximum. But I’ll never get back that $2,000.

Living the life we want takes work

Good or bad, our past experiences are powerful learning tools. But they are not exact blueprints for how to live our lives today.

Bad habits don’t have to be repeated indefinitely. We have the ability to learn new ways of doing things and break out of those harmful cycles.

Even good habits need to be checked from time to time. The things that worked yesterday can inform how we do things today, but they may need to be tweaked to align with our current goals.

So as your life changes, take stock of your new situation and how your current habits align with your new goals. If they still work, then great! Keep it up. But don’t be afraid to make changes.

Our ideal life is not a static target, and reaching it will take regular adjustments along the way.

Have you ever had a good habit turn bad? How did you recognize it? How did you change it?

Photo courtesy of wolfsavard

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37 comments… add one

  • Charles@Gettingarichlife December 23, 2013

    Matt,
    Even though I had a paid for company car I have always wanted a BMW. So I foolishly bought one going from no car payment to car, gas and insurance of $900 a month. Talk about bad money habit. Happy holidays.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      Sometimes our wants can get a little stronger than we’d like. Were you able to rectify that decision in any way?

  • Color Me Frugal December 23, 2013

    Hmm, I can’t think of any good habits that turned bad, but I’ve had plenty of bad habits that stayed bad! Shopping as a pick-me-up, too much Starbucks, wasting my money when I was living off student loans… sadly, I could go on! Great post, I’m going to keep thinking about if I have had any good habits turn bad.

  • Mrs PoP @ PlantingOurPennies December 23, 2013

    Ugh. I think you captured perfectly what has been frustrating me lately – when other people insist that there is exactly 1 right way to celebrate any occasion or cook something… ugh!

    I had a similar good money habit go bad when my company changed the matching policy on our 401K and I didn’t notice the change. (It was a change for the better from my company – rare, I know!) But by not maxing out my 401K I was leaving money on the table. I let this happen for a couple of years before realizing that I needed to fix it.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      There are so many expectations around things like holidays and birthdays. Sometimes the way you really want to celebrate something isn’t at all like the “typical” celebration.

      I love your 401k example. What used to be a good habit based on the old policy was no longer as good once the policy changed. That’s the kind of change that’s out of your control but can really affect you if you’re not paying attention.

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer December 23, 2013

    Thanks for the link love, Matt, and awesome article!! I love how you talked about how past habits, just because they’re good, don’t necessarily fit into the current life. I think this is SO common in newer marriages, because each person “always did it that way”, and it takes some work and some compromise to decide which habits will stay, and what new habits will be formed that will be better for the new family as a whole. Great work!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      Great point about marriage. I actually really struggle with that. I constantly need to remind myself to stop being such a control freak and to realize that a different way of doing things might not only be fine, but might actually be better. I hope for my wife’s sake that I can improve on that!

  • MyMoneyDesign December 23, 2013

    I can hear you on the Christmas traditions not taking off with your family. My kids could care less about Charlie Brown Christmas even though that was a favorite for me.

    Relating back to money, I’ve come to realize that despite whatever success I have with it, sometimes people just don’t want to hear about it or simply don’t care. So the habit I had to learn to change (despite my good intentions) was to stop recommending money advice to others. When they want it, they’ll know where to find me.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      I try not to give out money advice too (well, except on here of course!). If people ask I’m happy to share but otherwise I try to keep my mouth shut.

      With the Christmas traditions, I think it really comes down to needing a shared experience to make something special. That’s why it’s so important to make new traditions with new people rather than trying to recycle the old ones.

  • Andrew December 23, 2013

    I hear you about the Christmas traditions and trying to create a special tradition with the kids. They’re still young so there’s still time! Interesting story about the IRA…my father also encouraged me to open up a Roth and I’m glad I got a head start as many didn’t start saving and investing until much later. However, I am still not contributing the max…I should definitely reevaluate and increase contributions to the Roth for both me and my wife. A good reminder to reevaluate as even something that was a “good habit” at one point, may no longer be good at a different point in your life.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      Oh there’s still plenty of time. We’ve incorporated a decent amount of dancing to Christmas music into this year’s tradition with our 1-year-old, which has been a lot of fun. I think they’ll form with time.

  • Brent Applegate December 23, 2013

    Good encouragement to think about both holiday AND money traditions, Matt. Especially for new parents, both are important. All the best!

  • Kim@Eyesonthedollar December 23, 2013

    I went years without maxing out my retirement plan. I thought I was doing better than most because I was contributing up to the match while some people didn’t contribute at all. You can’t get that time back, but you can use it as a motivation to be more aware in the future.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      I think you make a great point about often thinking we’re doing fine because we’re comparing ourselves to others. I definitely do the same thing if I’m not careful. But the reality is that what other people are doing is irrelevant and that by comparing ourselves to them we can really shortchange ourselves.

