Don’t Be A Method Actor When It Comes To Your Finances

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Stephanie O’Connell wrote a wonderful article called ‘Yes and…’ Your Life about borrowing an improvisational technique used by actors and applying it to your life. “Yes, and…” requires you to accept whatever circumstances are presented to you as truth, incorporate them, and use them moving forward. She suggested using it as a way to get out of either/or thinking.

After reading Stefanie’s post I began thinking back to techniques I learned while studying acting. I wondered what other personal finance guidance might be extracted from the way an actor prepares. After all, actors study human behavior in order to portray roles as realistically as possible. Why wouldn’t there be other excellent parallels? Art imitates life. And life may imitate art.

Anyone who’s studied acting has been introduced to “The Method”. It was developed by Lee Strasberg at his famous Actor’s Studio in New York City. Method acting is popularly associated with Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Heath Ledger. The Method relies on the actor building the internal life of a character. He works from the “inside out” in order to feel the emotions of the character. The process is very intense, and some actors even take it beyond the confines of rehearsal or performance. A great example is Daniel Day Lewis, who chose to remain in a wheel-chair for the entire shooting of “My Left Foot” so that he would stay “in character”.

But there’s a lesser known acting technique which involves developing a character from the “outside in”. With this technique, the actor focuses on “doing” and not feeling. So don’t be a Method actor when it comes to your finances. What good is relying on your feelings to get ahead? Feelings can be fleeting, fickle, uncontrollable and undependable. But we can find ways to work around them. We move forward by taking concrete steps, not by feeling.

Let’s take a look at how our feelings get in the way of our finances. Have you had any of these thoughts?

  • I’m not smart enough to manage my money.
  • I don’t earn enough to save money.
  • I don’t understand investing well enough to make decisions.
  • Budgeting is too hard.
  • Tracking my expenses is too annoying.
  • There’s not enough time in the day to do all the things I’m supposed to do.

These are all excuses. These are self-sabotaging feelings that we allow to dictate our behavior. What I’m recommending is that we dictate our behavior instead, and hope that our feelings catch up. Concentrate on the doing, and not the feeling. So what do you do if you want to start saving and investing but you feel you don’t have the money, the willpower or the knowledge? You just do it. You don’t wait until you feel like it. You make a decision. You make a commitment.

Commit to setting aside $50 over the next month for saving. After you’ve saved $50 in a month, try upping it to $75 the next month, and so on. When you’ve had a few successful months of saving and you’ve accumulated $1,000 (and you also have a cash emergency fund) start thinking about investing it. You may need to shop around since brokerage firms have minimums. And if you want a step by step guide, try Mr. Groovy’s plan for how to work out your saving muscles.

Let’s try dictating our behavior now when it comes to cutting down expenses. Do one small action and see where it leads.

  • Take your lunch to work for just one day next week, rather than eating out.
  • If you get your hair styled at a salon every six weeks, try stretching it out to every eight weeks.
  • The next time you’re on Amazon and have the urge to buy something, choose to “save it for later”. Give it a day or two before returning to your shopping cart to see if you still really want to make the purchase.
  • Wherever you shop on line, don’t store your credit card and shipping information in your account. Force yourself to actively input all your data each time you make a purchase. The time involved might allow you to change your mind.
  • Put a stop to those endless catalogs you receive in the mail by signing up for Catalog Choice. Out of sight out of mind.

Another helpful behavior is this—only discuss your finances and personal goals with people who support you and want the best for you. Talk to people with good money habits. Don’t talk to people who overspend, complain about their finances, and never take constructive steps to turn things around. These people inhabit a much darker place—they’re on a totally different path than you are. Chances are they’re not going to succeed in life and they will hope you fail too—even if they won’t admit it. This means put a zip on it. Treat your dreams and goals with kid gloves and keep them away from spoilsports. Your life is your creation and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

And finally people, in the words of Frugal Vagabond, “don’t tell me you can’t”. You may not have been born on third base, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get to home plate. You have the power to make small changes and see where that leads you. Anyone with the will to do so can achieve financial security.

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20 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing the ties to acting! That is definitely not my thing but it is neat to connect to! “You have the power to make small changes” – I think this is so important. Many people take on too many things at once and try to totally “fix” themselves (diet, finances, etc.) when a few small changes are what is more likely to “take hold”. Thanks for that great reminder – incrementalism works wonders!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      It’s no longer my thing either, Vicki! I like the term you used – incrementalism. That’s a good one. Definitely, we’re more likely to develop habits that stick with us if we do one thing at a time. Thanks a lot for your comment!

  2. Love this! We are especially fond of using the delay technique before making a purchase. It’s very effective where most of the time we come to the conclusion that we don’t really need the item.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Thank you! I’ve saved many items in my Amazon account that I later got rid of. Sometimes I can’t even remember why I wanted an item in the first place. We really need very little. I’ll succumb to a want every now and then i.e. my iPad. But it took me months to work up to buying it.

  3. “Yes, and ” works so well. It forces you to not stop at stating the problem. You must offer a solution.

