Using Money to Break a Bad Habit: The Return of the Swear Jar

Lately I’ve noticed that I have become quite the potty mouth. I wasn’t always this way. In fact, I didn’t even learn any good swear words until I was in college and my roommate taught me all she knew. (Yes, I led a very sheltered life.) Unfortunately, I’ve taken her teachings to a new extreme lately. Whether it’s the company I’m keeping that’s setting a bad example, media exposure, or a general relaxing of the social stigma against swearing, I find myself cussing more. A lot more.

The turning point came a few weeks ago. After I completed my most recent marathon, my husband, mother-in-law (who was in town for the holidays) and I returned to the house. Unfortunately, the marathon hadn’t gone well and I was in a lot of pain with a lot of blisters. I got in the shower and when the hot water hit all the open sores on my feet, I let go with a blue streak of swear words that would have made a trucker blush. I don’t think I held back a single bad word that I knew.

You have to understand that we have a small house and that every word was clearly audible to my mother-in-law who was sitting in the living room with my husband. Did I mention that my mother-in-law is also very religious and frowns on any sort of rude expression? Swearing, in her eyes, is the expressway to Hell. The icing on the cake is that she’s always been certain that I will ruin her son’s life and my swearing merely proves what a bad influence I am.

When I got out of the shower she was sitting ramrod straight in the living room talking to her son. She was telling him that she hoped this wasn’t normal behavior and that she would pray for me because clearly I was headed down a bad path. I was embarrassed. I realized that, while I don’t subscribe to her religious beliefs, my swearing had gotten out of control.

It didn’t take massive pain to bring out a good F-bomb from me. I’d drop one in casual conversation. I was regularly peppering my conversations with F-words, S-words, and D-words. And it was rubbing off on my husband. He was swearing more in response. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an occasional swear to really make a point, the amount that I was doing it wasn’t good. I realized I was becoming lazy about my conversational standards and letting myself sink to a verbal place that wasn’t particularly attractive. I was letting swear words take the place of other, more meaningful words. I’m not prim and proper, but there is a line where too much swearing becomes a liability and a problem and I was treading close to that line.

I tried to use willpower to stop swearing so much, but it wasn’t working. It turns out I have no willpower. Then I tried the rubber band around the wrist game, where you pop the band every time you say a bad word. The desire to avoid pain is supposed to make you stop swearing. I may not have any willpower, but I do have thick skin because I hardly felt the rubber band and I was popping it pretty hard. That left only one place that could be hurt: My wallet.

I decided to go with the old fashioned swear jar. I got out an old pickle jar and labeled it “The Swear Jar” (original, I know). The idea was that, rather than saving the money for myself, I would give it away to charity so that I would be losing money every time I swore, but it would still be going to a good cause. I don’t like losing money, so I thought this would be a sure way to stop swearing.

I went to the bank and got two rolls of quarters to start with. I thought quarters would be enough. At first I would drop a quarter in for each swear word. That didn’t work, so I tried two per word. The quarters were multiplying like crazy, but I wasn’t slowing down on the swearing. Quarters didn’t hurt enough. I upped it to a dollar per word. I slowed down some, but not enough.

Back to the bank I went for a big wad of five dollar bills. Finally, it was making a difference. Putting that five dollar bill in the jar hurt. Doing it multiple times a day (on my worst day I dropped in eighty-five dollars in one day) really hurt. Within a week I was down to only one or two swear words a day. Within two weeks, I was down to one or two every couple of days. After three weeks I had, for all intents and purposes, eliminated swearing from my vocabulary. I still let a good one go in times of great stress or pain, but it’s way, way less than what it was.

You can use this technique to stop just about any bad behavior. Putting money in a jar can help you stop swearing, overeating, smoking, drinking, speeding, spending too much time online, or whatever other behavior is causing you problems. In order for it to work, you have to do the following things:

Be honest: Every time you do the bad behavior, put the money in the jar. If you are at work or out and about, keep a tab and make a lump sum deposit when you get home. You have to be honest and account for every instance. If you aren’t accountable to yourself, you’ll slack off and it won’t work.

Give till it hurts: You have to find a number that is high enough to make you hurt when you put in the jar. Pennies probably won’t do it. Depending on your level of tolerance, it might take dollars, fives, or even tens. The more you hurt, the faster you’ll conquer the bad behavior.

Pick a good cause to give the money to: You can’t keep the money for yourself. If you say that you’ll keep it and take a trip when you’ve conquered your problem, it won’t work. When you know you’re ultimately keeping the money, it doesn’t hurt enough. It makes it easier to cheat if you’re keeping the money. You have to know that you’re giving it away for it to hurt enough to make you stop the behavior. Pick your favorite charity. In the end, you’ll help someone else by helping yourself.

When you’ve conquered the problem, don’t toss the swear jar: Instead, up the amount you pay for every instance of bad behavior. You’ll pay this higher amount much less often, but when you do have to pay it, it will hurt in a big way. This will keep you from slipping back into your bad behaviors.

In the end, I ended up donating (counting quarters, dollar bills, and fives) close to $350 to my local SPCA. (I have a soft spot for them since that’s where I got my current dog.) When they thanked me for the money, they asked how/why I had chosen to donate. I told them this story and, after they finished laughing, they said they kind of wished I would keep swearing. I agreed to let a good one go every now and then just for them. But now that I’m on a “maintenance” plan, it’s going to hurt a lot more. Since I’ve all but quit swearing, I’ve upped the amount I put in the jar to $10 for every word. The increased payment will act as a solid reminder not to let myself sink back into a pattern of casual swearing.

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4 Responses to Using Money to Break a Bad Habit: The Return of the Swear Jar

  1. Christina says:

    We started to do this for our bad habits: leaving a vacated room’s light(s) on; leaving the toilet seat up or forgetting to flush; and yes, swearing. We can’t even say “it’s a bit chilly” in our house so I think my puritanical kid’s got a shot at a college fund.

  2. Joan says:

    It might help to designate that money in the swear jar will go somewhere you really would rather it did not go to.

  3. Lori says:

    Conversely, Hubby and I have started to reward ourselves for good behavior. Since we’re competitive, we take out $50 a month for “Exercise Money”. Then keep track of how many workouts each of us did over the month. At the end of the month, we divide the money by total number of workouts, and reward each person per workout. So ideally, we will each workout 12-15 times, and each get $25.

  4. Michelle says:

    Good method! I might have to try that the next time I drop a bomb near my best friend’s two-year-old. He’s started picking up every word I say. Not good.

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