To Save My Financial Future, All I Had to Do Was Change My Mind
Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance
When I was in college, I was briefly, embarrassingly, obsessed with the British Shopaholic novels. I fancied myself an American Becky Bloomwood, struggling to reconcile my goal of becoming a successful journalist with my tendency to shop, and live, well beyond my limits. If Becky could miraculously find a handsome, financially responsible partner and get out of debt without giving up her glamorous lifestyle, so could I.
And so I spent, and spent, and spent. Throughout college, graduate school, and my early professional life, I lived so far outside my means that it’s a wonder I could scrounge enough money for groceries and rent, let alone the designer clothes I bought every other week. I was deep into student loan debt, my credit cards had gone into collections, and I made it to each payday by the skin of my teeth. But whenever financial panic would set in, I would calm myself by shopping.
One day I’ll be rich, and my debt won’t be a problem anymore, I’d tell myself. When that seemed increasingly less likely to happen, I’d switch to: I’d rather be rich in love and experiences than in money anyway. Then I’d book a ticket to visit friends in another city for the weekend and blow the little money in my checking account on drinks and dining out, ignoring my mother’s admonitions to get a second job.
A few years passed, and suddenly I wasn’t 23 anymore. I was nearly 30 and began to want things like a house, maybe a car, and a life that wasn’t constantly plagued by meager resources and debt. I envied friends who seemed financially comfortable, or who at least weren’t in a permanent state of low-grade panic about their bills. I had a good education, plenty of professional experience, every opportunity to earn and live well. So why did I constantly feel I was just barely getting by?
The answer revealed itself when I read T. Harv Eker’s Secrets of the Millionaire Mind. I thought I was done with mantras and self-help books after abandoning my brief faith in The Secret in grad school. But I picked up Eker’s book despite the grandiose title, desperate for anything that would help me wake up from my financial nightmare. When I got to Eker’s concept of “money blueprints,” I felt like something unlocked inside me. For the first time ever, I thought there might be a way forward.
Money blueprints, according to Eker, are the beliefs we have about money and its effect on us. Our earliest experiences with money shape our attitudes toward it and impact how we engage with it throughout our lives. If we grow up thinking that money is evil or that wealthy people are greedy, for example, we’re less likely to prioritize earning and saving.
The book prompted me to do some digging into my own financial beliefs. For as long as I could remember, money had been a source of stress. Finances were often tight in my family, and yet I spent frivolously, particularly in my post-college years. Even though I always told my family I would be wealthy one day, with enough money to pay off my bills and make sure everyone I loved was comfortable, I had no real understanding of how to go from less than zero to financial abundance.
And the truth was, I didn’t really believe I would ever be financially stable. I was so used to being short on money and deep in debt that I felt certain I’d spend the rest of my life like this. Budgeting, saving, investing, paying bills on time—these were things other people did. Not me. I could fantasize all I wanted about having thousands in a savings account and being able to afford a home, or even just a nice vacation. But I knew I was really destined for a life of barely surviving. I’m just not good with money. I’ll never be one of those people.
According to Eker, I could rewrite my money blueprint. But where to begin? Financial psychologist Brad Klontz describes several money disorders, including money avoidance (from ignoring bills to underspending and extreme risk aversion), money worshipping (overspending, gambling, and even hoarding), and relational problems such as enabling or lying about expenditures.
By these definitions, I am (or was) an overspender, a compulsive buyer, and an enabler. I feel guilty saying no when people ask to borrow money, even when I don’t have it to give or know I won’t get it back. At my most broke, I’ve found myself buying rounds of drinks for friends, splurging on nice dinners for my partner and me, and purchasing books and clothes I don’t need.
I’ve begun to unravel some of the patterns that lead me to behave this way, and that’s what I’ll be writing about in this column. I’ll address the habits and unconscious beliefs motivating my most detrimental decisions and dive into the psychology behind them.
My situation and my pitfalls are not unique—the average American household carries more than $15,000 in credit card debt, and most Americans have less than $1,000 in savings. I’ve gotten to a point where I know how much I owe, make regular payments, and have begun saving for long-term goals like buying a house. But I still have a long way to go, and if I’m not vigilant I find myself repeating old patterns.
My hope is that chronicling my efforts to save my relationship to money will resonate with others as well. Negative money mentalities aren’t life sentences, as long as we’re willing to grapple with the personal in personal finance.
Art by Eli Miller