Stories | February 5, 2014

What can a United States president or NBA superstar teach about managing money?

Former United States basketball superstar Allen Iverson earned more than $200 million during his career but is now broke.

The basketballer’s mixed fortune helps illustrate a fascinating aspect of self-control: How did he have enough self-discipline to become a star in the fiercely competitive NBA but appear not to exercise the same kind of control over his finances?

Iverson’s not alone in this situation, with a Sports Illustrated investigation finding more than 60% of NFL and NBA players encounter financial problems, even bankruptcy, within a few years after retiring.
Their stories can tell us non-athletes about the different ways self-control works – and give an insight into how we can improve our own.

As influential as intelligence?
Along with intelligence, self-control is one of the traits psychologists have shown to be a predictor of success in adult life and fortunately it is possible to improve it. A 2010 study that tracked 1,000 children in New Zealand found that good self-control was linked with better health and wealth (and less likelihood of committing crime), irrespective of their intelligence and social class.
Having good self-control is widely considered to involve being able to control your emotions, thoughts, and behaviour, focus and persevere on a task and to give a considered response rather than an impulsive one in the heat of the moment.

Tip from a President: Don’t use all your self-control at once
As a United States Senator, Lyndon B Johnson smoked 3-4 packs of cigarettes a day until a heart attack in 1955 made him decide he needed to quit the habit if he was going to achieve his ambition of becoming President. Exercising the willpower he was famous for, the book Master of the Senate recounts how he quit cold turkey and even slept with an untouched pack of cigarettes beside his bed until his Presidency ended in 1969. Soon after he resumed chain-smoking, admitting he had missed cigarettes everyday since he quit.
Many of us might wish we had this kind of discipline. But following Johnson’s strategy may not be the wisest course. Consistently resisting temptation, like deciding not to buy something you want when you have the money in your pocket, can wear you down and lead to poor decisions later on. This is the main view in psychology which thinks of self-control as similar to a muscle, a finite resource that must be managed carefully. A series of clever experiments by Roy Baumeister and colleagues have found that people who exercise self-discipline by resisting their natural feelings or desires tend to do poorly on tasks which require self-control afterwards. This state of mental fatigue, known as ego depletion, has also been found to be caused by prolonged decision-making.
This idea is now well-known enough that Barack Obama has acknowledged that it informs his daily routines, saying in a 2012 interview for Vanity Fair that “I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make."

Tip from a sports star: Beware the “domain”
Just because we are good at applying self-control in one area of life, it doesn’t guarantee this will hold true in another area.
An analysis of 102 studies on self-control, released in 2011, found that people with high self-control tended to use it effectively to create and maintain good habits (known as automatic behaviours) rather than, for example, resist the urge to buy recommended purchases from online retailer Amazon (known as controlled behaviours).
It also found evidence of “domain specific” self-control. This is when a person is controlled in one area of life but not in others. An example is being disciplined at work but impulsive outside of it – which might help explain the apparent paradox in the behaviours of those sports stars mentioned earlier.
It may well be the case that Iverson, and other sportspeople, effectively establish good training habits in their early years that put them on the path to success (at least in sports terms) but are not as good at resisting individual temptations that their success affords them access to.

Tips for managing money
In terms of saving money, tips from both the President and the sports star can help.
As Obama’s decision making policy suggests, don’t make any big financial decisions when you have made too many choices already and are ego-depleted. Have a night of rest and consider them in the morning.
And as the sports stars fortunes suggest, it might pay to know where your self-control is strong and where it is weak – then build long-term habits to suit. If thinking about the future and building savings for retirement is difficult, make a rule about the percentage of your earnings you want to save and have the amount automatically transferred to a savings account on payday.

Mark Egan

Behavioural science consultant

SavingPersonal financeSportPsychology