What Do You Do About Your Financial Kryptonite… Is Willpower Enough?


Note: This is a post from Joan Concilio, Man Vs. Debt community manager. Read more about Joan here.

In our Fall 2011 You Vs. Debt class, one of our members, Jay, created an awesome forum topic titled “What’s Your Kryptonite?”

In it, we started talking about those places and things that just seem to kill us financially. Jay’s lead-off example was:

“Confession time โ€“ my weaknesses are books and coffee โ€“ so Amazon.com loves me and as a Prime member I have likely bought them a Distribution Center by now (No joke, ask my wife!) and Starbucks likes me a whole lot. (And it doesnโ€™t help I have one 1/2 block away.)”

What were some of the other “Kryptonite” issues? Names removed to protect the less-than-innocent… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Books & coffee are biggies. But also technology & travel. Iโ€™m a sucker for them!”
  • Coffee, wine/beer, eating out, my dog … Books/DVDs/CDs used to be my number one but then I renewed my library card. Now I read/watch/listen for free as much as I can carry. Itโ€™s the best!!” (Awesome idea, Sunday!)
  • “No lie, at one point I actually bought 1 share of stock in Starbucks because they get sooo much of my money, I wanted some back!”
  • Eating out instead of cooking at home.”
  • Gadgets. Geek gear. I had to drop a lot of the ‘DailyDeal’ mailings I received and the few I still get are with the arrangement my wife approves any purchases first.”
  • My kids are my kryptonite … well, spending on them is … I have a hard time saying ‘no’ to their requests for beautiful clothes, shoes, etc. They attend private school and wear uniforms so they donโ€™t have many ‘play’ clothes. They are in the stage where the ‘name brand’ matters and I succumb to the madness.”
  • “Electronics of all types but my favorite are Apple products and music related items.”

Books were definitely the most frequently-mentioned issue. One member, K, said: “Oh God, amazon.com. Iโ€™m an English teacher and I have a Kindle. I actually had to take my credit card off my account. Now when I want to buy something, I have to go find my credit card and type in all the freakinโ€™ numbers.” (Another good strategy!)

Coffee and eating out rounded out the top three. Others included self-improvement materials; little purchases, like books, coffee, or lunch out; and sports and hobbies (beach volleyball, scrapbooking, martial arts and knitting, to name a few).

Our Personal Kryptonite

For my family, the Kryptonite issues are pretty straightforward. I cannot go into Target for “one thing” – especially if I’m with someone who likes to shop, like my mom or my daughter.

But worst of all, I’ve probably actually participated in job creation by the level at which I patronize Rutter’s, our town’s local convenience-store chain. Itโ€™s SO easy to head there for a Diet Pepsi … a hot dog … a pretzel .. a bag of chips … especially when I’ve got to be somewhere in a rush and didn’t take time to eat.

It’s within walking distance to both our home and my husband’s office, so even when one of us has the car (because, remember, we share one vehicle), the other of us can get our not-too-healthy-and-there-goes-five-bucks fix. We do pretty well cutting it down to an “allowance” amount for a while, but it always seems to creep back up again.

At the same time, all that crappy food makes the number of the scale creep up, too. (And I’m not the only one – the idea of “Fitness and Health Kryptonite” was actually the subject of this 2010 post by Steve Kamb over at Nerd Fitness!)

So I’ve got a habit that’s bad for me fiscally and personally. I need to break that habit. It all comes down to willpower, right?

That’s where it really gets complicated.

What Willpower Is… and Isn’t

Willpower is a funny concept. I’m a smart person. YOU are a smart person. And in an awful lot of ways, I consider myself a strong person. You probably feel the same. So if we say we’re going to stop doing something… shouldn’t that work?

Well, in my experience, yes and no. What my “financial Kryptonite” really is, is a situation in which my current willpower alone isn’t doing it for me. My habits are so ingrained that willpower barely comes into play.

In the case of Target, I can get through it on willpower. I can tell myself, “Don’t go to Target,” or, if I’m there, I can tell myself, “Don’t spend money.” It’s a rare enough occurrence, and one I’m conscious of, so willpower works.

