Friday, January 16, 2015

Why it's not your fault that your money is a mess

Yesterday I went to lunch with a group of amazing women I work with. I love these lunches. They are the highlight of my life. We chose a restaurant in the mall across the road from the office, and since the place was on the other side of the mall, we took a shortcut through Macy's. 

"Oh, this is a bad idea!" called out one of the gals as we passed the makeup counters and stands of accessories. "I can't even walk through Macy's without buying something!"

"Oh, me too! I just love it," Said Gal #2. "But my husband will kill me if I spend any more money. He wants me to stick to a budget."

Now, since I'm pretty much a dummy about money myself, the last thing I'm going to do is lecture someone else, much less a co-worker, on how they handle their money or their marriage. By the time we got to the restaurant, sat down and ordered, we had all gone through the litany of misery to which our poor spending habits had doomed us. We were having the time of our lives, but the word "budget" kept coming up. Finally, I spoke up:

"I don't know why we all agonize over budgets. It's not like we all don't know that budgets don't work."

"Yes, of course, they don't," said Gal #1. "But my husband thinks they do."

Gal #2 then helped me out (which is good, because I probably would have dropped it, I hate being a know-it-all in person, I prefer to save it for the blog). "Yeah, well, you're husband's not the one who has to remember the amount 'budgeted' for groceries when you're at the store after working all day."

"Yeah", added Gal #3, "And you have to get something quick, because you have two hungry kids with you and you have to get home and make dinner."

"And the kids are whining for you to buy them whatever crap they see. Who can think about a budget right then and there?"

"They just don't get it."


This one also gave me some food for thought about how maybe one way that we can solve our money problems is to face them head-on. We can do this by admitting to ourselves that the way we think about money isn't the way money really works. And by doing so, we can find things that do work instead of blaming ourselves, fighting with our spouses, and feeling that euphoria-replaced-by-guilt every time we walk through Macy's.

Here are a couple of ways that, in my opinion, we think about money incorrectly.

  • Our brains are not hard-wired to think of money as an item of value. We might think they are, since we've been conditioned to do so, but in reality, our natural impulse is not to save or invest, but to use the money we have to buy things we need, like food and clothing, or things we want, like organic, free-range eggs and Manolo Blahniks. So every day, our brains see those colorful pieces of paper in our wallets and try to convince us to exchange them for something we can actually use.
  •  Everyone around us is constantly trying to separate us from our money. Think I'm lying? Look around. TV, radio, the internet., your email Inbox, Craigslist, books, your neighbor, even your spouse. We all look at everyone around us as someone we can get something from. Sounds natural, until you realize that some people are really good at convincing you to give them your money. Often you do so, willingly, before you even think about whether you are getting something in return.
  • Once someone's convinced you that you want to give them your money, it's a very short hop to them letting you give them your money in installments so they get even more of it. Ever try to buy a new car for cash? No, neither have I, but my dad once did. The salesman didn't want to let him do it. Cash means no interest, which means the dealer gets less money. But they make it look like they are letting you finance as a big fat favor to you.
I can't count the number of times in my life I've left the decisions on what I would buy and for how much to the person who would benefit the most from my purchase. This started when I was old enough to carry a dollar bill in my own wallet, and continued through my first credit card and  my first new car. Here are some of the messages I've fallen for:

"You deserve it!"
"Your friends will be so impressed!"
"You only live once!"
"What's money for, if not for spending on the things you like?"

So, why am I going on about how it's not your fault? Well, I'll tell you what I'm NOT doing. I'm not trying to tell you that it's okay to make a mess of your money. What I hope is that you'll see that you're not alone. You don't spend too much money because you're a "shopaholic" or you "just don't have any willpower" or you're "just not smart with money". These aren't excuses; everyone faces these challenges every day. Everyone; not just you.

And you and me, we're in this together. And if a dummy like me can get ahead, so can you.

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