After my recent article about how to deal with a partner that hides and lies about money problems, several readers made the astute point that many of these situations are often the result of people lying to themselves about money, whether directly (by actually telling yourself false conclusions about the facts you already know) or indirectly (avoiding the facts).
I used to often lie to myself about money. I’d buy things on the credit card without checking balances or considering the consequences, believing it wasn’t that big of a deal or that I could easily afford it later. Sometimes, I’d figure out my complete financial state, know on some level that it was atrocious, but tell myself that it wasn’t bad and that I had things under control.
Here are some of the tactics I used to overcome that tendency to deceive myself about my financial state. Without these tactics, it would have been much more difficult to turn my financial life around.
First, realize what you’re doing
If you don’t recognize a problem, you’re going to go on deceiving yourself and digging yourself into a deeper and deeper financial hole. Here are some of the big warning signs to look for:
+ Do you often feel like you have to “justify” purchases because your brain tells you you can’t afford them?
+ Do you avoid looking at bills and financial statements?
+ Do you tell yourself that your “future self” will take care of this bill?
+ Do you try to block thoughts of your debts and budgeting out of your mind when you want something?
+ Are you often “surprised” by your credit card bills, but you don’t even think about the bills when you bust out the plastic?
+ Do you tend to believe you’re more well off than you are when you’re out in public buying stuff than when you’re looking at your bills?
If any number of those are true, you’re either directly or indirectly misleading yourself when it comes to your financial state, and that directly leads to financial trouble.
The first step is to simply realize you’re doing it – and to realize that it’s not helping you with financial success.
Figure out the truth
The next step is to figure out your exact financial state so that you can see the raw numbers. This means facing those bills that you dread and coming to terms with the fact that your income isn’t really matching your spending.
One good way to do this is to tabulate all of your spending for a given month. Go through all of your receipts and statements and determine where exactly every dime went for the past month. Group them together in obvious ways – all spending at each store, or all spending at each type of store, for starters. A person who just gets a coffee each morning might be able to tell themselves it’s not a problem, but looking at a pile of 23 charges to the local coffee shop for $8 to $10 a pop might make things look different – that’s a car payment. Four clothing binges? That’s a problem.
Another method for seeing everything at once is to calculate your net worth. That means tallying up the value of all of your assets, then subtracting from that the total of all of your debts. What’s left might actually be negative, which means that for all of the time you’ve spent working in your life, you’ve actually accumulated less than nothing.
These numbers are the truth of the matter. The truth is not the story you’ve created in your head. Look at these numbers carefully, and figure them up on a very regular basis so you can see the exact effect of the bad choices you make on your financial state.
Create some reminders
Once you’ve figured up these numbers, you may want to just push them out of your head and forget about them. Don’t. Put a copy of your net worth balance sheet up on the fridge and on the dashboard of your car. Wrap a note around your credit cards saying “I spent $800 on stupid things last month – that’s more than a week’s worth of pay.”
The key is making the truth so prevalent that you can’t avoid it. If the truth is around every corner, the lies have nowhere to hide.
For me, the most powerful reminder was a picture of my children wrapped around my credit card. My son keeps me honest with myself – I know that every bad financial move I make means fewer opportunities for him as he grows up.
Try a “cash only” spending plan for a while
Another tactic to enforce honesty is to switch to a “cash only” policy for spending. Whenever you intend to make a purchase, do it with only cash. This means using the ATM machine and keeping cash in your wallet for any purchases you might make. To enforce this, start keeping your credit card at home or keep only a low-limit one in your wallet for emergencies.
This keeps you honest in the sense that once there’s no money left, there’s no money left. You can’t deceive yourself because of the availability of credit – the amount of money you have is really all you have.
Be fully honest with at least one other person
One other tactic that’s fairly surprising but really helped me to face the truth of my situation was full honesty with another person.
When we faced our financial crisis in April 2006, I spent some time assembling all of this information about our financial state. I found out how much we owed on all of our debts, figured up our net worth, and put together a vague plan for what we needed to do.
Then I took the big step. I shared all of this with her. We sat down and went through everything. I showed her a complete picture of our financial state. We talked about our goals and what we wanted from our lives. We started to look for some solutions, too.
The most powerful part, though, was revealing all of the bad moves to my wife. She had a sense that we were in a difficult financial shape, but she really had no grasp as to how deep our financial troubles went. By showing her the whole picture, it went from just being something I could keep to myself and hide from others to being something that someone else knew about. She now knew the whole truth, just as I did, and thus any statement or action I made with regard to our money not only had to pass through my own sense of truth, but it had to pass through hers as well.
In short, she became a much higher standard of honesty about money. It’s a lot harder to deceive yourself if you know that deception requires you to also deceive the people you love the most. By opening the whole of our finances to her, any lie I told about our money, even to myself, became much the same as lying to her, something I can’t stomach.
Find someone you trust deeply and value deeply and open up your situation to them. You’ll find that you’ve committed yourself to a deeper level of honesty and it will push you to a higher standard than before.
Pledge that you’ll get through just the next day without spending dishonestly. Take it one step at a time, and renew your honesty at the end of each day by taking a sincere look at what you spent that day. Then repeat it the next day. Start a journal about your progress, writing down the successes and the challenges of each day.
Eventually, you’ll come to truly trust yourself again. You’ll find that you’re naturally moving to a state of internal honesty, and that makes it much easier to be truly honest with others. That honesty about money will also lead you straight towards financial success, as you’ll be connecting the consequences of your spending with the rewards of getting things under control and building a sur.