Now for everyone’s favorite topic – debt. Well, maybe it isn’t your favorite. Maybe it’s even pretty far down your list of favorites, like close to the bottom. Fair warning: it’s even worse than you think. I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about our political and societal circumstances, but only by way of context – after that I’m going to focus on personal debt, so you might like what I have to say even less. I hope you’ll read it anyway.
Everyone seems to be talking about debt these days, mostly as a result of the most recent insanity in Washington over the debt ceiling. Everyone seems to have an opinion – or two or three – about the state of our country’s economic situation. Your perspective probably depends on whether you think debt is the most important crisis facing our nation, or lack of jobs; that, and whether you believe that government has a role in stimulating growth in the job market or whether you believe that private enterprise will rise to the occasion. I am personally skeptical of both. The “government” (isn’t that us, at the end of the day?) hasn’t shown much promise as a careful steward; then again, private enterprise hasn’t shown much inclination to create jobs, despite being left to its own devices (read: untaxed and unregulated) to a degree not previously seen in the last 100 years.
Yes, yes, I know – now it’s the fear of taxation and regulation that might happen if “government” isn’t held in check – that’s what is supposedly holding the benevolence of capitalism from shining forth. Right.
So we have a mess on our hands, one that will take thoughtful debate, some difficult choices, and a healthy dose of the presumption of good will to solve. I told you I wasn’t optimistic – I do remain hopeful, but optimism is a bit out of my reach.
I actually think one of the problems is that the numbers involved are simply too large to hold any meaning for most of us. Here’s something I heard not long ago that put it in perspective for me. A million seconds is 11.57 days. A billion seconds is 31.71 years. A trillion seconds is 31,710 years – and the US debt is approaching 15 trillion dollars, which in our analogy would be almost 476,000 years - a bit after hominids began developing language and just before they started hunting with wooden spears and using stone tools. No wonder we can’t figure it out, and no wonder we reduce it to sounds bites – it’s just too big to grasp in any meaningful way.
So why do we love to argue about numbers that are so large they’re incomprehensible? Because the alternative, talking about finances on a level that we can actually do something about, is worse. I used to think that our society is terribly prudish about sex – well, ok it is terribly prudish about sex, and it’s a good analogy. We are surrounded by sexual innuendo and imagery, and assaulted by TV commercials that 40 years ago would have been banned as obscenity – and yet the average person, let alone the average couple, seems both unwilling and unable to have a simple conversation about it. So, too, with finances. We are surrounded by financial innuendo and imagery (Picture yourself in a vacation spot you cannot afford, driving a car you will never have … you get the idea). We are drowning in admonitions to spend our way out of recession, and we have been convinced that we can borrow our way to happiness.
How’s that working out for you? I didn’t think so.
When is the last time you sat with your spouse/partner and had a serious conversation about money? One in which you were truthful about your hopes, fears, worries, and in which – if you’re the person who pays the bills in the household – you told the absolute truth about what you’ve spent and on what? Did you tell your spouse about the $25 fly you just had to have from the Orvis store? How about the retail price of that 25th pair of shoes? (Note that I didn’t assign stereotypical genders to these examples, because I’ve found it doesn’t really matter.)
How do you feel when you spend money? Joyful? Numb? Guilty, furtive? Gleeful with a twist? Self-righteous (a sure sign of defensiveness)?
If you ever spend money that you’re inclined to keep hidden, or borrow money you worry about paying back, or worry about how you’re going to make ends meet, try this: sit down with your partner – or by yourself if you live alone – and do a complete, absolutely fearless inventory of your financial status. Write down everything major that you own, every bit of saving, every source of income, and every debt. Take stock of how much of your money you spend – your checkbook/debit card/credit card statements are a good start – and where you spend it. Do not cheat – leave no stone unturned.
Now, talk about how that feels, to each other or to the mirror. Give voice to what you feel when you look at your financial state of the union. Feel great at how much you have accumulated, secure in your future, and light about your spending? Good for you! But if you don’t, ask yourself, what are you going to do about it?
If money is getting in the way of you being honest with yourself and someone you love, change what you’re doing.
For Maddie and me, Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover was the way to go (minus the religious trappings). It took us a year, but we have a cash economy – much easier to hand over a credit card, or even a debit card, than it is to part with hard currency – no debt other than real estate, and a plan. Oh, and we have my favorite bumper sticker, which became the title of this post. Other people, with far fewer means than we had to work with, have done the same.
If you don’t like that approach, you will still be better off taking a brutally honest inventory of your financial state, and most importantly, talking with your spouse about it. I promise. What have you got to lose? Communication is free.
By the way, this has nothing to do with scarcity thinking, and doesn’t in any way interfere with intending abundance. The truth is that I never really got the idea of “abundance” until I was able to face some of the crazy thinking I held about money. Believing in “abundance” comes from the ability to be honest with ourselves about money; pretending “abundance” will not make it so.
How about it? You willing to take on one of the great taboos?
Think I’ll take on sex next!
Les Kertay, The Moments Project
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