But with the convenience store, I’m not consciously telling myself, “Don’t buy a hot dog.” “Don’t buy a hot dog.” “Don’t buy a hot dog.” … and then failing. That’s, to me, what a lack of willpower would look like.

But most of the time, I go to Rutter’s, almost without thinking, when I drive by. And when I go in, almost without thinking, I order a hot dog.

And that “requires” a soda. And probably some chips.

Five bucks gone, maybe a pound gained, and honestly, I never even consciously thought about it enough for “willpower” to kick in.

The Power of Habits

So I have two choices. I can work on engaging my willpower, and start consciously telling myself “I won’t buy a hot dog” or even “I won’t go to Rutter’s.” I can use that to try to break the habit.

Or I can take it a step farther. I can create a different habit.

On this topic, I’m very much in the camp of Leo Babauta in this zenhabits post. Basically, if you’ve got a deeply ingrained habit and you try to just STOP doing that, you’ll have a vacuum. And that vacuum will strive to fill itself again… and then you’re back to square one.

So with our convenience-store habit, I’ve looked at the roots of it. We use it as our refrigerator. When there isn’t something in the house that’s readily available for Chris to take to work for his lunch, or when I’m running errands and didn’t take time to eat first, it’s a convenient option. And we like that food. We probably shouldn’t, but we do.

I would bet that if you look at some of the habits that tend to be bad for either your finances or your health, you’d find a similar motivation. It’s convenient. It’s quick. It’s easy. I like it.

Chris and I have been talking lately about how to change this. Our first step is to start including a time in our week to prepare lunches, which seem to be the biggest challenge. (We already plan each day’s dinner before grocery-shopping every two weeks.)

We’re also going to be conscious about adding some “easy-to-grab” foods to our grocery list for the next trip. Our shopping focuses on meal-preparation items, which is great, but we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t buy any “convenience foods” for times we’re in a hurry.

Our hope is to make our daily “habit” to open the fridge and grab something, either for Chris to take to work or for me to eat at home for lunch.

Habits + Willpower = Our Kryptonite Antidote

Putting it all together, our plan is to work on both the unconscious – our ingrained habits – as well as the conscious – our willpower.

We’ll build new habits so that we’re not unconsciously stopping at Rutter’s each day. But we won’t eliminate it entirely – because that’s probably not a practical long-term choice for us.

And when we are choosing to go there consciously, we’ll use willpower. What are we there for? If it’s to get gas, we’ll pay at the pump and avoid going inside. If we’re choosing to buy lunch, we’ll consider some healthier and more filling choices than our usual staples.

When we put this together, that’s our “Kryptonite Antidote.”


So, to quote Jay’s question in our You Vs. Debt topic…

What are your main spending (or other!) weaknesses? And what’s your strategy for breaking the habit?

Is it willpower… or something more?

59 thoughts on “What Do You Do About Your Financial Kryptonite… Is Willpower Enough?”

  1. Carl Lassegue

    My kryptonite is clothes. I grew up going to private school and had to wear a uniform, but my parents did not like to spend money on name brad clothes like one of your readers does. So When I started making my own money, I used a lot of it on clothes.
    A study done at Duke University showed that about 45% of what we do daily is habit. So the best way to fight your kryptonite is to break your habit and find a healthy alternative. A lot easier said than done though.

    1. Carl, isn’t that the truth?? I also think there might be great parallels in your situation to others, that we splurge in areas that we “did not have” for whatever reason. If I think about my own situation, we grew up in a rural area with no convenience stores whatsoever readily available, and I wonder how much that feeds into my burning need to shop in them now!

      1. Carl Lassegue

        It seems to work that way for a lot of people. For others, it works as quite the opposite. They never had it growing up and they do not see the point of having it as adults.

  2. My kryptonite is most definitely books and eating out. I have a crap ton of books sitting on shelves and in my Kindle that need to be read, but if I step foot into a bookstore I can’t seem to find a way to leave without at least one book. As far as eating out goes, I always budget a certain amount, but find that there are days when I just don’t want to take the effort to cook. Of course, now that it is Farmer’s Market season, there are two days a week when I head out for some yummy food that wasn’t budgeted for.

