The Four Tendencies, Money, and You

I love the work of Gretchen Rubin. As a researcher of habits and happiness, Rubin likes to investigate what motivates us to make the best choices for ourselves. To this end, Rubin has created the four tendencies, or four ways that people are motivated to change their habits. Her soon-to-be-released book, aptly titled The Four Tendencies, goes into more detail. I can’t wait for my copy to arrive! I think the four tendencies are brilliant fodder for discussion, and are particularly relevant when it comes to personal finance.

What Are the Four Tendencies?

Obligers are motivated externally. They’re good at sticking to habits when they’re held accountable to others, but not when they have to hold themselves accountable (even if they think it’s a good idea). To use the example of starting a workout routine, an obliger would do best in settings where they exercise with a group of friends that would miss them, or by hiring a personal trainer that will notice if they don’t put in the work.

Upholders are the rule-followers of the world. They are motivated both internally and externally. They have few problems sticking to “the rules,” no matter who makes them up. In some ways, the problem is that the rules can become oppressive for them. An upholder would start their workout regimen and never miss a day, even on vacation.

Questioners are motivated internally only. (This is me!) They question all rules. If they decide it’s not worth beginning a habit, you won’t motivate them to do so unless you can produce better reasons why it’s a good idea. If they become convinced the habit is a smart move, they will be able to keep the habit purely on their own volition. A questioner would become convinced of the need for a workout routine after reading about the benefits of exercise, and choose what they view as the most efficient routine.

Rebels are neither intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. (This is Mr. Steward.) The wildcards of the bunch, rebels value self-determination and freedom. They resist rules and habits as a matter of course, because they want the ability to decide in each moment how they will behave. Obviously, a workout regimen would be hard for a rebel to maintain. They might be assisted by a routine that allows a great deal of flexibility, or only once they become convinced that not having a routine is limiting their life in some way.

Not sure what you are? Rubin has a great quiz on her website. Go take it. I’ll wait.

What Do These Tendencies Have to Do With Personal Finance?

By better understanding what motivates us (and the others in our lives), we can all make better money choices. When we fail, it’s often because we are trying to motivate ourselves in ways that don’t work for us. And, if we can’t get others on board with the plan, it’s because we’re not appealing to them in a way that makes sense to how they are motivated. Here are some suggestions I’ve thought of about each tendency and personal finance:

Obligers, no matter how good the reasoning for making better money choices, will likely not succeed without an accountability group. They need people around them cheering them on and keeping them focused. Getting highly involved in the personal finance Twitter community might be great for an obliger. Obliger bloggers would probably be really motivated by having to create goal update posts. This is also the personality type that, dare I say it, would most benefit from the services of a financial advisor keeping them on track.

Upholders need a financial plan. If an upholder can get a detailed path forward and clear objectives on how to win with money, they’ll succeed. I can see step-by-step programs like Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, which is geared towards checking boxes off with some early big wins, being really appealing to an upholder. I would imagine an upholder would find financial setbacks or unexpected expenses really frustrating, so they would need a well-thought out emergency plan.

Questioners have to be sold on the math and logic of taking control of their finances. If they are convinced that good personal finance choices are smart, obtainable, and the better option, they will succeed in getting their financial plan together. Questioners are a personal finance blogger’s dream audience because they have the greatest potential to be convinced by a good argument. Questioners have to remember what they’ve learned, though, and not get overwhelmed by information overload early on.

Rebels, as the hardest group to consistently motivate, need to be sold on the ways that not getting their finances under some semblance of control actually limits their freedom. You can’t be spontaneous with no money in the bank. Flexible budgets would probably work best for rebels. Financial independence could also hold great appeal–after all, once they reach their FI mark, rebels aren’t beholden to anyone anymore!

Which tendency are you? How do you think it impacts the way you interact with money? Do you have tips for any of the tendencies?

9 Replies to “The Four Tendencies, Money, and You”

  1. Tara

    Great post! I hadn’t heard of these four types, but it’s an interesting concept. I theorized that I might be an Obliger, but I tested as a Questioner – in reality, I suspect it’s both, or perhaps that one of the factors in my Questioning is the degree to which it affects the people to whom I’m obliged. Thinking about this just in terms of *making* the initial commitment, the “is it a good idea?” seems axiomatic, so, Questioner – but *keeping* the commitment seems like a different thing, and there I think I’m more of an Obliger. Both seem to intersect with the idea of advice/community, though, in your model of how this works with money stuff.

  2. Ms. Steward

    All great points! I hadn’t really considered if there is a difference between the inception point of a habit and what motivates one to keep it.

    It’s also interesting you consider yourself somewhat of a Questioner/Obliger. Rubin’s framework says that model can’t exist. You could be a rebel-obliger or an obliger-upholder, but not a Questioner-upholder, because they are opposites. (I’m not saying she is right or wrong, merely that it is interesting.) I’m excited for the book to come in a few days–perhaps it will offer more insight.

  3. Miguel (The Rich Miser)

    Very interesting. I would say I’m a questioner-upholder, because I am very rigid with respect to rules and commitments, but also tend to question such rules a lot. For instance, to use the workout example, I have been consistently working out for over a decade. But I decided to try a new routine (questioner behavior?), but was so rigid with the execution that I wound up with serious overuse injuries (upholder behavior?). So it seems to me that it could be possible to be an upholder-questioner.

    • Ms. Steward

      Rubin would say that Questioner-Upholders are definitely a thing. The overuse example is perfect, especially if you switched up your routine because you became convinced a new type of exercise would better benefit your body.

  4. Mrs. Picky Pincher

    How fun! I think I’m an Upholder, both in the financial and personal sense. Too often I think I make up rules that can be too stringent, so the struggle there is to know when it’s okay to let go of a rule.

  5. Prudence Debtfree

    This was very interesting for me! I see myself in 3 of the options: Upholder – We have followed Ramsey’s plan and it’s been such a game-changer! Rebel – In a negative sense, I was a rebel when I had really bad, chaotic financial habits. My extremely limited freedom (due to bad habits) finally made me open to change. Obliger – That’s what I am. I have not only been working towards debt-freedom with my husband, but I’ve blogged about it for 6 years. Lots of accountability there! And it’s worked. We’ll be making our last mortgage payment in September! Surprisingly to me, I’m not a Questioner – at least when it comes to personal finances. I do question things a lot – but more on a philosophical or moral plane than a strictly logical one (thought I’m no enemy to logic either). Anyway, I want this book!

    • Ms. Steward

      I love the book! I have read it since writing this post, and it is well-written and accessible.

      I think we all use tricks and strategies from each of the types to get us where we need to go. You saying you’re an obliger but not a Questioner makes sense. They are opposite ends of the spectrum, so in Rubin’s framework, an Obliger can lean Rebel or Upholder, but an Obliger-Questioner doesn’t exist.

      Let me know your thoughts if you read the book!

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