    Improv is a great analogy for finance. Your choices will be constrained by the scenario in front of you and it will change rapidly.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Don’t you love the “Yes, and…” I also like that it forces you to come up with a solution. And improv certainly works apropos to finances. We often need to be flexible (but we also need to have the strength to stay the course). I appreciate your comment, ZJ.

  4. The outside in method is sort of “fake it til you make it”. Smile and you’ll be happier, save and you’ll be more likely to keep saving. Sounds like a good plan for bypassing some of those not-so-helpful feelings.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      In a draft of this post I actually used “fake it til you make it”. I was also going to mention a similar technique which is rooted in therapy, not acting – the “act as if..” technique. Rather than trying to convince yourself of anything, you use your imagination to behave “as if”. A person might use this effectively at a job interview. He might say to himself “I’m going to act as if I have confidence”. It really works.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I KNOW you are all about it! I haven’t acted in years but in some ways it’s like riding a bike. You never forget the training. Thanks for commenting, Stefanie.

  5. I think method acting can definitely be dangerous. Even for the actors who just observe others and base their characters on that… Theoretically good, in that you emulate people doing well. On the other hand, if you *can’t* emulate them, you might decide it’s impossible and not try.

    All in all, it’s better to build a character that’s, well, you. There’s a reason for the saying “it builds character” after all. Though to quote a friend of mine, “At this point, I have so much character I could do a play all by myself.”

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I agree about method acting being dangerous. And it ain’t no picnic being around those actors, either. Rather than trying to replicate a person, an actor can get better results simply using his imagination…I love your friend’s quote. I’ve felt that way at times, too.

  6. Love the ideas about not keeping your credit card stored at your favorite online shops, and saving your purchases for later. I regularly put stuff on my wish list at Amazon and then delete it 5-6 months later because I ended up never buying it.

    I think with saving and investing, sometimes you have to use the Nike method (Just Do It!) I know I’ve made a lot of errors in my journey. They have all led to more success than waiting.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I seriously cannot even remember sometimes why I put something on my Amazon list when I go back to it. Or I already found the item cheaper somewhere else.
      I totally agree about the Nike method. I had a line in a draft of the post I took out, about how nothing is irrevocable. I think people tend to forget that. If you’re ignorant like we were when you first get into investing, as you learn more, you get out of one product and into another. I think the options are so great that people become paralyzed. I can’t even bring up the topic anymore with people at my job. Probably half of them are leaving the 8% of their salary on the table that my employer kicks in when we put in 5%. They can’t cut back their expenses, the choices are too complicated, etc. etc. 8% – are you kidding me?

  7. While I’m not a thespian, nor participated in any training, I can appreciate the analogy. It can be difficult to get past acting on ‘feelings’ and instead, base your actions on data and a systemic approach. However, the sooner an investor masters the discipline, the better results they will see.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Discipline and developing habits matter more than feelings when it comes to finances, for sure.

      You may not be a thespian, James, but your writing is very artistic – very cultured.

  8. It’s the idea of leaning in, right? Whatever you’re dealt, if you lean into the situation rather than fight it, you’ll probably get better results. That’s my MO for summer school anyway 😉 I’ve written a lot about how feelings and my irrational fears have gotten in the way of my investing. I also think that emotions are responsible for a lot of the excuses we make. As you point out, there are many people who make excuses because it is convenient. I think there is a big difference between making an excuse and having an an excuse/reason. I remind myself of this often! Thanks for the excellent food for thought!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      I haven’t read Leaning In but I think I’ll get it from the library. But that sounds about right – just deal with it. Maybe we should call it the riptide response – swim with the tide, not against it.

      We just listened to JL Collins on So Money with Farnoosh. Have you seen his new book, The Simple Path to Wealth? I have not, but it sounds very good… At least you know you’ve been (only somewhat) irrational about investing and did something about it! It’s hard to part with money! You’ll get used to it. Mr. G says I have ice in my veins because I’m not phased one bit by market swings — talk to me when we don’t have paychecks, though. I might be singing an entirely different song.

      I see your point about making an excuse and having an excuse and I agree there is a difference. Thanks for your thought-provoking comments.

  9. I don’t always agree with taking your lunch to work, because at an old company I worked at, the professionals that went to lunch together usually ended up networking together and being friends which made some people feel closer and the ones who didn’t go felt isolated.

    It impacted peoples career if they didn’t go to lunch. The lunch thing was open to everyone though so it’s not like it was some closed off thing.

    It reminds me of the book “never eat alone.” However if a person is in debt and they can’t eat out with the team then it is what it is and they should cut back until their financial problems are solved.

    Generally, I agree with you on not letting feelings get in the way of your wise decisions.

    • Mrs. Groovy

      If networking at lunch is a priority then by all means go for it. But if you’re broke you need to budget for it. And if you’re broke and you don’t use lunch for networking, but you “can’t find time” to pack lunch, or feel you “deserve” to eat out because you work so hard, it’s a silly expense.

      In my experience with work lunches, people use it as an excuse to overeat, over spend, and/or drink too much. If I wanted to get ahead by networking at my job, I’d prefer to find a mentor to lunch with once a month and pick his or her brain. (And personally, in all of my “regular” jobs I never looked for friends. Sometimes I found one in unexpected places, like in another department).