Motivating Service Members to Adopt Positive Financial Behaviors

By Barbara O’Neill, Ph.D., CFP®

Motivating clients or students to adopt and maintain positive financial behaviors is one of three topics included in this year’s three day Virtual Learning Event (VLE) sponsored by the MFLN Personal Finance team. The hard reality is that getting others to change their behavior is difficult and counselor/educator goals and client goals are often not the same. In addition, many people have internal (e.g., emotional) and external (e.g., lack of transportation) barriers that interfere with goal attainment. To change financial behavior, practitioners must know where clients want to go, identify barriers, avoid judgement and assumptions, and provide realistic and do-able options.

Lori Mann (right) an Army Career and Alumni Program counselor offers career guidance to a Soldier at the ACAP center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Photo courtesy of Installation Management Command
Lori Mann (right) an Army Career and Alumni Program counselor offers career guidance to a Soldier at the ACAP center at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Photo courtesy of Installation Management Command

Research theories can help inform behavior change efforts. One commonly cited theory is the Transtheoretical Model of Change (TTM), which states that people go through five stages of change ranging from being unaware of the need to make a change (precontemplation) to continuing to perform an action that was previously taken (maintenance). Change processes such as learning new facts about a behavior change (e.g., saving money), called consciousness-raising, and helping relationships with others help people progress through the five stages.

Personal qualities also affect how people behave financially. Locus of control refers to whether people attribute their successes and failures to their own efforts or forces outside of their control. Time preference refers to people’s desire for current spending or future wealth. People with a present bias have a short time horizon and are less likely to save for retirement. Conscientiousness refers to the degree to which people follow rules and expert recommendations, are careful, thoughtful, and organized, and make well-considered decisions. How can these concepts be applied to financial counseling and education practice? Consider these suggestions:

  • Assess clients’ readiness for change using the TTM. For additional information, including suggested questions to ask click here.
  • Provide assistance with goal-setting by turning goals into a series of steps using this Rutgers Cooperative Extension Financial Goal-Setting Worksheet. Also, people may have a “goal behind the goal” (e.g., saving money to avoid being a “bag lady”) so gently probe to determine their underlying desire and motivation to change.
  • Help clients simplify their finances with practices such as direct deposit, mutual fund automatic investment plans, stock dividend reinvestment plans (DRIPs), automated credit union savings, retirement plan (e.g., TSP) deposits, and bill-paying, checking to savings account transfers, and stop-loss orders on stock.
  • Address obstacles to adopting recommended practices (i.e., anything that blocks progress). For example, let’s say someone has not prepared a will. Obstacles could be financial (perceived high cost of lawyers), social/emotional (choice of a guardian for children), or logistical (don’t know how to find a lawyer).
  • Identify client “hot buttons” (i.e., issues that cause people to feel strong emotional responses) to facilitate personalizing the delivery of financial information. Good probing questions to assess financial hot buttons include “What makes you happy?,” “Where do you want to be in 3-5 years?,” “What worries you the most about money?” and “Tell me about your family.”

To join the Motivating Clients to Develop Positive Financial Behaviors, webinar on Tuesday, June 2 at 11 a.m. ET visit the event page.

This post was published on the Military Families Learning Network blog on May 19, 2015.