My elephant ate my wallet

Have you ever heard the advice, "The way to get ahead is live beyond your means, never save for the future, and borrow all you can without thought of how you can pay it back?" Of course not. Yet, how often do you spend more during the month than you earn?

Have you ever heard the advice, “The way to get ahead is live beyond your means, never save for the future, and borrow all you can without thought of how you can pay it back?” Of course not. Yet, how often do you spend more during the month than you earn? How long has it been since you added funds to your savings? Are you in the habit of buying basic necessities such as groceries on a credit card and not paying it off right away? If you know what is best, can you explain the bad behavior? Before you start blaming yourself for dismal self-control, you need to take notice of the elephant in the room.

In their book, Switch, How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath popularized an insightful analogy to explain why we may know what do to, but end up not doing it. They point out that our actions can be described as a rider on a six-ton elephant. The rider (our rational side) may know where to go and why, but unless he or she can control the elephant (our emotional side), any long term changes are nearly impossible.

This explains a lot. Go to the gym early in the year and the place is packed (thanks to the rider who sees the need to get in shape). Come back a few weeks later and there are a lot fewer people (thanks to the elephant that would rather sit on the couch watching a movie). The same thing happens when the rider decides to go on a diet. After a few days of fruits and salads, the elephant has had enough and stampedes for the buffet line. It is no different when it comes to handling money. Math isn’t really an elephant thing it does not care if you spend more than you earn. The elephant is all about now, not the future; it sees no value in saving. What do you think will happen if you give an elephant a credit card? It charges!

The bottom line – you are never going to be able to rely on discipline and self-control with your elephant, but this doesn’t mean you have to let your elephant control your life. Just because your elephant is an emotional, hard-to-lead animal is no reason to give up. Anyone that has been to the circus has seen that elephants can be trained to do some great tricks. Your task is to train your elephant to learn some important money tricks. Here are 5 tricks guaranteed to help you handle your elephant.

Direct deposit your paycheck

Arranging with your employer to have your paycheck automatically deposited to your checking account keeps your elephant from cashing the check and spending it. Direct deposit is also cheaper, faster, and safer.

Use elephant envelopes

As mentioned before, give an elephant a credit card and it will charge. The damage to your bank account can be scary. Keep elephant spending in line by using a cash envelope system for spending on food, clothing, entertainment, and mad money. Every payday, your rider will decide how much you will spend until next payday in each of these categories and bring home the cash for each envelope. When the money is gone, your elephant can’t spend more.

Use autopay for bills and retirement saving

Elephants hate to pay bills (you try holding a pen and checkbook with an eight-foot-long trunk) and it’s just not true that an elephant never forgets. Forgetting to pay bills on time can result in costly, unnecessary fines. With just a little time on the phone or online, the rider can set up automatic monthly payments. It is especially important to make regular contributions to your retirement account; if you don’t, your elephant will eat your wallet.

Make minimum payments on all but your smallest debt

and use a big shovel to pay extra on that smallest debt. This is a favorite piece of advice from well-known personal finance expert Dave Ramsey. Your rider may want to focus on high interest debt, but remember, elephants aren’t good at math. Starting with your smallest debts means they will be paid off faster and, seeing your debts eliminated one after another, your elephant will do the happy dance (so watch your toes).

Focus on one financial goal at a time

Elephants are good at tricks, but juggling is not one of them. What do you think would happen if you said to your elephant, ‘Okay, this month we are going to save up an emergency fund, make extra payments on the mortgage, save for little Dumbo’s college, payoff the credit card, and save for retirement?’ Your elephant will be confused. If you can focus on one of these at a time, you can get a lot of energy from a six-ton pachyderm. Focus your elephant.

Are you getting the picture? Don’t do things that will upset your elephant. Instead, motivate and control your elephant so you can change your behavior. Remember, it is not what you know, it is how you behave. Stop ignoring the elephant in the room and get it under control. You’ll be surprised what you can do. What works to get your elephant in line?

Don Milne

Don Milne is the Zions Bank Financial Literacy Manager. Contact him at