Being Judgmental on the Path to Financial Independence

It’s been more than nine years since Sarah and I hit our financial bottom and started to turn things around.

Along that path, many good things have happened to us. We’ve paid off all of our credit card debt. We paid off both of our car loans, then went through a full car replacement cycle, and are still free from car loans. We paid off all of our student loans. We bought a fairly nice house, then paid off the full mortgage on that house. I switched to a freelancing career. And somewhere along there, we started saving so intensely for early retirement that we basically live off of Sarah’s salary and invest my income.

At this point, we are pretty happy with all of those financial changes. We feel secure against disasters that could befall us. We feel as though we’re on a path to actually retire before retirement age. And we’ve done it without feeling “miserable” or giving up the core things we care about.

Naturally, those are thing that we’re proud of. But when does that pride cross the line into being judgmental of others?

In my heart of hearts, it’s hard not to feel at least a little confused, if not judgmental, when I see people doing things like spending money on incredibly frivolous items or trading in a 2015 model car to get a 2016 model. I’m baffled when I hear that people have saved nothing for retirement or that they have no emergency fund.

I have witnessed the huge positive benefits of things like these in my own life. Cutting out the spending on frivolous stuff, buying older cars and driving them into the ground, saving for retirement, and building an emergency fund have all been big positive steps for us, enabling us to do things that we never would have dreamed of doing before, and it turned out that they weren’t very painful moves, either.

Why shouldn’t I feel judgmental about people who make such mistakes?

Well, for starters, being judgmental poisons your social relationships. As soon as you start judging others as not being worthy, you cut yourself off from that person and often, by extension, everyone who is close to that person. If you’re judgmental about a lot of people due to things like their spending habits, their politics, their chosen mode of dress, or pretty much anything else that doesn’t involve your personal safety, all you’re doing is walling yourself off from a surprisingly large portion of the community, as you’re not only losing those people you’re judging, but the people that are close to those that you’re judging.

Another problem is that by its very nature, being judgmental is based on limited information. You can jump to a negative conclusion about someone based on a very small set of observations or even based on secondhand stories that may or may not be true. Your observations are often not representative of the whole person and the gossip definitely isn’t, so passing judgment on an individual based on those things will often lead you to an incorrect conclusion.

Not only that, being judgmental is a crutch that keeps you from trying to improve yourself. If you buy into the idea that the other person is somehow flawed and you are somehow not flawed, then it gives you permission to spend less time and effort examining and improving yourself. After all, you’re already better than that other person, right?

But, still, why not? To put it simply, being judgmental costs us money, costs us opportunities, and costs us relationships. It costs us money by causing us to assign negative feelings to tactics that could really be helpful to us. It costs us opportunities because we turn away from people and connections that could be beneficial in our lives. It costs us relationships because we choose not to engage others because we’ve already deemed them to be failures.

Being judgmental costs us again and again and again in life.

We’re still humans, however. In day to day life, we are constantly making small judgments that guide our ordinary behavior. How can we keep those judgments from building up into being judgmental, something that I’m often at risk of doing against people for their financial choices?

Here are the best strategies I’ve figured out.

Put Yourself in Their Shoes

When I see someone making a really bad spending mistake or I hear about someone digging a big financial hole for themselves, it’s really tempting to jump on the bandwagon of judging them. After all, they’re making a mistake that seems really obvious to me. How can they not see this?

But then I stop for a minute and actually think about it. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was making really poor financial choices simply because the lessons of personal finance had yet to click in my life.

Did that make me a bad or flawed person back then? Nope. It just made me a person that hadn’t really integrated the common sense of good personal finance into my life yet.

Not only that, there are many people who are stuck in financial situations where doing so is impossible. I might also be witnessing the rare splurge of someone else who has their financial strategy all together.

There are many, many reasons why a good and reasonable person might be acting in a way that isn’t strictly in their best financial interests.

In the end, I try to imagine sympathetic situations for this person. I try to put myself into their situation by imagining how I viewed finances a decade ago, or how I might act if my singular hobby or passion involved the thing that person is spending money on, or if that person is struggling in a way that I don’t initially see. I look for indications of those other things in their behavior and when I see them, it suddenly becomes a lot harder to judge that person.

