J.D. is on vacation in Alaska. This is a guest post by Bill Goodwin, who co-edits the debating site Dissense. Bill has been following the GRS gospel since converting to the religion of financial common sense three years ago.

Personal finance blogs, and none more so than Get Rich Slowly, offer a wealth of resources for people looking to master their spending and take charge of their fiscal health. Want to know how snowball your debt, start a Roth IRA, rent or buy or even be happier? There’s a post for that. As Ami Kim recently pointed out, “Between J.D.’s (and others’) posts and the treasure trove of comments, you could build a path to wealth tailored to your individual income, assets, and circumstances.”

Unfortunately, all these tools can actually be an obstacle to financial success. Worse, if we’re not careful, the very resources we appreciate so dearly — the regular blog posts, the always available guides, the stories of success — can work against our own ability to take action.

No, I’m not saying we should all abandon J.D. and stumble blindly into our financial futures. Rather, I’d like to highlight a hidden trap that can slow (and in some cases undermine) our personal journeys to sane and stable finances.

Beware of Completionism
In his most recent book, Create Your Own Economy, the insightful economist Tyler Cowen had a fascinating discussion of how reading on the internet becomes its own reward.

One of the great appeals of blog posts is the expectation of receiving a new reward (and finishing off that reward) every single day. You can “start a new book” — albeit a very short one — pretty much on demand. You can finish it off not only in the same day but usually in the very same sitting. How’s that for a feeling of accomplishment?

A sense of accomplishment is wonderful, but it’s important to remember what you’ve accomplished: very little. That is, if you’re reading about personal finance you may have learned a lot about automating your finances or getting rid of Stuff, but that’s very different than accomplishing either of those goals.

The danger is that you can fall prey to completionism: the jolt of satisfaction from finishing a blog post or reading through a whole series becomes the reward. We get a sense of satisfaction before we’ve even taken more than the first step in the right direction. In fact, as Cowen points out, the more you read, the more satisfying it is. In contrast, the reward for getting control of spending could be months (or more!) in the future.

Completionism may seem harmless enough, but consider the phenomenon in light of another psychological discovery.

What you read affects how you behave
A pair of Canadian psychologists recently studied the effect of having consumers browse a website heavily branded with eco-friendly goods. Not surprisingly, they found that people who purchased green goods considered themselves more “virtuous.” What was a surprise was that they found “markedly different behavioral consequences” after “mere exposure to green products.” That’s right: people started acting differently after merely looking at a website.

What were the behavioral consequences? The study found that people “act less altruistically and are more likely to cheat and steal.” The participants, beginning with their browsing, acted as if they had built up moral capital and could spend it however they liked. Simply because of what they read on a website, people were less likely to feel obligated in moral situations.

J.D. has written before about the problem of spending like the person you want to be (instead of who you are). That makes sense: if we purchase sports clothes, we think of ourselves as athletes, at least for the moment. This study takes that even farther: we start to self-identify on the basis of what we read. It doesn’t take much of a leap to see how this could be a problem. Want to feel like you’re saving the environment? Browse Patagonia’s website. Want to feel like your finances are under control? Read up on responsible budgeting!

Worse, as the study demonstrates, we are likely to feel like we’ve earned an exemption from our usual obligations. As Julian Baggini writes:

The problem is compounded by the fact that we also tend to over-value the good we do and undervalue the harm. The more you believe that saving the world is the most important thing in it, the more your credit for doing your bit is inflated.

The lesson for personal finances is clear: If we read a lot about responsible saving, we might feel like we’ve earned an exception to our normal savings rules.

Combine this effect and the dangers of completionism, and you’ve got a recipe for inaction.

How to recognize it
No doubt you’re thinking, “Ha, I’d hate to be the sap who is so easily affected by what I read.” But take a minute to reflect on the variety of ways this kind of inertia can get in your way. Here’s where a personal example might help.

This past weekend, my wife and I resolved to spend several hours completing unfinished “life business.” We looked at our savings strategy, our investments, the stack of papers in our “To Do” pile. What we uncovered was an unpleasant surprise.

  • Last fall, I set up an automated a savings plan using ING sub-accounts. Or at least, I thought I did. In fact, I set up the process, and routinely violated the rules, taking money out of different accounts when emergencies came up. It had become a cumbersome, complicated checking account, but that hadn’t stopped me from telling people I’d “automated my saving.” I thought I had.
  • I found a box of Stuff, the product of a purge from last fall that I’d meant to take to goodwill. Sure, the clothes weren’t hanging in the closet and the books were off the shelves, but I still had the Stuff, every unnecessary piece of it.
  • Worst of all, I went through Google Reader. Guess how many items were tagged with “dothis”? This many!

That’s right: 220 items on my to do list, almost all of them undone. Of course, this is partially a flaw in the type of things I call “to do” items. But reflecting on my experience I found a common thread: in each case, I told myself I had finished something I had only started. I thought of myself as organized because I had a long to-do list, boxes packed with things to throw away, and the skeleton of an automated finance system.

What to do about it
Happily, this problem has a straightforward solution: keep your goals and your successes separate. The success of automated finances is measured in dollars saved at the end of the year, not by the number of savings goals you create. Tally your decluttering by the number of boxes you hand off at Goodwill, not the hours spent shuffling Stuff from one place to the next. And, finally, count your accomplishments, not the number of items on your list.

The single easiest way to do this is as follows:

  • Grab your calendar (or open it in a new tab).
  • Pick a consistent date each month (the last Saturday, for instance).
  • Write down a question that frames your goals in concrete terms (e.g. “How many dollars did I save this month?)
  • Make a space for an answer to that question, and every month, write down the answer.

Sure, it might seem unnecessary (heck, you might feel like you’ve already taken care of this problem, just by reading this blog post!), but do it anyway. That’s one task you can feel no qualms about completing.