Find out how planning for Budget Cheat Days can combat the Abstinence-Violation Effect and Failure Cascades that sabotage your long-term financial health.

There are a lot of parallels between dieting and budgeting. Cutting back a little here and there can have a big impact. Moderation is key. And, being too rigid with the rules can actually lead to failure.

There has been a lot of research and a ton of articles written in the last few years about the benefits of cheat days in dieting. Healthline, Runtastic, Daily Burn, Men’s Health, and Medical Daily all agree that cheat days can be a vital part of a diet plan as long as they are within reason.

There are reasons related to your metabolism that cheat days help your diet, which don’t really apply to budgeting. However, there are psychological benefits to cheat days, which 100% apply.

When you have an unplanned cheat day in dieting or budgeting you run the risk of encountering two psychological blocks to getting back on the wagon: the abstinence-violation effect and failure cascades.

The Abstinence-Violation Effect

Alan Marlatt was the Director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington and he spent decades trying to understand the psychology behind addiction. His work on nicotine addiction in the 1970s led him to coin the term Abstinence-Violation Effect, which is a form of black-and-white thinking where you blame some factor that is beyond your control for any failure to modify your behavior.

Now, keep in mind, he was a psychologist… so he was not trying to uncover the physical and biological impacts of nicotine addiction on the brain. Instead, he was interested in how the brain operates and how a person’s opinions about addiction would influence their efforts to quit.

An excerpt from a Time article from 2008 says it best:

While studying cigarette smokers who were trying to quit in the 1970s, Marlatt discovered that people who considered the act of smoking a single cigarette after their quit date to be a complete defeat and evidence of an innate and permanent lack of willpower were much more likely to let a momentary lapse become a full-blown relapse. That was the start of Marlatt’s work on [the Abstinence-Voilation Effect].

Why Falling Off the Wagon Isn’t Fatal by Maia Szalavitz
TIME Magazine, 12/30/2008

So, how do you combat the Abstinence-Violation Effect? Give yourself permission to fail. Remember that everyone slips up sometimes. You are not alone or unique in your failure. And, that’s okay.

The key is to make sure that small slip-ups don’t escalate and snowball into huge, budget-crashing, failure cascades.

Failure Cascades

There was a study recently in the Journal of Consumer Psychology where researchers investigated the impact of cheat days on dieting. They were less focused on actual dieting behavior and more focused on how cheat days impacted dieter’s motivations.

It was not surprising that dieters reported that plans including a cheat day seemed more motivating and achievable. But, the key finding for our purposes was summarized in an article in the Atlantic:

The authors theorize that when we’re intently focused on a strenuous target, we sometimes view the smallest lapse as evidence the entire endeavor has failed. This sets off a “failure cascade,” or more bluntly, the “what the hell” effect. (Might as well eat the whole box…)

The Glory of the Cheat Day by Olga Khazan
The Atlantic, 4/20/2016

So, if your diet (or budget) does not have any room for error, then unplanned cheat days can set off a failure cascade. You make one tiny mistake and then you get super frustrated, throw up your hands and end up tossing your entire budget out the window. “In for a penny, in for a pound.” “Might as well eat the whole box.” “I’ve already blown my budget, so spending more won’t hurt.”

Knowing this, what should you do? First, stop calling it cheating and start calling it an allowed splurge.

It’s Not Cheating – It’s An Allowed Splurge

We all know cheating is bad, right? And, if you have read any of my previous articles, you know this is a no-judgement zone. So, how do we allow cheating in our budget without getting all judgy?

There’s an article in Research Digest that suggests we re-brand cheat days and call it something neutral. They suggest “planned hedonic deviations.” Umm… no. Planned hedonic deviations? Seriously? Talk about taking all the fun out of having fun!

Cheat days should be fun. They should be something you look forward to before they happen, and you should not regret them after the fact. Cheat days should be a reward for sticking to your plan and achieving your goals. A planned hedonic deviation sounds like something that might require surgery to correct.

I suggest re-branding Cheat Days and calling them Allowed Splurges.


The first step is to make sure that your undetailed budget on a regular month has a positive number for savings. That means that on months that you do not have an allowed splurge, you are adding to your savings and growing your net worth.

A few times a year, it is okay to have an increase in spending, even if it means dipping into your savings. You only live once, so live it up!

Knowing that you are going to dip into savings a few times a year can really help you stick to your plan. Depending on your personal spending style, maybe you need to splurge a few hundred dollars three or four times per year. Or, maybe you need to blow through a thousand bucks in a weekend once or twice per year.

The key is to accept that these allowed splurges are going to happen and not get frustrated and throw up your hands when they do. That way a little splurge won’t turn into a failure cascade, and you can get yourself back on the wagon by the end of the weekend.

Final Thoughts

Budgeting is hard. Saving is even harder.

If you are making the transition from living paycheck-to-paycheck, then you deserve to celebrate your successes when they come.

Don’t think of those celebrations as a negative or that you are cheating on your plan. Allow yourself to indulge sometimes. And, that should help you keep a small indulgence from snowballing into a budget-crashing, self destructive, all-out binge.

I hope this has been helpful! I welcome your comments with your thoughts and questions. And, don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter to get notified whenever a new article is posted.

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