Pain is a Great Motivator — Or Is It?

Those of you who wear contacts will be familiar with what happened to me recently.

I put one of my contacts in like normal, and it HURT! It turns out that it had a speck of dust on it. (If you don’t wear contacts, you’ll just have to trust me; that piece of dust felt like a burning boulder in my eye.)

So of course I did everything I possibly could, as fast as I possibly could, to eliminate that pain.

“Wow,” I thought. “Pain is a great motivator.”

But then I got to thinking about it a little more. Pain is only a great motivator if it’s a sharp and immediate pain — like having a burning boulder in your eye. In personal finance, that might equate to getting a pack of overdraft notices from your bank on the day that your rent is due.

You’ll suddenly be extremely motivated to figure out why your account is overdrawn, or at the very least to add as much money as possible to your account as quickly as possible.

But what happens once the immediate (and painful) crisis is past?

Probably not much, after you get done kicking yourself.

This is because making a real, long-term change in how you handle your finances can be painful. It takes time and effort, and maybe making some changes that hurt.

And what do we want to avoid?


But the costs of not living a healthy financial life are much more painful long-term than the short-term pain we hope to avoid. The pain just isn’t as immediate. It doesn’t do you much good to look back at your youth from your 80s, wishing you could go back in time and give yourself a swift kick.

Maybe knowing a little bit about how we are motivated on an internal (and often unconscious level) can help us change and improve our finances along the way, both despite and because of a few pains.


  • I’d rather make the painful change now than suffer pain later…in finances. Now I can curb the amount of pain that I could be feeling….I can save/pay off debt without hating life (not doing anything).

  • I love your segways. :-)

    Anyway, we are currently paying down our car loan as fast as possible. This is painful to me since I has somehow become okay with having a car loan. What the heck?!

    So yes, the pain now is way better than paying interest for nothing, but it still makes me sad we even have the thing to start with…I should have been paying it off like crazy for the last 2 years.

    Didn’t you have a post about illogical money choices a while back that I was oh-so-confused on? Well, apparently, I wasn’t confused, just blind to my own illogic. Stupid car loan…

  • Budgeting, yup, I think you’re thinking of this post:

  • Once again, finance is like a diet. It’s so tempting to just go on a slash-and-burn crusade with calories or expenses or whatever. But it’s not feasible in the long term.

    So, if you’re like me, you think Oh GOD that’s IT I’m GOING TO LOSE WEIGHT. And I mean it… right up until the cravings start.

    Any level of supreme discomfort simply fades too quickly, I’m afraid. So we lose our motivation. Sometimes I fear that we are not made for long-term consistency.

    • Yeah I think we have to overcome our natural inclination to stop doing something once we lose whatever got us massively motivated in the first place.

  • You have made a great point here Jackie and something I’ll be thinking about for a while. This made me lol, however: “Pain is only a great motivator if it’s a sharp and immediate pain — like having a burning boulder in your eye.”

    Hope your eye’s better.

  • Amy

    Yep, that’s the one. :-)

  • What a great analogy.

    This was part and parcel why I finally got my finances in order–sick of feeling the pain of lost money, so on and so forth.