    1. Jacki, at the very least you know you’re not alone! ๐Ÿ™‚ I do have to add that the farmer’s market is a big thing for me too… we “use up” our grocery budget, then we go there and I spend another $50, and sometimes that’s not even on stuff to take home but to eat there! Oh, but it’s sooo good…

  3. My Kyptonite is anything shiny. One of my good friends bought a beamer, and it’s beautiful. He asked if I wanted to drive it. OF COURSE I wanted to drive it but NO WAY was I going to. There is no going back to my ford fusion after driving his BMW so I respectfully declined. Years ago this was not the case. I bought a Mazda RX-8 because it was my color. Slowly, the habit of living the life you want takes over living with the things you want. I have downsized quite a bit. My last business became debt free before I sold it and now we are personally almost debt free, the house is the only thing left and we should be able to pay it off in less than a year. YEAH!!

    1. Jeff, that’s an AMAZING success… and I love that you wouldn’t even drive it! Remove the temptation, right??? (And I had to laugh at buying a car “because it was your color.” My daughter read that, she’s 12, and she says, “Wouldn’t any car he bought have been his color then?”)

  4. My Kryptonite: The Tall, Non-Fat 185 Degree Peppermint Hot Chocolate with whip and no drizzle…

    $3.00 a day may be a cheap vice compared to some of Starbuck’s drinks, but it’s still almost $100 per month (which is a huge percentage of my extra income!).

    Combine that with my wife’s Tall No Water 190 Degree No Foam With Whip Chai Tea Latte, and we have a serious problem on our hands!

    1. Brandon, I love how you’re looking at this – as a big percentage of your extra income! I think the trouble sometimes is we look at “just” $100 a month and in the grand scheme of things, we think, oh, I can deal with that. But when you realize, hey, that’s a third of my side-hustle money, or whatever, that makes a difference!

      So is it a habit you think you’d want to change? Or not?

    2. And PS – Think of the time you’ll save each day without having to rattle off that 12-word drink title! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. I think willpower can help, but I don’t believe it’s the answer. If you want to break an old habit or start a new one you need to have a really good reason. I wanted to become vegan because I believed it was a healthier way of eating, but also because I have strong feelings around factory farming.

    The thing is, I loved sweets, cakes, muffins, pastries, you name it. So I made a point of finding out exactly how those animals are raised. Now there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell that I’ll ever touch any of that stuff again. You just need to find your “reason”. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Angela, finding your “big why” is a huge motivator, I agree! I’m so glad you were able to tie that in!

  6. I was pretty surprised not to see more clothes, makeup, and shoes on your list. Maybe most of the entries were from guys…
    I’m a sucker for plants and it takes all my willpower not to come home from Trader Joe’s with an orchid or Home Depot with a flat of pansies. I do buy some plants because gardening is my passion, but I now stick to a budget and a seasonal plan.

    1. Deane, I hadn’t thought of gardening – but that and home improvement in general could be weaknesses for me if I gave them some “root”! ๐Ÿ™‚

      I know that for me personally, clothes aren’t really a “Kryptonite” issue – in part because my Kryptonite tends to be “smaller” purchases, and when I buy clothes, my tendency is to wait until I need a whole bunch of stuff and make one bulk budgeted new wardrobe purchase. But you’re right – I’m surprised more people didn’t mention it too!

  7. I used to buy too many clothes. Then, I became a Dunkin Donuts addict. Now I hardly buy anything new – all thrift store purchases – and I use a budget. I only go to Dunkin’s once a week, though my fiance has a daily addiction while he is driving for work. Leftover money is hardly available so I can’t spend frivolously. Buying enough groceries for to go snacks is a must in my home and leftovers are always eaten for lunches. I try to make extra so there is enough to have lunch the next day. If I don’t plan ahead, then I’ll spend more money on bad food and then I feel guilty.

    1. Rachel – guilt – isn’t THAT a topic for a future post! You’re right, though, that upping the grocery spending to cover snacks is a big part of being successful at a food-type Kryptonite! ๐Ÿ™‚

    2. I do that too, leftovers from dinner are lunch at the office the next day. It’s a good way to go, but a bummer if there aren’t enough leftovers.

