How to stop living beyond your means

Our award-winning coach Kim Morgan meets a woman who can’t stop living beyond her means


How to stop living beyond your means

Living to excess

Amber owned an events management company and had a reputation as a successful local businesswoman. At our first session, she was very honest with me. ‘The business isn’t making any money and I fear I am going to have to declare bankruptcy. That would be disastrous for me.’

Living life to excess, Amber modelled her lifestyle on the people she read about in celebrity magazines. By her own admission, she had no restraint. ‘If I want it, I do it,’ she said. She loved extravagance and spent so much on events she organised for her clients that she often made a loss. Amber felt it was time to ‘grow up’ and start taking her life and business seriously, so we developed an action plan to introduce more restrained behaviours into her life and work.

When it was time for our next session, Amber arrived with a bottle of Champagne and a box of cupcakes. ‘Sorry I’m late,’ she said. ‘I was just buying a new car and personalised number plate.’ I was surprised to hear this. As the session progressed, I realised that she hadn’t made any attempt to change. I asked her if she identified with any of the following reasons for doing things to excess:

  • A feeling of emotional emptiness inside that you are trying to fill with other things.
  • Fear of Missing Out (‘FOMO’), where you experience anxiety due to comparing your lifestyle to that of others.
  • Low-frustration tolerance, characterised by seeking instant gratification and ignoring the long-term conse- quences, sometimes referred to as ‘short-term hedonism’.

Amber realised that she identified with all these to some extent. As the only girl and youngest child in a large family, she had been adored and always given whatever she wanted. Her father was still funding her business and bailing her out of financial difficulties.

Amber recognised that she had never had to experience the consequences of her actions, and I pointed out that short-term hedonism could lead to financial problems, health issues and unhappiness. Also, research has indicated that people who have the ability to delay gratification are more likely to achieve their long-term goals.  Amber assured me that she had reached a point in her life where she wanted to stand on her own two feet and be taken seriously.

Challenging old behaviours

I met with my supervisor, who got straight to the point: ‘What were you thinking of? Amber charmed you into overlooking her lateness – you wouldn’t tolerate this with another client. My guess is that she has learned she can get away with anything if she is charming enough – and that includes with you. It is your responsibility and duty as her coach to notice these behaviours and to challenge them, not to be taken in by them like everyone else.’ 

I resolved to be aware of this next time and to challenge her behaviours. It’s an important aspect of the coach’s role to encourage the client to enter into an adult-to-adult relationship that is not based on games or manipulation.

Time to grow up

I worked with Amber for many months and she did learn to resist immediate temptation and delay gratification. Of course, along the way, there were some spectacular relapses – like the last-minute clubbing holiday in Ibiza.

Most importantly, Amber told her father what she was trying to achieve and asked for his help. He proved to be a great support. He was now able to share his experience and wisdom as a successful businessman in an adult-to-adult way with her, instead of ‘rescuing’ her. Their relationship moved into a different stage where they began to appreciate one another. For the first time in her life, Amber started to feel genuinely proud of her achievements.

Make your own labels

This is a great exercise to help you to make changes in the way you see yourself, and how you behave. Get some sticky notes and, on each one, write a word or phrase that represents
a label you have worn. These might be things other people have said about you and/or words you have used about yourself. Make sure you write both positive and negative labels, then take each one in turn and do one of the following: 

  • Keep it. If you like it, agree with it and if it’s useful, put it somewhere you can see it each day.
  • Reword it. Maybe there is an element of truth in it, but the word is not useful to you. You might have been called ‘extravagant’, but would now rather use the words ‘generous when I can be’.
  • Reject it. If this word doesn’t reflect who you are or how you want to see yourself, throw it away. Then write some new words for yourself that will be useful to you in your life now.

Benefits calculation

This is a way to break through decision-making blocks. It’s based on the principle that we are likely to be happiest when our decisions take into account both the desirability of getting enjoyment now, and continuing to get it in the future. List all factors that seem relevant to the decision, including the likelihood of short- and long-term consequences. Decide how much value or benefit each item has to you, negatively or positively, then add up the pros and cons.

Delayed gratification – The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

In this famous study, a group of four-, five- and six-year-olds were given a marshmallow and left in a room for 15 minutes with the choice of eating the marshmallow immediately, or waiting 15 minutes and then having two.

Some children waited and others didn’t. The study followed them into adulthood and found that those who had been able to delay gratification were more self-motivated, had better results at school and were more psychologically well-adjusted than those who hadn’t.

If you experience frustration when you have to wait for what you want, try delaying gratification with one thing each day for a month or two. Notice how you feel and what has changed at the end of each month.

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