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.

OK...Now What?

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.

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Guest's picture

My husband and I were victims of the recession, affected by the mortgage collapse. Hubby and I owned our own business, and our product was directly related to cosmetic home improvements. (No money, no house=no cosmetic home improvements.) I also worked outside of the home at a traditional, "W-2" job. We were/are frugal, and had a savings of probably 6 months living expenses and very little debt, like $250 on a credit card and about $1000 on a car loan. I lost my job completely due to the failure of the company I worked for. Hubby was able to find a job, at a pretty serious pay cut, only to have his and his co-worker's hours cut to 3 days a week within 3 months due to the recession. We were able to go into "super frugal" mode and stretch our savings to survive almost a year. He has since found a very good job, and all is well.

It wasn't our fault, but we had the knowledge and the skills to survive without having our car repossessed, starving or becoming homeless. I know people that had to move in with relatives at the same time and even one family that lived in a tent for the summer because the rentals in our area were being foreclosed. I am so thankful that we knew how to survive. A little education and know how goes a long way.

Guest's picture

Until you own it, you can't change it. And until you change it, you will repeat it. That's when you get to that old saying about insanity: repeating the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.

It may not be all our fault, but we're the only element we have control over. You're right when you say emotion is a big part of the problem. But we can use emotion as part of the solution, too. For example, I just became angry at my lack of planning for the future, so I went on a crusade to get that under control. And every time I was tempted to procrastinate, I just fired up my anger at my shortsightedness and others who never told me, and that got me off my butt.

Tara Struyk's picture

Well put! We can't always control the things that happen to us. What we can control is how we respond. So what happens after we're hit with bad luck is all on us.

Guest's picture

The way I do thing is to sock money away all the way across the country to Baltimore (ok, a money market fund) on every paycheck. Leaving enough for emergency, and having enough in my saving account for really big ticket item emergency. Don't spend when I don't have that money.

It takes time to wire the money back from my money market fund, which tempered my desire to spend it.

Guest's picture

Even if particular money problems are beyond someones control, treating them like they are self-inflicted and taking responsibly is a key for rebound. The victim mentality never accomplishes anything. GREAT article!

Guest's picture

I love the basic message in the article's title, that many people are to blame for their financial worries. It has actually taken me years to understand it myself, and I think I have gotten my finances under control only a few years ago. Now, I have a huge loan from my education to repay, because in the past I chose not to work a lot during education and lead a party life.

The funny thing is, that only from the point I realized that it was me who put myself in this situation, I got my finances under control. From that point on, I was able to start living frugally, and spend my money on things I really needed, or which truly increase the quality of my life. And actually I started becoming more satisfied with less.

Guest's picture

Great post! This is an ongoing "battle" in my house. I am a natural saver, and my wife is a natural spender. Like a lot of people, We have had to make some financial cut backs in recent years. I have made it a habit to be frugal, and work with my wife to change our overall financial mindset. if you don't do that first - you'll be doomed to failure in your plans to save, turn things around, etc....

I write about finance, specifically as it relates to mortgages. Would you mind if I referred back to this post on my blog?


Tara Struyk's picture

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your comments. I'd love it if you'd link to this!

Guest's picture

Not entirety our fault but we have lot to do with it. Time to change the mindset and start saving. SAVINGS = INCOME - EXPENSES, why not make it EXPENSES = INCOME - SAVINGS?

Guest's picture

The emotional side to spending and debt is a tricky subject for most people. Being able to admit that your debt accumulation was due to your own financial decisions is key. It takes hard work and discipline to get yourself out of debt but hard work always pays off!

Guest's picture

Hi Tara,

What a well thought out post - I couldn't agree more with the title!
Almost everyone that I know (who complains about not having enough money) doesn't actually realize that they are their own worst enemy.

Many of them have so many of life's little luxuries, but fail to see the cost of continuing that standard of living. The biggest problem is that they have now become so accustomed to having the latest version of iPhone or going to every music festival that features each week that it’s hard to go back.

I find that the only way of assisting people with money management is to help them see exactly how much "spending leakage" is occurring throughout their day to day lives. I do this by recommending to them that they track their spending habits for at least 2-3 months.

Provided the person is regimented in the recording of all their expenses I simply export this data into a spreadsheet and graph where all their money goes. From there it’s all about priorities. If they want to continue living week to week, pay packet to pay packet then there is little I can do for them.

Normally most people see the error of their ways and are able to reduce their overall spending by at least 5-10% without heavily impacting on their lifestyle.

When it comes to money problems, the primary factor is that people do not realize just how many "little things" they are purchasing and exactly how much money it all adds up to. The minute you start tracking your expenses, it becomes a lot easier to help someone start identifying where they can save money.

I look forward to reading more of your posts.