How to Get Control of Your Elephant – Changing Your Financial Picture

Have you ever tried to change something only to grow frustrated at your inability to make the change? Ever attempted to make a habit stick, be successful for a couple of weeks/months, then totally lose your momentum and the habit soon after?

Change is hard. It’s hard to implement, make it stick and keep it going. 



In their New York Times bestseller, Switch, Dan and Chip Heath discuss why change is difficult and how to overcome obstacles to change. It’s a great book filled with loads of stories how ordinary people (like you and me) helped to make change possible for organizations, communities and the world.

When I was first trying to get a hold of my spiraling debt I couldn’t seem to get any traction. I just kept spinning my wheels. My spending habits were out-of-control and had no direction. I wasn’t making enough money to pay basic necessities and had no plan going forward. In a nutshell – I was a riderless elephant.

In Switch – the Heath Brothers talk about three important things that need to be addressed for change to take place and stick: the Rider, the Elephant and the Path

  1. The Rider – This is your rational side. You’ll need to tell your rational self where it is you want to go and what is the change you wish to make. If you are hoping to get a reign on your finances – you’ll need to set a specific goal in mind and how you are going to do it. For example: “In 5 years, I want to pay off my $10,000 credit card bill by cutting ______ out of my budget and pick up a side job”.
  2. The Elephant – What the Rider sits on top of is the 12,000 lbs. elephant – also known as your feelings/emotions. If you have no game plan or Rider – the Elephant takes over and goes wherever it pleases. The Rider is no match for the Elephant. Without getting it on board – even a skillful Rider has no hope of directing a unmotivated Elephant. So, to make change happen and get your Elephant in-sync with the Rider – you need an appeal to your feelings. In thinking about the previous example of getting rid of the $10k credit card – you’ll likely need an emotional connection to what it will feel like to pay off that bill. An example might be to tape a picture of a man at the beach – without a care in the world (because he’s just paid off his large debt!). You need to connect your emotions with the rational.
  3. The Path – Once the Rider and Elephant are working together – it’s important to make sure your path (or environment) is cleared and gives you the best possible road to success. In our example – it could mean we need to get rid of credit cards by storing them in blocks of ice (as some people in Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover book had done). It’s basically setting yourself up for achieving the change you want to make.

In my situation – the real change started to happen when I got my Elephant motivated. This happened after a 2-year journey of digging myself into a debt-hole and not wanting my life to go down that road anymore. I basically had a break-down. That coupled with hope for how I could make things better – and a rational (my Rider) approach of how I could get there, set my journey towards debt-freedom. My Path was made clearer as I continued to “direct” the Rider and “motivate” the Elephant (as the Heath Bros. like to say).

I say all this to tell you that real change is possible – even in your finances. You may be struggling with a self-defeating, habitual spending pattern or what feels to be an inability to put money away. What ever it may be – you can make change happen and set your personal finances straight.

I’m curious – have you been making any successful changes to your personal finances – and how have you been able to achieve it?

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6 comments

  1. Lisa Smith says:

    With gas prices going up and they may continue to rise most likely transportation cost reduction are most important. Walk,ride or drive much less ect… Invest in cheaper transportation that also have less impact on the environment. That is what we have been told. Great posts. Take care.

    • Aaron says:

      @Lisa – Great ideas!
      @Derek – Thanks for stopping by. Good book huh? Great article on gas prices, by the way.. good points.
      @Bethy – The Elephant is a beast! Hard to get a hold of for sure. You’d enjoy Switch..

  2. Derek Sisterhen says:

    Great post here, Aaron! I read ‘Switch’ about a year ago and I find myself referring to it regularly as a model for making organizational change. That Elephant can be wily at times, though!

    Lisa Smith mentions gas prices in her comment. Have to be really careful with that – rising gas prices don’t typically impact the budget to the degree we feel like they do (Elephant here?). We often blame gas prices for budget stress, but our attention should be focused on the discretionary and fixed expenses we can control.

    Thanks for your work guys; keep it up!

  3. This is a really interesting analogy–and not just because I love analogies. :)

    I know what my Rider needs to do when it comes to so many areas of my life, and I didn’t think my Elephant was THAT big (maybe just a baby elephant?), but thinking more on it… it is. At least when it comes to initiating some changes.

    I might have to check out Switch. Thanks!

  4. Interesting. I’ve never heard of that analogy before but I like it. I would definitely say I’ve made changes in my finances before, when I was quite a bit younger. I was on a path of financial self destruction and thankfully I’ve fixed it. I think fear made me change my path.

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