Buy Now, Pay Later? Solutions to Financial Procrastination

American consumers recently passed the $1 trillion mark in collective credit card debt, a feat of which it’s difficult to be proud.

Of course, credit cards can be a valuable part of your financial toolkit if they are handled well. I have a friend, for example, who regularly furnishes our camping trips with his extravagant REI dividends just from paying—and paying off—his regular expenses with an REI card. We all reap the benefits when we get to eat his homemade crunch wraps, cooked to perfection in a cast-iron sandwich maker.

Man working on a calculator trying to figure out finances. Financial Procrastination pbs rewire
Using a real calculator rather than your phone might stop you from cruising Instagram rather than building your budget.

But for those of us mere mortals for whom managing credit can be tricky, it’s easy to put off figuring out how you’ll pay for each and every swipe. Financial procrastination insists there will be more time, later, to deal with these fussy details. You know, when you’re rich.

Paying your minimums on time is a good start, but it doesn’t build financial health, and it certainly won’t help you meet your long-term goals. There are three types of procrastination to keep in mind when it comes to your money. If you’re tired of hearing that little voice that whispers “I’ll figure it out later” whenever you swipe your card, diagnosing your personal style of financial procrastination can help you break through it, to take responsibility and action and get your financial life in order.

Financial procrastination type 1: Bored

Not all tasks are created equal, and while I envy those who love to sit down with their financial statements each month, I can’t count myself among them.

When a task can’t be categorized immediately as rewarding, it can be difficult to get on with it. We all have our least favorites: folding and putting away the laundry, unloading the dishwasher. But isn’t your least favorite chore the source of the greatest sigh of relief when it is done?

These are the types of tasks which can be difficult for our primitive brains to comprehend, when the long-term rewards are too distant for the dopamine-hungry now. This type of procrastinator is sometimes characterized as the “The Defier,” the person who doesn’t believe the task is necessary. Yet even more than household chores, tackling financial issues has great long-term benefits: the peace of mind of financial freedom.

Solution: Find that motivation factor. This isn’t as easy as it sounds, but I will give you an example: Every night, after dinner, I sit contemplating the pile of dirty dishes. And every night, I follow the same thread of logic: “I am an adult. I don’t have to do the dishes,” which is sort of rewarding, momentarily. It is then quickly followed by the thought, “But if I don’t do them, they will be there in the morning.”

Somehow, the thought of a sparkling clean sink in the early morning as I drink tea and read the paper is the only motivating thought that can get me to stand at the sink, no matter how deep into the night, and clean the dishes.

So you are going to have to dig a little deeper to find out what that motivating thought is for you. It’s something that connects with you, something that resonates. It should be your very own sparkling-clean sink: a long-term financial goal, the fear of one day showing your partner-to-be your financial statements and wanting to be something other than a train wreck. Whatever motivates you, find it, and then live and breathe it.

Financial procrastination type 2: Overwhelmed

This type of procrastinator has a long backlog of financial statements and uncatalogued expenses, so the task can feel difficult even to begin. They may feel that they are also confronting some financial mistakes that they’ve made along the way.

Young couple talking about finances on a couch. Financial Procrastination pbs rewire
“Whoops, I spent all our money on hair gel.”

In this type of procrastination, the dominating thought is related to self-doubt. Perhaps they don’t feel up to the task: “I don’t know anything about this,” they might think, glancing over a budget template or through a recently downloaded personal finance app. Where to begin? It feels scary to even think about it.

Solution: First, let’s acknowledge the logic that doing nothing is a decision in itself, one that perpetuates a cycle from which we have already established it’s better to break. You avoid facing fear and other negative emotions associated with being overwhelmed, but you also don’t alleviate the problem.

Eliminate your obstacles and pick a place to start. One of the biggest obstacles I face in doing my own financial tracking is the task of printing out bank statements (and the printer is right next to my desk). It’s amazing how close the task feels to complete when I have managed to do this one small thing.

You can also find ways to make the task pleasant. Plan the meeting with yourself in advance, take yourself out to a place you like and unapologetically order something decadent. Then crack into the financial tasks you need to accomplish, like filing your taxes. Making it into a little self-date has helped me change my thoughts from “This is impossible” to something more akin to “This is a necessary inconvenience, but at least it includes chocolate.”

Financial procrastination type 3: Thrill-seeking

This procrastinator has faith in their abilities almost to a fault, and likes the challenge of putting out a fire. It’s true that procrastination can also be productive (I am writing this to you from a sparkling clean apartment), and sometimes, as Oliver Sacks wrote, you need the unconscious time for your brain to work on solving a problem.

This type likes to push themselves close to the limit. Suddenly, they arrive by screeching halt to a financial limit, with no backup plan. And then, their thoughts, which had all along been “I have plenty of time,” are suddenly screaming: “If I don’t do this, I’m going to have a big problem.”

Solution: Procrastination is not a problem in itself; it becomes a problem when it begins to work contrary to what you intellectually know would be easier and happier for you. If that’s a calmer life, then maybe procrastination isn’t working for you anymore.

But perhaps you like the thrill and see no reason to get rid of it. Unfortunately, in personal finance, deadlines don’t necessarily exist until you are confronted with an immediate need for cash. There are credit scores and late fees, but there are no teachers who will frown on you with disappointment if you don’t make a spreadsheet and put your credit card in the freezer when you’re spending more than you’re making.

First, be honest with yourself about how much time you reasonably need to meet a financial goal, and then don’t berate yourself in the meantime for not tackling the task at hand. Second, see if you can break the cycle of urgency by adopting a new philosophy around your finances. Perhaps it’s something like: “I’m better able to handle the unexpected when I’ve prepared in advance.”

Remember that the point of all this is to feel good and in control, rather than helpless and confused. By identifying your tendency for procrastination, you are one step closer to smugly wielding your credit card and reaping your rewards.

A headshot of Jamie Lynne Burgess. PBS Rewire. Jamie Lynne Burgess

Jamie Lynne Burgess is a writer who is fascinated by how places shape culture. She also loves podcasts, personal essays, and public libraries. Get in touch on Twitter @jamburgess or follow her on instagram @jamielynneburgess.