Your Money Problems: Why They're All Your Fault
I love writing about money — not because I’m obsessed with wealth (or my relative lack thereof), but because I think the way we spend our money reflects who we are, good or bad. That’s probably why I bought the very first condo I saw. I’m known to be impatient, impulsive even, in just about all things.
Was it a mistake? So far so good, but I left a lot more to fate than is probably wise in a six-figure purchase. And let’s just say that I hope to exercise a little more self control next time. Of course, whether it’ll actually work out that way is another story altogether.
But that’s really what issues that surround money are all about, isn’t it? The way we behave with our money is a lot like many other things in life — we know what we should do, but that hardly means we actually do it. We know we should exercise, avoid fast food, and eat more vegetables just like we know we should spend less, avoid debt, and save more of our money. Most of us struggle with both, at least sometimes. The key to solving money problems, then, often isn’t about outside factors (like making more money). Instead, it’s about our own habits and behaviors. (See also: Party Like It's $19.99: The Psychology of Pricing)
So how can we make better choices when it comes to money? First, I think, we need to accept that our money problems are (usually) all our own fault. Then, it’s time to stop relying on self discipline and develop habits that put bad choices out of reach.
What’s the Problem?
I think the key to unraveling any money problem is to first accept that the problem is probably an emotional one. Just think about some of the money problems people tend to get into. Debt is one of the most obvious, and if you’ve ever watched Suze Orman or Dave Ramsay or Oprah address this, it’s pretty clear that debt goes much deeper than just a frivolous desire to acquire more. For some people, a desire to give their kids all the things they never had growing up makes it impossible for them to say “no.” For others, a financial setback has them feeling too ashamed to admit they can no longer afford the lifestyle they’re used to. And far too many people feel important, triumphant — even happy — when they come home from the mall with an armload of new purchases — whether they can afford them or not.
Anyone can see that those things aren’t really about money, which is why all the money in the world is likely to lead these people down the exact same path. That may be why so many lottery winners end up penniless in a few years. They throw their money everywhere, because what they’re looking for is something money can’t really buy. The problem is that while we all fall prey to emotion-driven money behavior from time to time, few of us are aware of it.
Who’s to Blame?
Let me just start by saying that not all money problems are the result of emotional issues. People lose their jobs, rack up huge medical bills, or fall victim to some other financial pitfall that’s beyond their control. I get that. But what I also know is that a whole lot more people make excuses for themselves and blame their problems on things that are outside of their control rather than face the fact that they themselves are the real problem. I know this because not only have I seen a lot of people do it, but because I also have a tendency to do it myself. And even though I wish I knew better, I often have to remind myself that the big credit card bill isn’t my car’s fault — it’s mine for not setting some money aside; that when I choose time over money, the smaller check I receive is no one’s fault but my own; that when I balk that I can’t afford something that’s really important to me, I’m really just playing the victim rather than doing the hard work required to make it happen.
You see what I’m getting at here, right? Your money — and all the issues that come with it — are your problem. Admit that, and making better choices will be easier. After all, it’ll be a lot harder to ignore what are really just consequences of your own bad choices when you have no one else to blame.
Even if you know you make bad choices when it comes to your money, making better ones is always hard. That’s why I think it’s best to leave as little to choice as possible. Several recent studies on decision-making have indicated the existence of something called “decision fatigue.” In essence, researchers believe that decision-making and willpower may come from the same mental store. When we are overburdened with decisions, our decision-making suffers — and so does our willpower. This is why so many people make poor spending choices at the end of a long and stressful day at work, or grab a few impulse buys on their way out of the grocery store. (Hence all the junk food right beside the till.)
When it comes to your money, then, it’s best not to leave everything to choice. Don’t choose to spend less — leave only enough in your checking account for planned expenses. Don’t choose to not use your credit cards — cut them up or lock them away so that you can’t pull them out in a moment of weakness. Don’t choose to save a portion of your paycheck — have it withdrawn from your account automatically. In other words, rather than making better decisions, try to make fewer decisions. That way, you’ll be able to save up your self discipline for when a tough choice really is required — and hopefully make a better one.
A Tangled Web
If you struggle with money problems, you probably already know that it’s a complicated issue. But next time you catch yourself doing something with your money that you know you shouldn’t, stop and ask yourself why you’re doing it. You might be surprised by the answer, but in many cases you’ll be most surprised to learn that it’s not your money that’s the problem — it’s you. Once you get that messy business out of the way, you’ll be far better prepared to do something about it.
And don’t just do it for money, either. Do it for you. If the way you manage your money is a reflection of you, the effects of better habits are likely to spread far beyond your bank account. You may never be rich, but that’s quite a payoff.