  8. Hmmm….I suppose my kryptonite is getting coffee and snacks for meetings, food for get togethers with friends, and thrift store/rummage sale shopping. That’s a lot of things!

    I’m doing better on the meetings stuff. I find if I make myself a cup of tea and grab a cheese stick before I leave for the meeting, I’m much better off. I don’t try to sneak into a starbucks before the meeting. Having a cute travel mug helps! *wink*

    Food for get togethers? That one’s harder. We don’t really go out much since we’re always to the wire on our budget. But having dinner at a friend’s house, that should be doable. However, I’ve found, we easily drop $50 to get the snacks, drinks, etc. Not sure how to get around that one, except to maybe figure out a way to budget it in, instead of pop into the store on the way there, blowing the budget.

    Thrift store/rummage sale shopping……that’s definitely a tough one for me! We never buy anything new–seriously….from sleeping bags to dishes to shoes (okay, toothbrushes are always new!) And the kids always need the next size up shoes and clothes, so…..I’m constantly thinking I need to hunt down their clothes. But then, I’ll find a cute game, or some vinyl records, or something else. I’m doing better, in that I make a list of what I’m looking for and only buy from the list. And we trade in outgrown toys, books, and clothes at the local consignment shop, get store credit, and then use that for when the kids need new (to them) stuff. But, the temptation is always there to look for something cool. I love that “on a treasure hunt” feeling and finding a good score. Honestly, I’m still riding that high of found 2 North Face sleeping bags in good condition with stuff sacks and storage duffels $25 for both of them (it was $15 each). Ha!

    So, there’s mine………that’s a big list!

    1. Leah, I love your list because it is so classic… I can’t tell you how many times we go thrift-store shopping (where we, also, buy an awful lot of our things) and we end up with extra stuff “just because it was SUCH as great deal and we’re going to need it.” Ugh! Hard to resist! ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. It doesn’t help with the clutter either. We’re really working on turning the faucet the other way–clutter out, money in! Slowly but surely!

  9. Ann Beardsley

    Mine is fabric. Even ones 15 and 20 miles off the interstate. It’s like my car has a mind of its own. And then once I have the fabric, I have to make a quilt with it. Then I give the quilt away, but in the meantime I’ve got all this stack of fabric, so I make another one–and then the fabric store beckons, because after all, I’ve used up (some of) the fabric and I must replenish my stash. So I buy more fabric…and the cycle continues. I’m now rationing myself to making one quilt out of (mostly) scraps for every one I buy new fabric for–and that helps me avoid the store. But once I’m in a fabric store, I have zero willpower. So right now I’m just trying to avoid them.

    1. Replace that with scrapbooking paper and you’ve hit on a problem I had until recently, when I put myself on a ban! ๐Ÿ™‚ And I DO use it, but never even close to “using up,” even though I think I must be!

    2. I used to do the same thing with fabric and yarn! I’ve cleared out my stash of both and have put the kibosh (is that how you spell that?) on any new stuff until I use up all the old that’s left. I’ve found avoiding the fabric store is the best solution for me. Good luck!

      1. oh so true. I avoided bookstores for the last months in order to save money. I had a little test yesterday and just went through the shop and deliberately tried to “only” have a look around. its not so bad. you need to make a conscious statement: “I dont need any new book. I also dont need any cards, calendars, games, etc. I dont need anything that this store can offer me. I wont spend money, because I want to spend it on something more important.” This makes me feel safe, although I slipped at the supermarket and bought far too much chocolate. my new mantra will be: “I only buy what is on the list – I will not look at the sweets department”.

    3. I used to have the fabric addiction too… and it didn’t help that there was a Mill outlet store on the way to my Parents’ house… I always had to stop there and rummage through all the bins. I couldn’t resist the clearance! I’d make quilts and pillows and curtains and all sorts of stuff for people – but I never seemed to manage to use up all that fabric. So I kept it for “sometime”.
      I finally kicked that habit by telling myself very firmly that I was not permitted to buy any more fabric – and I even sold some of the extra on eBay. I still have 2 plastic bins full, but am not allowed to acquire any more!