Reflect on Your Own Mistakes

It’s easy for me to identify a financial mistake that someone is making and almost cringe in response to it. I’ve been down that path before and I know where it can lead – to a place of pain and confusion and stress. Sometimes, I’m stunned that people can make such basic financial errors.

Yet, at the same time, I make lots of mistakes in other areas of my life. I’ll eat too much or waste time on something really frivolous or not exercise or not be friendly in a social situation. I even sometimes make financial mistakes myself.

I am far from a mistake-free person, so why exactly am I judging this other person for his or her mistakes?

The truth is that I shouldn’t be judging that person at all. Every single human being, including myself, makes mistakes in life. Sometimes those mistakes occur due to a lack of knowledge, sometimes they occur due to different but understandable sets of values, and sometimes they simply occur due to a slip-up.

Regardless of the reason behind the questionable choice, simply having made a mistake doesn’t mean that the person is bad or flawed. It means that the person is human, just like you are. (And sometimes, it’s not actually a mistake at all.)

You can, in fact, associate with someone who makes mistakes, because you make them, too. You can, in fact, respect someone who doesn’t do everything perfectly, because you don’t do everything perfectly, too. You can, in fact, learn from people who aren’t paragons of virtue in every aspect of life because you’re not perfectly virtuous in every aspect of life, either.

You make mistakes. Does that make you a bad person that deserves harsh judgment from others? Of course not. So why does someone else who makes mistakes deserve harsh judgment from you? They don’t. It’s as simple as that.

Ask Lots of Questions

The best approach to getting over being judgmental about someone else is to simply get to know them and their situation a little better, and the easiest way to do that is to let them tell you about it.

Introduce yourself to someone when the situation is appropriate and just start asking that person questions about their life and what they think. Let that person tell you as little or as much as they want about their life.

I’ve found that the vast majority of people open up and talk a lot about their own life if they find that they have a willing audience, and I almost always find that people are more normal and rational than you usually expect them to be.

That’s because, when you observe someone doing something that you interpret as behavior worth judging, you’re often only seeing one tiny facet of their whole situation from one specific angle. By simply sitting down and asking a few questions of that person in a friendly “getting to know you” way, you quickly begin to see lots of facets and angles. That person goes from being represented in a very shallow way by the “mistake” that you perceived to being a fully fleshed out person with lots of attributes, values, interests, and successes.

The next time you feel yourself being judgmental about someone, whether it’s about their spending choices or their politics or anything else, spend some time talking to that person and ask that person a few questions about their life, then actually listen to the responses. You’re likely to find out a lot more about that person, which enables you to put that “mistake” in a context that you never had before.

Look for Areas of Common Ground

When we see someone espousing a viewpoint or behaving in a way that we don’t like, we often only see that specific viewpoint or behavior, and we see that viewpoint or behavior as alien. That person is acting in a way that’s nothing like us, thus it’s easy to judge that person in a negative fashion.

The truth is that, as humans, we have many more things in common than we think we do. We often care about the same core things, even if we come to different conclusions about them. We often do many of the same things every day, even if we happen to notice only the handful of things we do differently. We all laugh. We all cry. We all love. We all feel lonely. We all feel temptation.

For me, I’ve often come to see aspects of myself from a decade ago in people that are making financial mistakes. I see what my life was like before I hit financial bottom. I wasn’t a fool. I wasn’t ignorant. I simply did not have the necessary life experiences for me to turn things around yet.

Looking at others through that lens lets me actually find many areas of common ground with people that are big spenders. I feel like, on some level, I understand where they are coming from, and by understanding that, I can see that they’re not bad people making bad choices. They’re just people who haven’t had exactly the same experiences as me.

When you find areas of common ground with someone, that person quickly begins to seem much more rational and much more real than they once did. Suddenly, that “flaw” you initially spotted and wanted to use for judgment doesn’t seem so devastating and worthy of judgment.

Look for Positive Attributes, Too

When we see someone making what we perceive to be a mistake, whether it’s a spending error or a social misstep or something else, it’s easy to quickly snap into an overall negative view of that person, especially when we don’t know that person well. It’s also sometimes difficult to apply the other strategies in this thread, as those take time that we don’t often have in order to get to know that person a little better.

