The Struggling Student Rants—Til Debt Do Us Part

Typical Western society refuses to talk about money in its raw form.  We may discuss the abstract concept of wealth and the financial state of our local economies, but when it comes down to the nitty-gritty we have learned to zip it.  This topic, just like politics and sex, is so taboo we won’t even discuss it at the dinner table, even amongst our family and friends.  This is where I like to jump in and shake things up a bit, whether it’s at five-o’clock cocktails with coworkers, the annual barbecue with friends and family, or even a highly-politicized convention filled with mundane small talk and niceties. It’s not that I like to be a shit-disturber—well, depending on my mood I do, but that’s irrelevant—it’s that I’m genuinely interested in the topic of finances, budgeting, and building wealth.

I don’t see a better or faster way of reaching billionaire status other than talking about it with others, without holding back.  By talking about it, you can compare, take notes, and see where they gained the most and where they went wrong, so you don’t repeat the same mistakes.  What value is there in meeting people from different walks of life if you can’t walk away from a conversation knowing you learnt something worthwhile, that you can utilize.  So, a word of warning: don’t be surprised if we ever meet in person and I start talking salaries, household budgets, or ask what you think of the current financial state in your industry.  Sure, I’ll engage in small talk, for a maximum of five minutes; however, if you try to change the topic on me, I will walk away from any uninspiring chit-chat, sooner rather than later.  Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Most people I’ve encountered tend to avoid these topics with fervour; I sometimes get the feeling they would prefer to be the object of a firing squad.  During my younger years I couldn’t understand why people I knew well would much rather exchange recipes or talk about the weather than discuss about what’s good for their pockets.

I’ve listened to countless hours of coworkers sharing way too much information about their relationships or baby-daddy drama, all the while smiling and listening with patience.  But the minute business ideas, stock market picks, salary ranges, and emergency funds are brought up everyone looks like deer staring at headlights or remembers they have somewhere to be.  It took me years to understand the root of this reaction.  The reality is, money and finances provoke extreme emotions.  It’s not about “money” at all, very few people find plastic sheets of paper, accounting classes, or numbers on a screen intriguing… it’s more about self-worth.  You either have six or seven figures in the bank and are ashamed to spend it however your heart desires in fear of being taken advantage of or seen as “that rich bastard,” or you barely scrape by and are ashamed or fear being labelled a “lazy bum” or “lower class.”  Our society has, unfortunately, made us believe that the difference between being a wonderful person vs. an asshole is often determined just by how much cash you carry.

I understand not wanting to discuss your monthly grocery budget with the kid at the Tim Hortons drive-thru but what happens when you don’t discuss finances with a love interest, a relationship in its early stages, or your other half?  It could be either because you yourself are the culprit and avoid the topic.  It could also be that any attempts at discussing these matters with your partner results in avoidance, miscommunication, or even a full-blown argument.  Hearing about couples separating due to non-stop arguing about the in-laws, infidelity, or who does the dishes isn’t out of the ordinary.  We’ve all heard about it and possibly been through it.  What we don’t hear about very often are the epic fights between couples arguing over finances, despite knowing that it happens amongst most families, behind closed doors.

Dew (2011), alongside a few others, have researched the matter to a great extent.  Dew noted that, “because researchers only began earnestly studying the association between normative financial issues … and relationships in the early 1990s, … very few studies have examined whether these issues are [directly] linked to divorce” (p. 555).  Dew (2007) also mentions that consumer debt tends to predict any increases in arguments (pp. 89–104) and that, “because consumer debt leads to less choice, spouses may argue about the desirability, necessity, and practicality of assuming debt … [which can] strain marriages … especially if one spouse assumes the debt despite the objection of the other” (p. 93). Amato and Rogers (1997) also revealed that jealousy and spending money foolishly lead to divorce much quicker compared to other variables they used in their research, such as irritating habits and drinking or drug use (p. 620). The overall theme, among these researchers, seems to be that fighting over money affects a marriage way more than fighting over other issues.  It’s easier for Jill to forgive Jack for having to attend Aunt Betty’s horrible annual BBQ’s and dealing with the family insults, rather than Jack spending Jill’s lifetime savings to buy that Porsche he’s been drooling over.

It makes sense to me, then, to have these discussions earlier on in the relationship and without holding back, before it’s too late to back out of any arrangement.  Rose-coloured glasses aside, all relationships are arrangements, a type of give and take.  It’s better to enter into any arrangement or partnership cognizant of who you’re dealing with, rather than waking up and discovering ten years down the line that the other person has completely different beliefs, values, and strategies than you do, or that they have none at all.  The other person may simply feel that living life day by day is what it’s all about.

