The morality of personal finance

I was running last Sunday night. I had waited too long to start my run, and it was dark. I’ve taken to using my iPhone to track my runs, because I’m very motivated by the additive nature of all my runs over time. (I’m over 900 miles!) But I don’t like to use the earbuds when running in the city, especially at night, because of the need to stay alert for those pesky fast cars; I want to make sure and come home to my kids. I had pulled the iPhone out of my pocket to see how many miles it had been when I went under a tree and over some roots and tripped over the dark, uneven sidewalk.

I went down, hard, and my iPhone flew out of my hand and facedown on the pavement, shattering the screen, bruising my hip, scraping my elbow and my hands. None of my injuries were bad, but I knew my iPhone would now need a total replacement (the backlight was already out, due to an encounter with a hornet near the edge of a lake this summer, so I have to tilt it toward the streetlights to see the numbers).

It would be $169, the Apple store representative had told me when I went in. I’d bought the iPhone outright, for work, so I could string together a very cheap pay-as-you-go plan based on my always-changing usage. I use it to sell magazine subscriptions and respond to last-minute editing questions and manage schedules when my children have those minor emergencies that children have. It’s a need, and I’m going to have to spend the money.

I thought to myself, in light of a string of comments on my last post about money anxiety, how irresponsible and immoral!

If check-bouncing is immoral, so is falling down and breaking your smart phone.

Someone had taken me to task for worrying that I might bounce a check I’d written. I didn’t get into the context, but here it is: I had promised to buy a pig from a farmer, sharing it with a bunch of friends. At the time, I didn’t know when exactly it would be ready, nor did I know exactly how much the total would be. I had an estimate: $600 to $800, after the deposit I’d paid. And I’d just finished a big extra project, for which I was billing almost $500; plus I was sharing the pork, so I’d collect money from my friends to cover $400 or so. And then, my husband transfers money to my account twice a month for groceries, when he gets his paychecks. I’d have way more than enough money.

The consulting project check didn’t come when promised. (In fact, it ended up being over a month late.) The pig needed to be picked up the day my husband usually transfers the money — otherwise she’d run out of freezer space. It ended up being $900, not $800 or $700 or $645. A couple of my friends were going to pay me afterward.

When I wrote the check, I had $900 in my account, but only just, and part of it wouldn’t clear until the next day. I had one of my friend’s checks depositing, but I wasn’t sure how quickly it would clear. I worried that some small monthly automatic payment (like $7.99 for Netflix) might hit in the meantime; if everything went wrong, it would be a nasty bounce.

I went into the pork transaction with my eyes open, knowing that it was theoretically possible things could go wrong, but thinking they wouldn’t, and meaning well all around.

Mistakes are not immoral, even if we are being headstrong.

Heck: I’m pretty headstrong. El Nerdo asked me if I might be ADHD (I laughed! I’d never thought of that before, for some reason, but that describes me pretty well). I rush into things that are good ideas without thinking about every last detail. I say “yes” too fast. I run under trees in the dark. I agree to buy some (very, very delicious and very reasonably-priced) pork from a small farmer who is living every ideal I believe in. So I end up making a lot of mistakes.

Accuse me of being irresponsible? Maybe, I do a lot of things that are irresponsible from many people’s perspectives, because I think they are worth the risk. But I think “immoral” is going a little too far.

If check-bouncing is immoral, then so are car accidents

A friend got into a car accident earlier today. The sun was in her eyes and she rear-ended someone. She was thoroughly shaken and called herself an “idiot,” several times. It’s probably going to make her insurance payments go up, and she’ll have some out-of-pocket expenses. She feels as awful as she can be. But, as we all told her, it was a mistake. We don’t say that people who make mistakes are bad people. They’re just … clumsy, or in the wrong place at the wrong time, or unlucky in sunlight.

Most of us are moral creatures. But we’re all human. And you know what they say about erring.

A statistic from some of Elizabeth Warren’s research about bankruptcy has impressed upon my mind; though bankruptcy is often seen as an easy way out taken by the careless overspenders, it’s far more likely to see people with high medical debts and those who have gotten into a trap of using credit cards to pay utilities and food bills. In fact, a large number of people who qualify for bankruptcy don’t choose that route, instead scraping and scrabbling to pay their debts. Most of us want to do the moral thing, even when the cards are stacked high against us.

Yet still, we end up in these holes of good intentions and bad timing. We get headed in the right direction financially, and then we have a spate of terrible luck. Because we’re embarrassed or ashamed or without bandwidth to find a better solution or even the victim of other people’s mistakes, we overdraw accounts and spend past our cushion and reach our credit card limit.

Spending time calling ourselves idiotic or immoral won’t fix the problem

Nothing is ever yielded by judging ourselves for our screw ups. And you’re surely not going to fix the world by judging me or anyone else for their financial missteps. Presenting ideas for solving these problems — like the establishment of a checking account cushion (I want one, and I’m going after it!) — is one idea. Remembering it the next time you get close to charging headlong into a decision is another (I’ll be waiting until I have the money in hand to order the next pig). Forgiving yourself is a third.

I’ll tell you that I break personal finance rules all the time. And I get so upset when I find myself doing it! I resolve to do better. And lots of the time, I do.

None of us is perfect; some of us have better discipline, or place more value on financial security, or simply have more income and better luck than others. We’d do well to give each other, and our own fool selves, the benefit of the doubt more often than not. And try, try again, to be a financially better person.

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