Video: The psychology of bill avoidance

Take small steps to deal with that which you dread, a professor says


We’ve all done it: We look at a piece of mail sitting on the counter, knowing what’s inside, but we refuse to open it. We don't want to deal with the financial bad news.

“I avoid my bills,” says Dena Rand, who works in kids education in Austin, Texas. “I avoid opening my mailbox. I feel bad about it, but I don’t know how to deal with it.”

That’s natural, says Professor Art Markman, the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.

“It turns out that your motivational system has two distinct components to it,” says Markman, who is also the author of “Smart Thinking.” “There is an approach system and an avoidance system. The avoidance system is the motivational system that you use to get away from things that you think are going to be really bad.”

While avoiding bad news is natural, you can also train yourself to tackle not-so-great news head-on. When the bad news you've been avoiding relates to credit card bills, your financial problems and the late fees and interest grow. Instead, dealing with your financial problems is the way you  to reclaim your credit.

The first step to overcoming bill avoidance, Markman says, is to decide to face what you fear the most. Embrace that discomfort.

“When you feel that desire to run away from something kick in, it’s better to just stand up to it and say, ‘You know it’s better to take care of this now than to leave it for later,’” Markman says.  

Once, you’ve made the decision to confront the problem, break it into small, manageable chunks. If you have a bill you just can’t face, first take the envelope out of the mail pile and place it on your table. There, it will be a visual reminder. The next day, open the envelope, but don’t take out the bill. Finally, on the third day, confront that bill and make a plan to pay it.

If you’re still having trouble, Markman recommends phoning a friend. “Turn it into something that's a little bit more of a socially positive experience,” he says.

Finally, practice. The more you confront bad news and open those unwanted bills, the more natural it will become and the more likely you’ll reclaim control of your finances and credit.

Over time, your bad financial news should start to get better.

See related: How behavioral economics explains six common money mistakes, Avoid late payments by setting up auto bill pay

Published: October 13, 2016

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Updated: 10-21-2016

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