Credit cards are not the source of all evil. Yes, you read that correctly. They are not our friends, but neither are they our foes. They are objects, and objects don’t have intentions. This would be like saying a carrot stick or a textbook intends to murder us in the middle of the night. Although many AU students would disagree about the murder-by-textbook, we still have to remember these objects don’t start their day with the intent of sabotaging our happiness. They don’t start their day at all, we do. Neither do they have intentions; we have the responsibility for those also. Furthermore, our intentions manifest through our habits–our spending habits for the purposes of The Struggling Student Rants. Therefore, just like the textbook or the carrot & stick, the credit card just sits there lifeless and ready to do our bidding. Our bidding is the key–we can use it for good or evil—it’s all about leverage. This may sound cliché, but think about it. We can use our textbooks to ace our exams or we can use a particularly heavy one to knock someone out cold if they piss us off. With that same intent, we can use the credit card to our advantage and as a tool to help us along our journey. The other option is to use the card to go on a wild and crazy shopping spree, with no regard for blowing the budget. When I can’t control my spending and end up with an exorbitant bill, I like to think I can always just fake my own death, buy a plane ticket to Havana and spend my remaining days on the beach, listening to samba and smoking cigars; but then I snap back to reality. My demise is my own doing and I have to face the music I composed.
There was a time when we didn’t have to control our spending; not the way we do now. Credit cards weren’t an option—they didn’t even exist. Cash was king; you either had it or you didn’t. Anything you needed, you paid for with cash. Some folks still prefer it this way, but it’s getting harder to choose your vehicle of choice. All this has changed, however, in the past couple of decades. From buying your daily latte at Starbucks; paying for groceries and utility bills; to buying big-ticket items, like home appliances and furniture. The shift towards a cashless existence started by cutting cheques; something millennials may never get to experience in their lifetime. Even cheques are now becoming obsolete—archaic almost—to make the consumer experience as seamless as possible. Credit cards are now the vehicle of choice, and they don’t even need to be anywhere near the consumer to use them. The bearer can upload everything to their smartphone app, or they can even pay with a swipe of a wrist, if they’ve been suckered into paying a grand or two for a smartwatch.
Therefore, if money, in one form or another, is available 24/7, how is it our fault if we can’t keep our finances in check? Again, money itself is the object, not the wrongdoer. It’s the vehicle we use to get where we’re going. Vehicles have neither good nor evil intentions. Similar to using a weapon to hurt someone, or eating two large pizzas rather than two slices, the doer is to blame, not the item. Therefore, any responsibility in overspending is on us, not the credit card. There are thousands of studies that look at the actual source of this behaviour in depth; it’s not just a matter of will power or lack, thereof. However, I believe the true power lies in recognizing there’s an issue, to begin with, rather than continuing to live and spend in denial. You can’t correct something if you don’t know it’s wrong. Compulsive spending is known as an impulse control disorder in the psychology world and has similar features to other addictive illnesses, such as eating disorders and substance abuse (Black, Shaw, McCormick, Bayless & Allen, 2012).
Our AU psychology majors should be nodding their heads right about now. In a Psychology Today article, the author explains, “compulsive buying is characterized by excessive preoccupation or poor impulse control with shopping,” and can result in some very ugly consequences, like serious marital conflict relating to financial problems (Heshmat, 2018). It does make sense, however, if you and your significant other are paddling in different directions—you to the bank and they to the mall. At some point, you’re both going to get tired of the resistance and either let the other take control or give them a nice goose egg with the oar and throw them overboard. Similarly, it’s not just the shopping sprees we should beware of. There are myriads of financial disorders associated with spending, wealth accumulation, and even the tendency to sabotage our financial wellbeing. These tendencies may not be as simple as shrugging it off and blaming it on our love of a good Black Friday sale.
Brad Klontz, an associate professor in Financial Psychology at Creighton University (among many other impressive feats), specializes in researching and defining money disorders. He and his colleagues published their research in 2012, in The Journal of Financial Therapy. The authors explain there are many financial-related disorders, in addition to overspending and compulsive buying. Underspending, compulsive hoarding, and workaholism are also issues to keep in mind (Klontz, Britt, Archuleta & Klontz, 2012). To make it even more confusing, as psychology tends to be, these tendencies don’t just all fit into one neat pile. However, to save you some reading time from your busy schedule, Klontz et al. summarize that, “in general, a money disorder is a chronic pattern of self-defeating or self-destructive financial behaviors.” Although the research is a few years behind, it’s eye opening and still relevant. Everyone should glimpse through it before the Black Friday sales this weekend or the upcoming Christmas Season, to make sure there are no lurking, self-sabotaging factors at play. How would we recognize these within? Well, walking out of a bargain centre with Christmas gifts for everyone—including the best friend’s cousin’s next-door neighbour—would be a good sign of a bigger problem that needs looking into.
However, a shopping-spree addiction, as the root cause of mental anguish or family strife, doesn’t strike people as troubling—most just laugh about it. When brought up, people will join the conversation and relay their own hoarding tendencies or flaunt their deal-sniffing abilities. People will intervene to help a loved one if they’re drinking themselves into a stupor 24/7—we all now know through the myriad research studies that it’s much deeper than the alcohol itself. However, folks may not recognize the alarm bells going off with a spouse’s fifteenth trip to Winners & Home Sense this month. They’ll just accept that, “the kids needed their 200th pair of socks,” and carry on with their day, without wondering whether that one more pair of socks is an attempt to patch up all the holes in our significant other’s heart. We won’t talk about finances to strangers but, often, we won’t talk about finances with our friends and family, either. In a world where other, much more serious and controversial topics have been brought to the forefront to get people to speak up and, hopefully, alleviate some internal suffering, money is still kept hush-hush and not talked about at the dinner table or the office water cooler.
People see finances as an awkward and controversial topic. Those that have more than enough of it feel ashamed, as if they did someone injustice; and those that don’t have enough of it also feel ashamed, as if their self-worth is attached to their wallet. Both sides, therefore, remain quiet in hopes that the other side won’t notice. The question, then, is that if neither side talks about it, how is anyone going to help? It’s common knowledge that disagreeing with how finances are handled can make or break family life. I have seen close friends divorcing and losing everything, including their family’s support, due to their gambling habits; there was no support available to see this and treat it for the addiction it is. I have also witnessed siblings take part in battles that make the Wars of the Roses seem like child’s play, which is depressing altogether. People’s clear lack of ethos over the dollar shouldn’t come as a surprise; however, the fact that money is thicker than both blood and water is disheartening. This holiday season, make it a priority to promote your love of family and friends, not their presents. If you’re feeling particularly ballsy, try to spread the financial know-how and talk about the issues. We all know they’re there; we’re just not used to talking about them in the open. Being open about these matters, however, is the only way to overcome them, and spread the cheer.