One solution to that is a very simple one: just keep watching. You might see that person who buys something frivolous go outside and celebrate in ecstasy because of the one thing that person’s been able to buy for themselves in a very long time. You might see someone who drives a big SUV open up the back door to let three children out, all of which grab hands together and walk together in a safe and loving way.

It is so easy to just judge quickly and then look away, but when we do that, we intentionally cut ourselves off from the bigger picture of what is happening. We stop as soon as we witness what we perceive to be a negative attribute, but we don’t give ourselves time to see the positive attributes, too.

Like it or not, the most mistake-riddled people you know are mostly making good choices and have a lot of good attributes. By choosing to limit ourselves and look only at the negative attributes and to judge them by comparison does us a disservice, because we miss out on some of the things that make those people great.

Stop Worrying About Always Being Right

One of the key elements of judging others is the sense that you are somehow right and that other person is somehow wrong. This comes from a natural desire to believe that we are on the right path in life, and when we see others on a path that goes in a different direction than ours, it is a natural response to see that as the wrong path.

However, the truth is that we’re not always on the “right” path. Not only that, it often doesn’t matter whether or not we are actually on the “right” path (or whether that other person is on the “right” path) when it comes to relating to others. It honestly doesn’t matter much.

The easiest way to catch yourself here is to notice whenever you think someone else’s thinking is “wrong” or that someone else is doing things “wrong.” The implication there is that your thinking is “right” and that your way of doing it is “right.” For starters, that might necessarily be true, and for another, it often just does not matter in the least when it comes to whether that other person is a good and worthwhile person.

It honestly does not matter most of the time whether you’re “right.” It doesn’t matter when you’re arguing politics. It doesn’t matter when you’re recalling an old memory. It doesn’t matter when you’re comparing your methods of doing a common task. “Right” and “wrong” rarely matter much when it comes to respecting others and building human relationships.

Where “right” and “wrong” come into play is in guiding your own behavior and your own choices. You might feel as though being smart with your money and your spending choices is “right” – I know I do – but that doesn’t mean it is “right” for others in their situation.

Focus on what you can control – your own choices. Don’t worry about or judge the things you cannot – the choices of others.

Step Out of Your Own Comfort Zone as Often as Possible

When you’re trying to improve yourself, one of the most powerful ways around to jumpstart that improvement is to surround yourself with people who exhibit that improved trait. This naturally pulls you toward that trait, and that can be a wonderful thing. Similarly, there are some real uses to associate with people who share many social norms with you as it makes it easier to socialize without being unintentionally hurtful.

However, there’s one huge drawback to this. When you surround yourself with people who behave in a similar fashion, you often find yourself believing that the way everyone behaves in that group is simply a human norm and those that behave differently are somehow outside of that norm. That kind of mindset makes it incredibly easy to judge others.

The easiest way to get past this is to step outside your comfort zone on a regular basis. Go to social events you wouldn’t normally go to. Talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Try out activities that you wouldn’t normally try out. Go places you wouldn’t normally go.

When you’re there, don’t try to judge things by your usual standards. Instead, watch what other people do and try to join in. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” as the old saying goes. Try new foods. Try new activities. Talk to people from different cultures.

Yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable, especially at first. There is a lot of internal pressure for people to stay in their own comfort zones.

But by breaking out of those comfort zones, you begin to see that there is actually a wide variety in normal human behavior. There is a wide variety in what can be considered “good” behavior. People who do things that you might otherwise consider “wrong” might be acting as perfectly normal members of the social groups to which they belong.

Those ideas make common sense, but it’s only through meeting new people, diving into new situations, trying new activities, and visiting new places that you get to witness this and see it in action. It’s only by doing it that it becomes real and knocks down some patterns of judgment.

Final Thoughts

Being judgmental is incredibly costly. It costs us money. It costs us opportunities. It costs us time. It costs us relationships.

When we’re successful in a particular area – like personal finances, for one – it’s easy to become judgmental of others who haven’t found that success, even though that judgmental attitude is a costly one for us.

However, it’s something we can control. We choose to be judgmental, even when it feels like a reflex. We can choose to break those patterns through the strategies described here.

Don’t expect perfection. I work on not being judgmental, but I’m far from perfect at it. All I can do is try to not do it and to be better each day than I was the day before.

Over time, if you can reduce the judgmental aspects of your personality, you’ll find yourself open to more opportunties and relationships than ever before.

Good luck!