If You Don’t Change Anything, Nothing Will Change (Phases of Change)

If nothing changes, nothing changes

All too often, I’ve seen a play on the following kind of post on forums, Instagram, or in Facebook groups:

“Hi! I’d like to pay off debt and become wealthy, but I don’t know where to start. I have a huge car I’m not willing to give up. My kids are in expensive after school activities I’m not willing to cut. We have a house with a big mortgage, and we’re not willing to move. I won’t stop going to my expensive hairdresser, or getting regular manicures, because I need to look great! Oh, and I can’t cut my cell phone, get rid of cable, cut down on our vacations, etc. etc. because we need these! I can’t change jobs because *reasons*. How can I save money?”

They want an easy answer that somehow magically involves their entire current lifestyle, but with more money. As if a money fairy will stop by and drop a pile of hundred dollar bills on their lap.

The one lesson I’ve learned over my years is that in order to affect permanent, lasting change in your financial life, you need to permanently change.

As Dave Ramsey says, you need to “live like no one else so you can live like no one else.”

Why Not Change? Because Change Is Hard

I can empathize with these people. Changing your entire life is hard. We all wish there was a way we could become richer, get thinner, and look glamorous by doing exactly what we do now.

Changing involves being uncomfortable. You need to give up things you like, temporarily or permanently. Or you need to change habits that have been ingrained for years – or decades.  You need to learn new terminology, and new patterns of behavior. You’ll need to set aside time to do things like budgeting, or net worth calculation – things you might not necessarily be excited about doing.

Understanding logically the process of change, and why change is hard, can help you get through it.

Phases Of Change

I found this interesting description of the phases of change in a Psychology Today article. It goes through five different phases, and I have to say that I recognize all of them.

  • Pre-Contemplation: This is when you start to become aware that a change may be needed, but you aren’t specifically contemplating making a change yet. In order to go on to the next stage, you need to instill internal motivation to change.


  • Contemplation: When you seriously start internal debate on making a change. In order to progress to the next stage, you’ll want to do a logical cost/benefit analysis of the behavior you’re looking at. You’ll also want to make a list of potential obstacles, and identify ways to overcome them before they’re encountered. The cost/benefit analysis includes looking at:
    • Behavior up for debate
    • Advantages of continuing
    • Disadvantages of continuing
    • Advantages of change
    • Disadvantage of change


  • Preparation: When you commit to making a change, and you’re preparing to do so. What lets you progress to the next stage is your commitment to exploration, planning, and insuring success.


  • Action: Taking action to substantially change yourself, your environment, your relationships and routines, and other things. You’ll need to have set aside a lot of mental and time bandwidth in order to get through this stage successfully. You’re also most likely to deal with the negative opinions of others here, particularly others who feel threatened by your change. They may be frightened that as you change, their relationship with you will change. Or they may feel like your positive changes are a judgement on their lifestyle.


  • Maintenance: Once your positive changes have been in place for six months or more, you’ll enter a maintenance phase. This is when it’s no longer a change – it’s simply the way you live your life. This is actually the most important stage, because it’s where you can easily backslide into old behavior patterns. You’ll need to keep vigilant and continue to set yourself up for success, although it shouldn’t require as much mental or time bandwidth as the Action stage did.

Phases Of Change In Action

Understanding the phases of change, where you are in them, and how you can move to the next one can be extremely useful for affecting lasting change in your life. Lets take a look at how this might work with someone wanting to pay off debt and build wealth.

  • Pre-Contemplation: Mary is tired of living paycheck to paycheck, but is unsure what to do about it. There are always so many bills to pay, and it seems that money flies out of the checking account the minute it’s deposited. Money stress has started to seep into every area of her life, and her kids are asking her what’s wrong when she checks the account before grocery shopping. She wants to change her money situation, but doesn’t know how.


  • Contemplation: Mary starts to seriously think about change once her payment at the grocery store is declined for lack of funds, and she was forced to leave a weeks worth of groceries on the belt. She’s angry at the way things are, and begins to research making a change. She knows that her high levels of debt (credit card, student loan, furniture loan, car loan, mortgage) are part of what’s holding her back, but doesn’t have money to spare to pay them off. By doing some initial research, she knows she’s going to have to make a big change in order to change her financial life. She does a quick cost-benefit analysis of how she feels about her current situation, and change. Ultimately she decides the advantages of the change outweigh staying where she is now.
    • Behavior: Living paycheck to paycheck
    • Advantages of current situation:  Kids are in lots of activities, vacations are great, clothes closets are full of the latest and greatest, and the family goes out to eat multiple times a week.
    • Disadvantages of current situation: Stress. Running out of money. Money fights. Kids seeing money stress. Nothing set aside for emergencies, or for retirement. A huge amount of debt that will never be gone
    • Advantages of change: Financial freedom. Less stress. Ability to afford things again. Ensuring a good future for Mary, her spouse, and their kids.
    • Disadvantages of change: It will be hard. It’ll involve sacrifice of things she and her family like to do. They might fail.


