When you stretch and stretch and the ends don't meet

by Sarah Winfrey on 31 October 2007 6 comments
Photo: Stretched Out

Sometimes wanting something and trying for it aren't enough. The honest truth is that, no matter how frugal you are, no matter how extensive your emergency fund, no matter how good your invetment portfolio, things can come up that ruin your financial situation. We don't like to think of these things (or, at least, I don't!), but they can happen. My family could be out on the street next month, despite our careful planning and tracking of our finances, and so could yours.

it's probably not as drastic as all that. Most people don't have catastrophes that large suddenly loom up and ruin everything at once. But sometimes things happen that sap the budget over the long-haul--things like unemployment, chronic illness, or caring for a parent or another loved one over months or years.

Telling the Truth

When these things do happen, it's important that we tell ourselves the truth. As human beings, we don't function well when we hide from what is real. It somehow rots inside of us, which makes us do all sorts of things that we don't understand. So,in situations where we've stretched our dollars as far as we can and it isn't far enough, there are several things that are real. First of all, the situation is bad. It's not going to get better on its own. Those things that we have been trying are not working, and we need to do something drastically different.

On the other hand, it's also true that we are only human. We are not supposed to foresee the future. We are not supposed to live without anything comfortable or luxurious "just in case." Most of the time, we haven't caused the problem. Many times, we are also helpless to change it.

Why Bother with the Truth?

Balancing these two pieces of knowledge can be incredibly difficult. It's hard to look at a painful situation and say, "This is bad, and I can't fix it." However, just acknowledging all of these as true has enormous power. It frees us, because it allows us to handle ourselves with dignity as we negotiate our way out of the precipice into which we have fallen. It allows us to hold on to a solid sense of self even though things are bad, because we know who we are and what we are responsible for in the mess in which we find ourselves. This self-knowledge helps us look the bankrupcy judge in the eye, or hold our children close even when we feel frantic ourselves. It permits us to talk about the situation without shame, guilt, or fear.

Telling ourselves the truth in bad situations also frees our creativity. It allows us to begin thinkng outside of our usual ruts. Because it shows us what is realistic, it inspires us to do what we CAN rather than dwell on what we can't. I may not be able to make a bad situation better, but I may be able to help my husband, or my child, or even myself deal with it better. I may not come up with a plan-to-beat-all-plans that avoids bankruptcy, but I may be able to file before my family is completely destroyed financially. I may not be able to save anything from the burning house, but I may be able to gather my family together and grow our bonds deeper even as we watch our possessions being destroyed.

Finally, telling ourselves the truth helps us refrain from making things worse. When I acknowledge the reality of my situation, I;m less likely go out and spend more money because I don't really know where I am financially. When I admit what I can and can't do in the situation, I can grieve my losses. They don't create empty spaces in me that I try to fill with unhealthy things (which usually have a finanical impact!). When I'm not making things worse, I also have that much more energy to work at making them better!

Telling ourselves the truth won't solve our problems, be they financial or otherwise, but it does help us deal with bad situations better. Sometimes, that's all we can do and many times, it makes all the difference in the world.

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Myscha Theriault's picture

I guess it all does just come down in the end to the old saying plan for the worst, yet hope for the best. Yet for certain there are things you can do even in the most dire of situations to alleviate things as much as possible, which is what I think you were touching on with the tell the truth segment and how that can help you take at least some steps rather than ignoring what is really going on with you.

Good post Sarah.

Sarah Winfrey's picture

Yeah...I had intended to list some of those things, but as I wrote it seemed like telling the truth was a post in itself, and those others could wait until later.  I guess it seems to be a necessary precursor to doing what you can.

Myscha Theriault's picture

and the first person that most people need to tell the truth to . . . is themselves. It never ceases to amaze me how far removed from the truth many peoples perceptions actually are. I guess in the end it all boils down to objectivity and I only got that with my own finances when I developed a certain amount of discipline and knowledge about finances. Then, I was cooking with gas when it came to getting ahead. I'm not trying to preach here, because I know everybody has their own path. But I think if more people could reach that "objective truth" phase in their financial lives, they'd realize it doesn't take as long as they might think to get on track and get ahead. Believe me, I was by no means born with a silver spoon in my mouth (lumberjack's daughter) and I certainly didn't choose the most lucrative career path in the beginning(teacher), so I had to do things like move to war zones to get out of school loan debt and begin to have a prayer at participating. Being married helps financially to some degree (teamwork, taxes), but my husband and I married relatively late (30's) so really we retired in less than ten years of worrying about it. I'll grant you though, it was a tough few years of coupon clipping and thrift store shopping. Also, (knock on wood) we haven't had a real butt kicker of a crisis yet, which is why I think we are still sticking to our guns about frugality when everyone else is telling us to relax. We know as you just wrote about that basically, "there but for the grace of God go we". So no, we are not going nuts spending money, but we are trying to enjoy early retirement as much as possible while we still have health and energy.

Was that too off topic? Sorry. Your post just inspired me as it's been an issue (unforeseen crisis) we've been discussing at our house lately.

Sarah Winfrey's picture

Dave and I also married late (he's 30s, I'm late 20s) and this whole "major crisis" thing is something that we also talk about sometimes.  I don't know how likely it is, but it's definitely possible and so random that it seems like we HAVE to think about it.  And it seems like most of what we can do is be honest, both now and in the situation.  That, and learn to grow money trees!

Guest's picture
valletta

My father always said: "You don't own the facts but you own your perspective."
I think of this a lot, not just about financial issues.

My first boss told me "Bad news doesn't get better with age" and this has helped me throughout many years as an employee and an employer.

My second boss told me "Don't let them get you with golden handcuffs; always have F*** you money!

Guest's picture
Amelia

Great post, I almost wish you had putting something about honesty in the title though!

Part of what has gotten us in our present situation is a history of arguing about money due to differing perspectives, which evolved into a "don't ask, don't tell" way of functioning. We are chipping away at those old, bad habits, because in the end, we recognize we are on the same team, and have essentially the same goals, and I'm optimistic that by working hard and committing to getting out of debt as soon as possible, we will make it. But if we had been honest with each other about what our financial situation was really like, and what our fears were, we might have stopped the slide a little sooner, or at least slowed it down. (We are in a situation where we can't make big changes or much headway until June or so.)