You Are Your Own Worst Enemy

My friend Gillian called the other day — she’s been having money trouble and was looking for help. “I’m not really a financial advisor,” I told her. “I write about money, and I try to help people at my website, but I’m not qualified to coach you one-on-one.” Still, she’s a friend, so I resolved to at least give her some advice. I asked her to explain the situation.

“Tom and I are working all the time, but we’re always broke. He just wrecked his car, but we don’t have money to get it repaired. We’ll have to use the credit cards again. We don’t have any other choice. There’s never anything left at the end of the month,” she said. “I need some help budgeting so that we don’t keep having this problem.”

“Well, let’s see what we can do. I guess the best place to start is with your monthly income and your monthly expenses. How much do you and Tom bring home each month?” I asked.

“About $4,000 after taxes.” That was about what I expected.

“How much do you spend?” I asked.

“All of it,” she said, laughing. I expected that, too.

“How much do you have saved?” I asked. “Do you have any savings at all?”

“No, we don’t,” she said. “There’s never been anything left over to save.”

They don’t have anything left to save because they’re very good at spending money. Gillian and Tom live well:

  • They have a nice custom-built home.
  • Each of them drives a late model SUV.
  • They have no kids.
  • They enjoy expensive hobbies.

I have friends who make half what Gillian and Tom do, but have built a nest egg because they maintain a frugal lifestyle. It should be easy for these two to reduce their spending to create a budget surplus. “Well, let’s see if we can find a way to free up some cash,” I said. “Let’s list your fixed monthly expenses.”

Gillian listed their bills one-by-one. I jotted them down, making note of anything that seemed particularly extravagant. “Okay, let’s see what we have,” I said. “You’re paying a housekeeper $50 a week. If you were to clean the house yourself, you’d save $200 a month.”

“But…” she began.

“I think you’d be surprised at how much difference $200 a month can make,” I said. “I know from experience that even a $50 positive cash flow can make the difference between feeling broke and feeling flush. A $200 difference is huge.”

“Yeah,” said Gillian, “but I don’t want to clean the house. It’s too much work.” I was puzzled. To me, this was a quick and obvious way to free up money. If I were in her shoes, the housekeeper would be the first thing to go — it would be worth some extra work on my part. I tried a different approach.

“You each have a cell phone,” I said. “Do you both need one?”

“Yes,” said Gillian. “I don’t know what I’d do without one. And Tom needs one for work. I need to be able to reach him.”

Her reasoning seemed thin, but I pressed on. “Well, what about the cable bill,” I said. “You’re paying $60 a month for that. That’s an easy one. What about cutting back to basic cable?”

“Oh, we can’t get rid of cable,” Gillian said. “We watch TV all the time.” I was silent. “Are you there?” she asked.

“I’m here,” I said. “I’m just trying to figure out what to do. In order for you to turn things around, you’re going to have to make some sacrifices.”

“Yeah,” she said, “but we can’t cut cable. Tom would have a fit.”

“Gillian,” I said, “this is a little frustrating. I thought you wanted to get out of your money situation.”

“I do,” she said, “but so far you’re just suggesting things for me to get rid of. Isn’t there something else we can do? Can’t we use a budget to get more money?”

“That’s what I’m talking about,” I said. “Cutting things like these is making a budget. I know it seems terrible to have to give things up, but you need to make sacrifices — at least in the short term — in order to get ahead. You don’t have any savings. Any disaster means you’re putting money on your credit card. You need to build up some savings. You need to pay off your existing debt. In order to do this, you need to spend less than you earn. Right now you’re spending exactly what you earn, and you’ll never get ahead that way. I know, because for years that’s how I operated. You’re going to have to tighten the belt, Gillian. It’s the only way.”

I paused, and then said, “You need to decide what’s important.”

It was obvious I wasn’t going to be able to help her. I hadn’t even explored the Big Ideas, like moving down to a smaller home or trading one of their SUVs for a used car. I had started with the medium-sized stuff — the obvious chaff. But Gillian wasn’t interested in making changes if it meant altering her lifestyle. I changed the subject.

We talked about summer. Gillian asked how our garden was. I described the knee-high corn, the ripe raspberries, and Kris’ monster tomatoes. “I’m jealous,” she said. “I don’t have time to garden. I did get a chance to go to the nursery last week, though. I was able to pick up five shrubs on sale for about $10 each.”

The shrubs were the final straw. There was nothing I could do to help her because she wasn’t ready to be helped. She wasn’t ready to listen. She said she wanted to change, but she didn’t really. She was looking for a magic pill, something that would make life easier without any effort on her part. That’s not how it works. Eventually Gillian will reach a place so bad that she’ll begin to see the need to take responsibility for improving her situation, but she’s not there yet.

Our conversation reminded me of an episode of This American Life I heard recently. The show profiled debt guru Dave Ramsey, and at one point the reporter played a segment in which Dave experienced similar frustration:

Tina calls Dave because she’s upside-down on her car loan. She recently wrecked the car, but rather than use the money to repair the vehicle, she spent it. “Ooooo-kay,” says Dave, obviously flustered. “I’m afraid what you’re looking at is probably a really good part-time job, about six or eight months of 80 hour weeks.”

“Eighty hour weeks?” says Tina. “That’s too much work.”

“I can’t help you, Tina,” says Dave.

And I can’t help you, Gillian.

This story is based on actual events. Names and situations have been changed to protect Gillian’s identity.

More about...Budgeting, Debt, Psychology

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