By HEATHER E. SCHWARTZ
I don’t think of myself as a material person. I’m not a big shopper. I don’t need to spend a lot of money to be happy.
I’m always overspending. So what does this mean? Am I lying to myself?
Here’s where things stand for me financially: Last fall, I made a big push to turn my situation around and get a handle on my money. I had it all figured out with a budget that I vowed to actually stick to, and it was going along fine. Swimmingly. And then, something weird happened.
In the past, I blamed overspending on not having things in order. When you feel like your money is out of control, it’s easy to slide into a slippery slope of denial. I’m in debt already, I used to think to myself, what difference does it make if I add on another $25 here or there?
A big difference, as it turned out. My debt grew.
When I made a serious decision to stop adding to it and actually pay it off, I felt great. My money was under control. I had a newfound sense of financial security.
But a few months in — surprise, surprise — that sense of security has started to lead me astray. I’ve got this, I think to myself. What difference does it really make if I spend beyond my budget here or there?
A big difference, as it turns out. I’ve dipped into the savings I’m supposed to be stretching. And I keep trying to rationalize this problem away. It’s not that much. I’ll make it up later. It doesn’t count because it’s not on a credit card; I only owe it to myself.
Hmm. I owe it to myself. Don’t I owe it to myself to police this situation before it gets out of hand again?
I have to admit, overspending can be incredibly gratifying in the moment. Last week, I treated myself to French toast and coffee at the diner after volunteering at my son’s school all morning. This was not in my budget. I recently started taking voice lessons during my other son’s ukulele lessons. This isn’t in my budget either. But now, instead of feeling like his personal chauffeur, I feel like a person in my own right, using the time I used to waste in the waiting area to learn and grow myself.
Does wanting these things and these experiences make me a material person? A big shopper? Someone who needs to spend a lot of money to be happy?
The real problem with these questions is that they’re all laced with a tinge of judgement, designed to force a defensive response. They’re a distraction. Because spending habits and decisions aren’t measurements of anyone’s moral fiber or worthiness. We all want things we can’t afford.
When I think about that in a judge-y way, I find myself stuck. I have to keep overspending because don’t I deserve all those things? And wouldn’t stopping be some sort of admission of guilt? But when I can say that to myself without judgement — I want things I can’t afford — it feels more like just a fact of life. I want things. I can’t afford them. So I can’t have them.
What I can afford — if I’m careful, if I stick to my budget, if I’m honest with myself — is something I want just as much as anything I could purchase: financial security. Maybe I want it even more.
I hope so. Because I’m pretty sure controlling my money isn’t only about willpower. My success at this also hinges on seeing financial security as its own reward, one that’s just as satisfying as hot buttered French toast dripping with maple syrup and a steaming cup of freshly brewed coffee prepared in a kitchen that isn’t mine.
Heather E. Schwartz writes children’s books for a living and performs at The Mopco Improv Theatre in Schenectady for fun. She’ll release three money tips books in 2019. Visit www.showmoneywhosboss.com.
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