  10. We love the convenience store…a little too much! I try and budget snacks and soda in with our groceries to avoid those little trips but it never fails, we always end up going. I think maybe its a nice little high or pick me up to get yourself a treat. At the time its great but then after I’m always thinking how dumb that was!!

    1. Sounds just like me, Alycia! I think that’s part of it – it’s a pick-me-up to go AT THE MOMENT to get something, where getting it in advance is not! I need to change that thinking in my case, but I haven’t quite nailed it yet!

    1. Jenna, we have some family members that love craft beer too! Good for you for figuring out how to limit it, though!

  11. Me? Camera gear. Love shooting video and love making photos I can share with the world. Thankfully I have the will power to say no and make due with what I have until the bitter end. I’m pretty hard on my gear.

    Great post! Forming new habits is key.

    1. Thanks, Adam! Good for you for getting as much use out of your equipment as you can, too… that’s something that I think a lot of people struggle with!

  12. I feel you on te convenience store. We have a Walgreens in walking distance and they know me there. I finally created a Walgreens line on my budget to force myself to stop when I ran out.

    1. Jill, I love it… it was funny, in You Vs. Debt when we had to envelope-budget one category, “Rutter’s” was my category, and I thought at the time I was alone – glad I’m not!

  13. Thank you, Joan. Yes, creating a more empowering habit is absolutely the key. We used to spend quite a bit of money on liquor until we discovered fresh juicing. Not only did we save a bucket of money, but also look and feel so much healthier.

    Best to you,

    Cheeky biz toonist ๐Ÿ˜‰

    1. Good for you, Robin! We need to find our own “replacement habit” now, I truly believe. That will be what helps us.

  14. What are your main spending (or other!) weaknesses? And whatโ€™s your strategy for breaking the habit?

    Thank you for pointing out it’s a habit! I too purchase books and food. I know why too. I live alone and its a good reason to get out, talk and be with people. There are even more constructive ways to handle that reasonable need, I just never put two and two together till you asked this at the end of you article where you admitted you act like I do. That really helped me see myself more clearly.

    You know, I want to eat well, I am going to run another marathon this year. Good nutrition is key to being successful in that long race. And good mental nutrition is key to keeping myself healthy too. I can’t honestly say I have read every book I have purchased to the end.

    So after having given this more thought, I will choose to eat well at home. I know if I really tried, I can find more friends to do things with that don’t make being in the grocery store an important social event too.

    1. Deanna, WOW – that is a mind-blowing realization. Good for you!! I hope you know we’ll be here to cheer you on… keep us posted on how it’s going!

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  16. Great post, Joan! I think my weakness is eating out. I work in SF and there’s SO many good food places around! Luckily my dad has always encouraged us to be savers so I’m not too big of a spendthrift. I only use cash to eat out so I only can spend so much money. And when all else fails, I think how much the meal will cost in terms of hours of work. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Jennifer, that’s a good strategy! Or sometimes what bill I could pay with it, or something like that, I use.

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  19. I’d say my main Kryptonite is eating out/take out, and going to bars.

    I try to save take out food for the weekend, or if it’s a social occasion, rather than from being ‘lazy’ during the week.

    I’ve shaved a lot of other spending habits off throughout the years and turned more toward minimalism. Every week I look around my 1 bedroom apartment, and ask myself what I can get rid of or consolidate . The more I get rid of , the happier I get and there isn’t really a vacuum created by doing this to purchase more.

    1. Jeff, that’s awesome – and I agree, for me, getting rid of “stuff” hasn’t led to any kind of vacuum. It’s only where it’s a “doing something” habit that i run into problems in that regard!

      I, too, get happier the more I get rid of, which is awesome.

  20. A couple of years ago I started to have some health issues and was in pain and horribly tired all the time. I started to stop at Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to work, and convenience stores and fast food on my way home from work or while running errands. Not only did it kill my budget, but I gained a ridiculous amount of weight! After having surgery a couple of months ago, I made a vow to eat healthy, lose weight and start exercising.

