Every spring for the past decade or so, I’ve turned from a normal, healthy adult into a sniffling, dripping fountain of whine in just a matter of days. Something in the air doesn’t agree with me. Last year, instead of just complaining about how crappy I felt, I finally saw an allergist. After giving me a skin test, he told me the bad news: “Trees are your enemy,” he said — which made me laugh.

For the next few months, my allergist and I worked together to find some sort of relief. Nothing really helped. Nasal rinses work for a few minutes, but they irritate my nose in the long run (and their effects are short-lived, anyhow). Various nasal sprays have provided sporadic help. Even most allergy medicines — Claritin, Zyrtec, and so on — seem to have little effect. Only Benadryl (diphenhydramine) works, but that stuff knocks me out! I’m fine taking it before bed, but not during the day.

I’ve been home from Africa for two weeks now, and have been taking Claritin as a preventative measure. Until Sunday, I thought it was working. But after running my 5k on Sunday morning, my allergies slammed me with a vengeance, reducing me to a miserable mess. Curse those trees!

Alder silhouette and shadows
The alder tree, my bitter enemy. O, how I loathe him.

Sunday night, during a break from my whining and sniffling, I remembered that maybe I’d sent myself an e-mail after my last meeting with the allergist. Sure enough.

“I’m so smart,” I told Kris.

“How’s that?” she asked.

“After my visit to the allergist last July, I wrote up an allergy plan and e-mailed it to myself. That way I wouldn’t forget.”

Kris wasn’t impressed. “So, you’re only smart in compensating for your dumbness,” she said.

Exactly,” I said.

But you know what? I’m okay with that. My philosophy is: If you can’t be smart in the first place, then at least be smart about compensating for your dumbness. To put it another way, know thyself.

Mind Games
So much of personal-finance success — and success in other parts of life — comes from being honest about who you are, about acknowledging your weaknesses and your strengths.

I used to define myself by my flaws. That’s not a very fun way to live, though. Over the past few years, I’ve found that I’m happier — and more successful — by admitting my weaknesses, and then finding some way to work around them. In short, I’ve learned to outsmart myself.

For instance, I am by nature a spendaholic. I like to shop. This, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a weakness. I used to see this as a problem that couldn’t be controlled. I’d resigned myself to a lifetime of debt. Fortunately, though, I got smart; I developed strategies to curb my compulsive spending, such as using the 30-day rule whenever I’m tempted to buy.

Here are some of the other ways I’ve learned to deal with my lack of willpower:

  • I can’t have candy or cookies in the house. If junk food is there, I’ll eat it. I have no self-control. Last week, Kris bought a bag of black jelly beans, for example. I love black jelly beans. I tried not to eat them, but my willpower crumbled. They were gone in less than 24 hours. Many folks would argue that I need to learn to be around candy without feeling compelled to eat it. Maybe that’s true. For now, though, I have a better solution: I just don’t have it around. And if Kris brings it home — she has more self-control than I do — then I don’t want to know about it.
  • Similarly, I’ve learned to stay out of comic shops and book stores. I know that by going inside, I’m only going to find something to buy. So why bother? Unless I’m after something specific, I try to stay away from books and comics.
  • As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m a forgetful guy. That’s one reason Kris and I set up our laundry agreement. That’s also the reason I pay the rent on my office space for a year in advance. Yes, I know that sounds crazy. I could put the money in a high-yield savings account and earn interest instead! I don’t care. By paying a year in advance, I don’t have to worry about the monthly bill. My poor memory is also the reason I carry a notebook with me at all times. It’s my backup brain.
  • Every year, I fund my retirement plan and pay the estimated taxes for my business as soon as possible. Once my 2010 taxes are done, for example, my accountant will tell me how much he thinks I’ll owe for taxes in 2011. I’ll immediately make these payments (or as much as possible). I’ll also immediately fund my retirement account for the year. By doing this, I take me out of the equation, and that’s the smartest thing I can do. Plus, it’s a relief knowing that any other money that comes in for the year can be drawn as income.

These are just a few of the ways I use to outsmart myself, to circumvent my weaknesses. There are many others. I automate my finances whenever possible, for instance. And I try to do the hard things first. Why have I managed to do so well at my fitness program in the past year? Because it’s the first thing I do every day. I roll out of bed and push myself out the door before I’m fully awake. That’s what I have to do in order to make it work.

Better Not to Be Dumb
Like a lot of folks, Kris thinks these mind games are unnecessary. She thinks I shouldn’t have to outsmart myself.

“It’s better if you’re not dumb in the first place,” she told me on Sunday. That’s true. And I’m doing my best to become smarter about my habits — financial and otherwise. Meanwhile, I’m content to play tricks on myself if that’s what it takes to succeed. Sometimes, that means sending an e-mail addressed to “Future J.D.”

Because I sent myself an e-mail after my last allergy appointment, I have a plan. I’m whining and sneezing today, but tomorrow morning I’ll be back at the allergy clinic. My doctor and I will go over the options we discussed back in July. It may still take us a while to find something that works, but I have high hopes that before long, I can triumph over my enemies, the trees.

Tell me, how do you outsmart yourself? Do you have any systems in place to circumvent your bad behavior? I’d love to hear concrete tips and examples of how others have learned to live with (and even overcome) their financial blind spots.

Alder photo by Treehouse 1977.

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