The Big Lie in Personal Finance

When I was in high school my parents would give me and my siblings $20 a week for lunch. We could either use that money to pay for food at the school cafeteria each day or pack our own brown bag lunch and pocket the cash.

For the first three years of high school, I made my own lunch probably 4 out of 5 days a week so I could save most of my 20 bucks.1

The weird thing is I never really did anything with that cash except hoard it. I opened up a bank account and eventually put my money into a CD.

For whatever reason, I think I was hardwired to be a saver. It also helped that my parents instilled good financial habits in me by having good financial habits themselves, and railing against things like credit card debt.2

So becoming a saver was likely a combination of nature and nurture for me. I was lucky.

Some people aren’t so lucky because either they’re personality isn’t suited for saving money or their circumstances don’t allow them to save or provide a poor example for financial health.

It took me far too long to come to this conclusion. I used to be one of those people who secretly judged others for their poor financial habits. Now I see the error of my ways.

Do some people need a kick in the pants to motivate them to get their finances in order?  Sure, and that will always be the case with a group of people who have the resources but can’t get their spending or savings habits under control.

But there is another group of people who have the deck stacked against them, either because of their upbringing, past experiences or lack of financial resources.

Brad Klontz talks about the “Big Lie” in personal finance in his book Mind Over Money and it’s an important distinction:

Just about everyone has a complicated relationship with money, and more people than you realize have money relationships that are downright dysfunctional. And just about everyone believes the “Big Lie” about personal finance.

What is the Big Lie? It’s the accusation that your financial difficulties are your fault, that they stem from your being lazy, crazy, greedy, or stupid.

Personal finance is important because money impacts so many aspects of our lives. So starting out in a bad place financially can compound against you in a number of ways.

Not only can our experiences set us on the wrong course from the get-go, but our instincts rarely line up with good financial habits. We’re not hardwired to manage money competently in terms of delaying gratification, planning decades into the future, or living below our means.

Very few of us are sabotaging our finances on purpose.

The rational finance person in me hopes there are solutions for this problem but I haven’t seen much progress being made on this front.

Many personal finance experts now take a hard line and spend-shame or savings rate-shame people into feeling bad about how they live their life because of their financial choices.

I get that these people have good intentions but sometimes people who are in a bad place financially deserve a break.

So if you’re one of those people that never seem to be able to get ahead financially, cut yourself some slack. Realize what you’re up against. Figure out the money triggers that are holding you back and work on improving those areas you’re financially deficient in.

But don’t let others dictate how you choose to live your life simply because they’re in better financial standing than you.

There are more important things than money, even though money can be pretty damn important.

Further Reading:
The Stephen A. Smiths of Personal Finance

1The one school lunch I would always pay for would be the rectangular cafeteria pizza. That stuff was pretty damn good (for cafeteria food).

2I didn’t even get my first credit card until getting my first job after college.