    How am I doing with that? Fabulous!!
    #1 I FORBID myself to enter a fast food or convenience store. It works…
    #2 I got all the unhealthy food out of my house (and I am talking about anything processed or not natural!! I went hard-core)
    #3 I started shopping twice a week at the Farmer’s Market – buying a ton of fresh fruit and veggies, nothing processed or pre-packaged or “white” (except cheese)
    #4 I started preparing big bowls of salad to keep in the fridge, so there was always something ready to grab if I walked into the house hungry. Salad has become my staple dinner.
    #5 I never leave home without a couple of apples in my purse and a bottle of water (I bought a bigger purse).
    #6 I started walking, a little bit at a time…

    I have lost 25 lb so far, am now up to walking 4-5 miles a day, eating really healthy and feeling much better in my wallet.

    UNFORTUNATELY… I still haven’t tackled my SECOND addiction which is stuff for my kitchen! Bakeware, Cake decorating supplies, Serving dishes, Prep tools, glassware… you name it. Especially when it is in the Thrift store or on a Clearance rack. I have to find a way to attack that with the same vengeance that I attacked my health!!

    1. Martha, the progress you have made is AMAZING! I love hearing that.

      And as for addiction #2… one at a time, but if you can make such progress with the health issues, I know you’ve got this too! Good for you!

  21. Great points. There is a good book about willpower, called “Willpower. Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength”. Basically, it says that willpower is the same muscle as any other and can be trained.

  22. I think we have differing opinions on what constitutes a “habit.” To me, a habit is something like buckling your seatbelt when you get in a car or biting your fingernails. But getting in the car and driving to the convenience store (or leaving the house and walking to the store), going in, selecting an item to purchase, going to the cashier and paying for that item — I think there is more room for conscious choice in that series of actions than calling it an “unconscious” habit would leave one to believe.

    When there is a particular action that we consciously recognize is detrimental to us in some way (finance, health, whatever), I think we all need to take greater personal responsibility for our role in that action. I think it starts with the way we view that action. If we say, “it’s a habit therefore willpower doesn’t work” then that shifts the control away from ourselves. It gives control to the habit, and then we are letting ourselves off the hook to some degree because then we can say: I can’t help it, it’s a habit.

    I think it’s always about willpower, sometimes in smaller quantities and sometimes in great, big quantities. I work hard to know the difference between things I can control and things I can’t — and do something with my actions about the former and do something with my attitude about the latter. I’m not always successful but I think it’s more empowering when I am aware of the difference.

    1. Camille, I think there are a lot of things for which that’s 100% true! I guess my only response would be how, when you do something enough, you’d be surprised how unconscious it gets – even when it “should” be conscious, like driving somewhere and spending money!

      I think the point is the same – I’m saying I need to MAKE it conscious, not unconscious, and I think that’s what you’re getting at!

  23. you ROCK, Joan!! i think you’re absolutely right with first identifying the problem and then finding a way to fill it with something positive. i took Leo’s habits course and it was brilliant! so useful in helping you create a good habit, but didn’t mention breaking bad habits (or at least, not that i remember). this combined with that make for a perfect way to move forward. ๐Ÿ™‚

  24. p.s. i can’t tell you how many times i ended up at the local mexican shop for a carne asada burrito getting all the way to the point where i unwrapped the burrito before i remembered that 1) i gave up eating meat and 2) i gave up spending money on “out” food. habits are really hard to break and that’s why i think it’s so important that you recognize them first and then come up with something that takes their place right away. you go girl!

    1. I totally agree with this. I mentioned in one of the comments above that it’s hard for some people to believe how much something can be unconscious – even when you’ve done something like driving to a place and spending money! But when your mind is going 100 directions and you’ve done it often enough, it’s pretty amazing what can happen (and not in a good way!)

      Glad to hear I’m not the only one!

  25. This is such an old post…but I am just discovering your fabulous website.
    My weaknesses are eating out. Seriously our money gets “eaten” up…literally. I think it is laziness on my behalf. After working full-time, going to school fulltime, having church responsibilities and being a mother and wife…I am just overwhelmed and too tired to cook at night.

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