There’s nothing wrong with that—Hakuna Matata as Pumba and Simone says.  What is wrong, however, is not making informed choices, which means we must learn to talk openly about money.  If you’re not yet comfortable discussing finances on a first date, that’s normal.  Just don’t shy away, before walking down the aisle, from discussing both of your debt loads, savings and retirement accounts, and, most importantly, the other person’s finance strategy—how they view and deal with money.  Prior to these conversations and before you make your final decision, you should always watch, listen, and observe the other person’s actions, reactions, and words, that is, as soon as you stop grinning like a fool every time they text you.

The question, then, is how to observe and what to look for.  Do they take two-month vacations in Fiji every six months, while working part-time hours as a Pokémon connoisseur?  There’s obviously something else going on here.  Are they Chief Financial Officer at a Fortune 500 company but refuse to order the overcharged Chateaubriand, because it goes against their principles?  In that case, feel free to stay, if you enjoy the Little House on the Prairies minimalist lifestyle.  Both types may seem attractive, or even entertaining, but they obviously have issues that have not yet surfaced, and you need to be fully aware of these before you commit.  If you think love conquers all and trumps money any day of the week, you’re either inexperienced or a plain fool.  I guarantee the butterflies in your stomach won’t be there when you two decide to move in together and discover they like to splurge on a $10 kids’ meal at McDonalds on a Friday night, in their high-rise penthouse, while you prefer weekends in Vegas—or vice versa. Or imagine moving in with a person who makes six figures, only to discover they refuse to order pizza more than once every six months, “because we got food at home and it’s a waste of money.”  True story… I’m frugal enough as it is, but nobody messes with my pizza!

There are as many different personality types, when dealing with financial behaviour, as there are creepy-crawlies in my neighbour’s compost bin.  Everyone is different within their habits, inherent behaviours, and external influences, no matter how strong-willed of a personality they are.  External influences include things such as meddling family, personal financial savvy, peer pressure and behaviour (you are who you hang out with), susceptibility to advertising, marital status, income levels, and the list goes on.  However, Donnelly et al. (2012) explain that the root of all these problems stems from the fact that people tend to fall into three broad financial personality types: those who save; those who borrow; and those who buy compulsively (p. 1129).

Those who save tend to be hardwired to equate financial stability with survival.  These people are fixated on saving, meeting financial goals, and avoiding future financial problems.  Their main concern is making enough money to pay the bills, pay off any debts, and save for retirement.  This is because having enough [money] means the difference between a luxurious lifestyle; a comfortable lifestyle; paying the bills and putting food on the table; or ending up homeless.  While decades-old, Goldberg & Lewis (1978) still make a valid argument in noting that, “The more money [these types of people] have, the more confident they feel in coping with the “dangerous” world around them. Money helps to stave off anxiety.  It becomes an emotional lifejacket, a bulletproof vest, a security blanket” (p. 86).  This safety-compulsion can turn into paranoia and an obsessive, uncontrollable craving without even realizing it, staved off by refusing to even to buy necessities.  I’ve personally witnessed these personality types, sometimes up close and sometimes from a distant social circle, and I say with conviction that while these self-proclaimed wealth-hounds may genuinely be content with the cash under their mattress their family is not.  Everything in moderation, as Aristotle so truthfully said.

On the other side of the coin—pun intended—those who are more materialistic tend to have poorer financial management skills (Garoarsdottir & Dittmar, 2012; Walker, 1996).  These types of personalities tend to spend without second thought and lean more toward the here and now.  Donnelly et al. (2012) again explain that these are the financial ostriches, because their “pursuit of happiness through material consumption may lead to less money management” (p. 1138).  Feelings of anxiety and sadness are dealt with through spending and seen as a way to bring about a different emotional state.  We all know, or may be, these types of personalities.  When feeling sad, this person will bring the entire baked-goods aisle from Sobeys home to try and cheer themselves up or make their family or partner feel better.  When anxiety kicks in due to the bills piling up from their behaviour, this person will book a weekend getaway at a five-star hotel in Vegas to recharge their batteries.  It’s the “my diet starts on Monday” syndrome, as I like to call it.

At the end of the day, both extremes are unhealthy but most humans in the Western world exist somewhere between the two.  Self-realization is the key to balance, as well as taking off the rose-coloured glasses we all wear when excited with new beginnings and facing the truth as it is—before it bites us in the butt.  Money, or the lack thereof, doesn’t determine our personality, it simply emphasizes the good, the bad, and the ugly, and puts our priorities and values on full display for everyone to see.  We each bring the stereotypes to life, depending on how we deal with the truth.  Will I be a rich bastard when I become a billionaire, I wonder?  Either way, I agree with Françoise Sagan, “I’d rather cry in a Jaguar than on a bus.”

References
Goldberg, H., & Lewis, R. T. (1978). Money Madness: The Psychology of Saving, Spending, Loving, and Hating Money
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