Last week, I went running with my friend Mac. As we ran, we talked. Mac asked me how it felt to be out of debt, to actually be saving money. Like many of my friends, he’s watched my financial turnaround with interest.

“It feels great,” I said. “I should have learned from you and Pam earlier.” Mac and Pam have always made smart financial choices. They’re not misers, but they’re thrifty, carefully choosing where they spend.

“I’m glad you’ve finally seen the light,” Mac said, and though he didn’t say anything further, I could tell what he was thinking.

Over the past couple of years, many of my friends have told me, “I can’t believe you write about personal finance.” To be honest, I can’t believe it either. For years, I was the poster boy for poor financial choices.

Once, Kris and I were riding to an Independence Day rodeo with Mac and Pam. We were talking about something expensive (let’s say computers, because I can’t remember exactly), and I said, “I just got a bonus at work. Now I can buy that new iBook I’ve been wanting.”

Pam turned around to look at me in disbelief. “But J.D., just last week you were complaining about how broke you are. How can you afford to buy a computer? Aren’t you in debt?”

At the time, I was angry. Who was Pam to tell me how to spend my money? In retrospect, she was absolutely right. Now I recognize that this conversation was a turning point in my attitude toward money. I gained a glimmer of insight that day. I started to see how others perceived my spending habits. I was living paycheck-to-paycheck by choice. I was earning enough to save money, but I had nothing saved, nothing to show for my efforts but a lot of toys.

Tightening the belt
As the economy worsens, I see the effects everywhere. “This reminds me of the early eighties,” I told Kris last Saturday as we drove to dinner at her sister’s house. “That was a rough time for my family. The pervasive gloom and the constant bad news feel exactly the same right now. It’s eerie.”

Over homemade beef stew, Kris and I talked with Tiffany about the recession. Business is slumping at my family’s box factory. It’s slumping everywhere. When Kris and I meet with contractors for our upcoming home projects, they’re all eager to start as soon as possible. Three of my friends have lost their jobs, and several others are worried they might be next. Nearly everyone we know is looking for ways to save money.

We talked about how belt-tightening is hard for some. Kris and I are fortunate because we’ve been pursuing a policy of thrift for several years. We’ve already cut back, and have identified areas where we could cut back even more. (Dining out, for example.) For other people, though, it’s not as easy. Some don’t have room to cut back — and others who could do so cannot see their own bad habits.

Fumbling in the dark
“I have a friend who complains about how tight his budget is,” Kris said, “but his family shops at Whole Foods. He just signed a long-term contract at a gym. He drives an SUV and bought a hot tub. Whenever I suggest that he exercise at home or forgo the latest gadget, he laughs at the idea. He says he’s tightening his belt and trying to start saving, but from the outside, that’s not how it looks. If you’re committed to buying all of your groceries at Whole Foods, you’re going to have to cut back in other areas. You can’t have it all.

“Yeah,” said Tiffany. “Our society has become used to getting everything it wants. It’s used to instant gratification. Now that things are tight, it seems like people don’t know how to choose. What’s more important? Eating organic or sending the kids to summer camp?”

“You can’t have everything you want at once,” Kris said. “That’s a quick way to get in over your head. And you can’t have the best of everything. You have to choose what’s important to you and make sacrifices elsewhere. I’ve learned that when I can save money in areas that are less important to me, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice — it feels like a victory. Food is important to me, but I’m not willing to pay full-price for new clothes.”

Tiffany nodded. “It’s hard to listen to the complaints when you can see inconsistencies. It’s one thing if the person really is cutting back as far as possible and they still can’t make it, but it’s another when the behavior isn’t consistent with the talk. I think we may all need to adjust our expectations of what we deserve to have.”

“That’s true,” I said, but I was remembering my conversation with Mac and Pam on our drive to the rodeo. “It can be frustrating to watch others struggle. Like my brother, for example. At the same time, I try not to be judgmental. I’ve been there. It feels different from the other side. Sometimes when you’re making poor choices, you’re not even aware of it. Or if you are aware of it, you don’t know how to stop. I see my friends who are struggling, and I want to help, but I’m afraid to offer unsolicited advice. I used to resent it, and I’m afraid they will too.”

“Each person has to come to it on their own,” said Kris. “You can’t force them to see. It’s like when Michael gave you a copy of Your Money or Your Life. He was trying to tell you he could see what you were doing, but you weren’t ready to listen. You took the book from him and put it on the bookshelf for a year or two. But eventually, when you were ready, you picked it up and you read it. Then it made a difference.”

Learning to see
As we ate our dessert of rice krispie treats, I thought of my friend Gillian, the woman who is very good at spending money, but not so good at saving it. Gillian is still living the same lifestyle, unable to cut back on cable television or the housekeeper or her cell phone — and still wondering why she struggles to make ends meet. She can’t see how her choices affect her financial situation.

Not so long ago, I was in this position myself. With the help of friends, I was able to open my eyes. I began to see how even small choices I made had a big impact. As I learned more about money, as I learned more about my own behavior, everything started to make sense. I made changes in my life. I sacrificed some of the things I wanted. I worked hard to boost my income. Today, as the national economy crumbles around me, I feel relatively secure.

The road ahead looks rough, at least for a little ways. I encourage you to do what you can to tighten your belt. And if you know you have a decent income but still feel pinched, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Sometimes a friend or family member can see things about your habits that you can’t.

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