  • Preparation: Mary sets herself up for success by preparing thoroughly for the change. She reads websites, blogs, magazines, and books about money. She tracks her spending for a month, and looks back through old checking and credit card statements online, to see where the money has been going. Mary calculates exactly how much debt she has, and researches different debt payoff methods. She settles on the debt snowball because it’s backed by science. She makes a list of things to sell, and writes out a plan of expenses to cut. Mary also makes sure to think through potential objections, and how she’ll respond to them.


  • Action: Mary starts to put her change plan into action. She puts things up for sale on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. She cancels cable, drops her landline, and gets a cheaper cell phone plan. Mary has prepared for her families objections. Slowly, over time, she can see her financial situation changing. Her envelope budget helps ensure she never runs out of money at the grocery store again. Mary can see her debt decreasing via her net worth statements. Sometimes her friends make fun of her new habits, but Mary is confident in what she’s doing.


  • Maintenance: After doing this for six months, Mary feels like she’s a pro. She knows to plan for vacations, and kid entertainment expenses, carefully because those are the areas where she’s most likely to backslide. Tracking her budget, spending and net worth is now a habit. One day she looks up and her debt is gone. She’s finally able to start a larger emergency fund, and looks forward to setting aside money for retirement.  She prepared, committed, and executed on a significant change in her life – because she made a change.

I Want To Hear From You!

Have you ever gone through a large change in your life? Did you progress through these changes, even if you didn’t know it at the time? Let me know in the comments!

6 thoughts on “If You Don’t Change Anything, Nothing Will Change (Phases of Change)”

  1. Your Dave Ramsey quote is a personal favorite of mine.

    I like your actionable steps you laid out, breaking it down into stages with the maintenance step the most important. It’s similar to new years resolutions. People always start out the year joining a gym for instance to get fit but notoriously quit within a few months because it doesn’t become habit.

    Also people want to see immediate results. Unfortunately for money and fitness it takes time and commitment.

  2. I love the concept of engaging a CBA to better define your financial situation. While my initial knee-jerk reaction to things is often emotional, I find when I take a step back and look at things logically, it’s so much easier to devise a plan of action.
    Having the pros and cons laid out with impacts and repercussions can help engage others in your household to come onboard with the new financial plan.

    Also, amen to change involving being uncomfortable. Lately, I’m finding some of my most meaningful successes have emerged from a period of leaning into discomfort.

  3. Changing your habits is a difficult transition. Your used to going home from work and watching cable TV during the work week, going out every Friday and spending money on food, drinks and then shopping on the weekends. Once you realize when you sit down and reflect this type of cycle, you have to figure if it’s worth the money spend on doing them. Do you need to change it by doing them in moderation, eliminate them completely or you think you’re fine with how it is then their is no need to change? Being in debt or having no debt, you have to know for yourself if spending on all your ‘wants’ is worth it.

  4. It’s very rare that someone will make a change using the purely logical part of their brain. Emotion has to come into it, as that’s the impetus that gets people to take action. I remember Dave Ramsey says , “You have to be sick and tired of being sick and tired” and that you have to get angry.
    For me, it was different. I was petrified that I wouldn’t be able to financially support my children on my own, so once I made the decision to leave a bad marriage, I was absolutely committed to do whatever it took to make sure that those little boys were safely housed and fed.
    Fear works just as well as anger!

  5. Change is complicated. Mostly it is driven by needs. I try to make a habit out of it. The first 21 days are the hardest. After that it’s a lot easier and is likely to lead to change.

  6. I went gluten free as an experiment and felt better, but I did I very slowly. I challenged myself out of 2 days / 6 meals could I do 1 gluten-free? Then I moved to 1 per day, then I flipped it to only 1 gluten containing meal out of 6, and then out of 8, etc. Now, I just don’t have it in the house, so it’s not an active decision.
    I can imagine a similar slow progress for someone who gets a daily coffee, or always has lunch out, or who seems to ‘always’ be shopping, is one path that doesn’t get the bounce back of going ‘cold turkey’ or a 100% depravation path.

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