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Programmed for Poverty

It's our base animal instincts that drive us to overspend

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Many factors play into how we behave with money. Do we come from wealth or poverty? Has our job grown unexpectedly obsolete? Have health expenses drained our savings? Our society claims to value family, but provides so little support for parental leave, childcare, health coverage, well-funded schooling that parents prioritizing childraising risk poverty. America's financial dynamics skew toward making the rich richer, the poor poorer and the middle-class struggling to keep the mortgage paid. The underclass has plenty of social injustice and cultural hypocrisy to rail against.

But that doesn't mean those of us living paycheck-to-paycheck are all just innocent, well-intentioned victims of the system -- some personal responsibility must exist. Good money management is simple: Spend less than you earn. Of course, if you're not earning enough, an inherent flaw exists in the system, but how often have you sat down, figured a budget for the month, then found yourself swiping the bank card for more than you intended? Or incurring avoidable expenses? How often do you say, "It's fine -- it'll work out," only to pile up overdraft charges or unpaid bills as a result?

If the answer is, "Never," or, "Once, but I learned from my mistake," then, please, share your secret. So many smart and otherwise responsible people cannot get a grip on finances, repeat the same mistakes.

Why is that? Why do we resist taking action against bad habits, insist on instilling new ones? I wonder this often. In a hypothetical way, of course. Certainly not because I have any experience with poor choices. Although, I did relate to one of Cary Tennis' recent "Since You Asked" advice columns in which a woman laments her "brilliantly smart, emotionally intelligent, creative, talented and for the most part very thoughtful" boyfriend is terrible with money. So bad that his utilities and cell phone get regularly disconnected. He's not a bad guy, "just absolutely flippin' clueless about due dates and fiscal responsibility."

Now, I'm not a bad guy either ... but any money management skills I've acquired have been hard-learned. Last year, for example, I forgot to pay the water bill before taking the family out of town for Christmas. My housesitter called Christmas Eve, concerned about the non-working faucets. The issue was resolved with a lot of embarrassment on my part, especially since for so many years, paying the bills on time has been a challenge. I've wondered, Am I never going to get past this?

Cary's response hit home as well. He advised her to not break up, but to completely disentangle herself from the boyfriend financially. "Here is the operative truth," Cary writes. "We do not change until what we are doing stops working. Change sucks. So we do not change until we have to.... We'll lie. We'll get angry. We'll do whatever.... You can't make people change. But when you set up firm boundaries, you accomplish two things. One, you protect yourself. And two, you communicate something."

Good stuff. But why is it so hard when we have an intellectual understanding of the need to change to actually do it? And what is it about money that triggers crazy behavior in otherwise rational people? I contacted Cary, who graciously agreed to further discussion. Beyond the fact that change sucks, he said, we underestimate the reward part of those money moments. Being generous feels good. Pulling out the credit card feels good. "We're hardwired to seek pleasure and can always defer thoughts of consequence." Beyond that, money issues can be extremely painful. We pretend they're not, "but they're deep, intimate, shameful at times. Our deepest drives are expressed though money. It makes us feel powerful ... or powerless." Money says who we are, tells our parents who we're not, can get us laid, is used to oppress us. As a result, while we are not our bank accounts, attempts to dismiss the importance of money to our lives backfire.

But currency is just a medium of exchange. It's neutral. Cary, relating his struggle toward financial health, suggests not ignoring it, but detaching emotionally and observing financial behavior. Keep a spending diary. Meditate on it. Pay attention. And when you see you need to change, if you can't do it alone, seek help, whether through Debtors Anonymous or a sympathetic friend. "It's okay to say, 'I'm in trouble and don't know what to do next,'" Cary said. Maybe you're underearning, not making enough to pay the bills. There's no shame in that, he continued. It's just a disparity that needs to be addressed.

When examining the patterns, check in with your feelings. Connect to the emotion behind the motivation. Do you want to be rich to prove a point? Is that why you assume the persona of a big spender? Did you grow up in a house where money's influence was inescapable, so you're reacting by rejecting it? Knowing yourself and the forces at work are key. Cary related taking a quiz once that revealed him as a "money martyr" -- a description that surprised him, but proved accurate. "I felt money had mistreated me," he said. That money had screwed him over. "That now I'm fucked because of money!" Yeah! We try so hard to do right by money and for what? Nothing! Except maybe that's just a way of avoiding responsibility. If it's money's fault, it can't be ours, right? But the truth is we can change. We're not stuck.

A manual on just how to do this would be helpful. You know those nights when everyone's tired and cranky and hungry and no one wants to make dinner so you order a pizza, two pizzas because the kids are starving, and it seems reasonable except underneath your desire to appease everyone, you know you're compromising your ability to pay the car insurance that's due right now, but you don't want to be the one trying to figure out what to cook when you're also tired and cranky and hungry, so you take the momentarily easy path assuring yourself and everyone else, "It'll work out"? But, as Cary said, "the numbers are the numbers" and that expense isn't "magically" going to be repaid.

Wouldn't it be great to have a guide in those moments? "Uh oh, dinner crisis! Turn to page 86!" Lacking that, send your suggestions to jennifersavage@northcoastjournal.com. Maybe we can write that guide together.

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