This is a guest post from Baker, who writes about personal finance at Man vs. Debt. Baker is a potential Staff Writer for Get Rich Slowly. His first post described the many advantages of couchsurfing. Along with his wife and 15-month-old daughter, Baker has recently moved overseas to New Zealand, where his young family is passionately continuing their own personal “war” on debt.

“Do I have enough money for this?”

It’s a very simple question, but one that has had tremendous implications in my financial turn-around. There was a time, not too long ago, when that combination of words didn’t exist in my life.

Lately, I’ve stepped the phrase up a notch with some mental emphasis, “Do I really have enough money for this?” With the new emphasis included, my impulse purchases don’t stand a chance. Well, at least most of them don’t…

You see, our brains are incredible machines. They are bombarded by over a billion tiny bits of information on a daily basis. Without an amazing filtering system, we’d go insane within minutes. It’s during the times I can’t locate the keys in my pocket that I’m most glad I don’t have to constantly think about breathing, walking, or swallowing.

Unfortunately, there’s a downside to this miracle. From a young age, we have the responsibility of conditioning our brains what not to filter. We’ve been assigned the impossible task of reminding our brains, “Hey, stop… I want to notice, observe, or think about this.”

Take for example the feeling you get when you notice someone looking at you. Most of us have conditioned our brains to flag us when someone is observing us. We want to look up and make eye contact. “Why’s this person looking at me?”“Do I look funny?”… “Are they hitting on me?” The point being that we want to know badly enough that we’ve cued our subconscious not to filter this type of event.

What in the world does this have to do with Personal Finance?
For me, absolutely everything. This is the single reason that convinced me to completely eliminate credit cards from my life. I noticed my credit cards seemed to thrive on numbing me to the buying process. I didn’t naturally ask myself any questions when I pulled out my credit card to swipe. In fact, it was just the opposite. You know what I had anchored to my credit cards? “If I pay it off at the end of the month, it’s o.k.”

Not a probing question. Not an obstacle to keep me in check. I had subconsciously attached a justification to my credit card use. Realizing this made me sick.

After more thought, I realized I had a different anchor to the process of using my debit card. I was so worried about overdrawing my checking account that my first instinct was to ask the million dollar question:

“Do I really have enough money for this?”… “Sure, I just got paid on Friday… wait… why the heck do I need the 50th anniversary edition of Scrabble. Is the standard one at home not good enough?”

This was truly a “holy crap” moment in my life. My first response with debit was to verify my purchase instead of simply validating it. It was one of the single most powerful moments in my financial life. Why is this? What’s different? How can I leverage this effect? Are there other questions I could be asking myself?

Let me take some time to explain this isn’t an attempt to change your personal credit card usage. That’s not my objective. However, I do think it was worth outlining how my own physical use of each of them sent me down a drastically different mental path.

After this moment of financial enlightenment, I had two choices:

  1. Break apart and redefine the conditioned responses I had when using of my credit cards; or
  2. Stop using them altogether and maximize the benefits of substituting debit cards.

I’d like to admit here that both are viable options. I wasn’t opposed to the little pieces of plastic that said “credit”; after all, it was my emotional attachments that were truly to blame. But instead of trying to rewire my thought process, I decided to embrace the existing system I had already built. The result was life-changing. Literally.

What does this mean for you?
That depends. Have you taken the time to think about your conditioned responses to using different forms of payment? I’ve talked to a lot of people who claim different spending methods don’t affect their purchases at all. They could pay with “0% interest for 24 months” or by counting out individual pennies, it would make no difference. Surely, there are some of you out there. For me, though, I had tricked myself into thinking I was a member of this exclusive club when I really wasn’t. Finally, I hit a point where being honest with myself was more important than being right.

My advice is to experiment with different purchasing methods and really concentrate on any conditioned responses you may have. That’s what worked for me. Be honest with yourself no matter what the result. If things aren’t up to your standard, fix them or change them. Most importantly, be aware of them.

Look, we all know J.D.’s “do what works for you” mantra. I’m a big fan of it, too. But, in my case, the “what” was no longer “working”. In fact, what I needed most was to experiment with techniques that increased my “what” options.

More recently, just this sort of experimentation has lead me into spending based on the envelope budgeting system. If you are searching for over-sized helping of the “do-I-have-enough-money-for-this” effect, try standing in front of the grocery clerk and hearing, “That’ll be 82 dollars and 12 cents”, only to look down at the measly $64 within your “FOOD” envelope. It only takes a couple embarrassing times of putting back groceries before you start to radically shift your purchasing habits.

After all, isn’t positively changing behavior the ultimate goal? It is for me! Which is why I’m constantly striving for opportunities to stop and think, “Do I really have enough money for this?”