  • Brian @ Luke1428 December 23, 2013

    I’ve found that our family traditions sort of happen by accident. We do something fun, the kids want to do it again and it eventually becomes something we routinely engage in. I have not been too successful either forcing a tradition on them. Although I have got them into some of the television shows I enjoyed growing up.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      I think you’re spot on here. In fact I’m living this all the time these days with our 1-year-old, where you do something random that he happens to love and you end up doing it over and over again. It all comes back to spending quality time together and letting things flow naturally from there.

  • John S @ Frugal Rules December 23, 2013

    It was the exact same way for my wife and I Matt. We both tried to implement things from our childhood and they just never seemed to click. It wasn’t until we really had kids that we started to see the need to start creating our own traditions and things we did as a family. It just goes back to point that you need to do what works best for you and your situation – in life, in money and so forth.

  • Holly Johnson December 23, 2013

    I have many good and bad habits period. I think it’s easy to get in a routine and stop worrying about whether you’re doing the right thing.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      Very true. Routines can be comforting and really helpful, but like anything else can hurt us or at least shortchange us if we let them go on autopilot.

  • Daisy @ Prairie Eco Thrifter December 23, 2013

    I had this habit, from growing up with a single mom who didn’t have much money, of always checking the price before the quality of a product. Then, I would talk myself out of it if it was too expensive for me. That’s cheap – not frugal. True frugality would entail me checking the price after I’ve determined what I would pay for the quality of the item.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      Great point! I have a tendency to look too hard at price as well and not give enough consideration to quality. But that’s a short-term decision rather than a long-term one, and like you said is more cheap than frugal.

  • Tonya December 23, 2013

    hmm, though but thought-provoking question. I think my financial world was turned upside down when I was kind of forced into freelancing. I was in “automatic” mode when I was working full time and that suited me just fine. I also never budgeted, which also suited me just fine as I just mostly saved more than I spent. But I lived like I was employed full time the first couple years of freelancing, which nearly destroyed my finances. I’m still learning all the ins an d outs of how to effectively manage my finances as a self-employed person. It’s totally different.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      Yeah I can only imagine how everything was thrown out of whack for you. My guess is that in the process of figuring things out you probably don’t have too many good habits that have had much time to go bad, so that’s the good news!

  • Shannon Ryan December 23, 2013

    It’s so true – we start a good habit like saving $250 which was the amount we could afford but then we forget to adjust it as our earnings grow. We forget. I see that all the time, although I think it’s great that your father had you open a Roth IRA at such a young age. I know many people who wish their parents had encouraged (or forced!) them to do the same! Yes, I remember trying to come up with our own special holiday traditions too. You do want to copy what you grew up with and some will still carry forward but making your very own will be even more special. And now you have two little guys to help make Christmas magical! I want to wish you and your beautiful family a very Merry and Blessed Christmas!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 23, 2013

      Oh yeah, I feel incredibly lucky that my dad convinced me to start saving so early on. I don’t think I would have done it otherwise, and maybe wouldn’t have gotten such an interest in investing and personal finance either. Sometimes things just work out!

      And a Merry Christmas to your family as well Shannon! I hope it’s a happy and fun one.

  • Done by Forty December 23, 2013

    Really intriguing concept, Matt. Put another way, even our good habits can have opportunity costs. Sometimes I think I need someone else to point out how good sometimes is the enemy of great. I’m usually blind to it, for the reasons you noted: our good habits have worked for us.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 24, 2013

      It’s interesting. Good can be the enemy of great, but there’s also the saying that perfect is the enemy of good. I think in the end it’s important to have a balance between the two. Don’t think you need to have everything perfect to get started. But also don’t let something ride just because it was working in the past. Not always the easiest thing to get right.

  • Grayson @ Debt Roundup December 23, 2013

    Great post Matt. I have tried many times to cut and paste a success into my current life, but there are too many variables that make it almost impossible. We just need to use our experiences as guides and nothing else.

  • DC @ Young Adult Money December 23, 2013

    Hmm sounds more like you got lazy than a bad habit per se ;) Just kidding, I totally understand where you are coming from. I’m actually opening up an IRA next year so I look forward to create another ‘good’ money habit.

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 24, 2013

      Haha, no I think laziness definitely has something to do with it. It’s much easier to just stick with what we’re doing than to spend the effort to really re-evaluate.

  • Shannon December 24, 2013

    I think this is a great reminder to think about habits as we approach the end of the year. I have had the financial bad habit of not having enough financial “check-ins” with my husband. It is something we did more regularly before we had our son, but since he was born we have not been as good about it. For 2014, I have finally added a calendar reminder to our joint calendar for our monthly family financial talk. I hope you and your family have a Merry Christmas tomorrow!

    • Matt @ momanddadmoney December 27, 2013

      Tell me about it! We’ve definitely slacked off with our check-ins since we had our first son as well. Now we have a second and really need to make the effort to make sure we don’t get too far behind. It’s not always easy but it’s definitely important. If you find a way to make it work for you, let me know!

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