Facing the money-stress monster, talking about money, and learning to climb out of debt

So this week I had the pleasure of attending a 2-day course for work called “Planning Your Financial Future”.  One of the many perks of being a government employee.  This was awesome for a variety of reasons, including that the days were shorter by an hour than my regular days (but I still got paid the same), I didn’t have to do any work (only learn about personal finance), and due to the commute, I got to wake up a full HOUR AND A HALF later than I do for work, but I was still done for the day at the same time!  Amazing!  Mostly though, this was awesome because I got to focus on, think about, and learn about personal finance all day long AND get paid for it!  Unreal.  So this course was very interesting, and it covered a lot of different general topics of personal finance for public service employees in Canada.  The entire first half of the first day was spent on the ins-and-outs of the public service pension plan, while the second half talked about…well, death basically!  A lawyer discussed death benefits, wills, powers of attorney, and divorce agreements!  Uplifting, right?! Ha! Uplifting or not, it was really interesting.  The second day, we spent the entire day talking about comparing working vs. retirement income for public service employees, investment vehicles, and some specifics of financial planning for retirement for public service employees.  One caveat I will put here is that the second day (investment vehicles, financial planning for retirement, etc.) was taught by a financial planner, so it really only talked about investment vehicles that are beneficial to financial planners.  I get that they had to contract this out to a financial firm to offer the course, but this was the one part of this course that was a bit disappointing.  The reason I found this disappointing is that I really wanted to hear about the investment strategies that would be the most beneficial for me, not the ones that are the most beneficial for a financial planner who wants to make money off of me and my investments(sometimes at the expense of me making money on them).  What this means is that they didn’t talk about ETFs or any other strategies for low-cost investing, which I would have been very interested to hear about.  In fact, at the break, I asked the facilitator about this and she responded, quite honestly, “Well, there’s no reason for financial planners to talk about those, because, I mean, I have to feed my daughter!”  She was very up front and honest about the fact that financial planners are not going to sell you low-cost products because there is nothing in it for them.  While this could be taken as a bit disheartening, I was actually appreciative that she was willing to be so open and honest about it with me in that context.  If she had generated some other story as an explanation, I think it would have been more difficult to receive and critically evaluate all her other teaching/advice.  The fact that she was willing to be somewhat candid when asked questions directly made it so that I was able to receive the rest of her advice and not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  So overall, lots of information was presented in the course generally, I got to sleep in, I got PAID for all of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning all day!

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One of the things I noticed during this 2 day course was this: People really do know as little about money as the financial podcasts and books would have you believe.  I know a lot of the books, blogs, and personal finance would have you believe that the general population knows next to nothing about money, but I guess I never really bought it.  I guess I thought they were just prefacing their bigger discussions that way to make “Dummies” like me feel a little better about not knowing any of it already.  I really sort of thought I was the only Dummy out there; an uneducated, uninformed outlier.  Being in this course surrounded by (arguably) highly educated public servants, and observing their reactions to the course and it’s content drove home for me that this is really not the case.  It made me see that a lot more of us are Debt Dummies than I previously thought possible.  I honestly spent a lot of this course being afraid to ask questions, in case it might expose my ignorance / my status as a “dummy”.  As I listened to others ask questions though, I began to realize that basically everyone knew as little as me, and in fact, it seemed a some might even know less about some topics.

Another thing I noticed was this: Money really stresses people out! This became evident from the ongoing emotional reactions of those around me.  Now, because I have a Master’s in Clinical Psychology, and experience as a mental health counselor, I am likely more tuned-in to this than some, but from my point of view, there were a lot of pretty obvious emotional reactions taking place around me on an ongoing basis.  Some of the people sitting close to be were audibly emitting sighs, or or deep out-breaths, or other signs of acute stress response when certain topics were being discussed.  One man who was displaying this behavior was also arriving late in the mornings (one day by an hour) and coming back late from breaks and lunch.  Arriving late, or not at all, is one of the classic signs of resistance in therapy sessions, so I wondered what (if anything) it might mean in this context.  He was also challenging many of the more benign things the instructors said, often with a lot of accompanying hostile/angry/agitated affect (or emotional response).  In fact, a lot of people in the course were displaying this type of emotional affect-laden communication / commenting directed at the instructors or at various subjects discussed, and just sort of being let off generally, like metaphorical steam.

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Now while this was not my reaction to the course, I actually have a lot of empathy for these money-stressed people, because historically I have been highly stressed about money.  In fact, it would have been really easy for me to find this whole seminar stressful, since I still have (as the title of my blog would indicate) a lot of student related debt! Granted, there were some topics that made me experience stress during this of course, like thinking about the importance of growing my money when I am still trying to stop my debt from growing / pay it down.  However, I was able to channel that stress into motivation to stay on the track I have been on.  I think it was a bit easier to turn that stress into motivation for me personally because I am still fairly young and have my entire career ahead of me to make better choices.

I am also able to relate to this money-stress because I was raised in an environment where money was mysterious, misunderstood, dangerous, powerful, and frightening.  By the end of his career, I think my Dad was making around 200 thousand dollars per year, and my Mom close to 90 thousand, but they always spent through their money like it was going out of style.  In retrospect, it seems like it was sometimes a race to see who could blow all their money in the shortest amount of time immediately following their paycheck.  My childhood is marked for me by a drastic rollercoaster of spending.  Within the boundaries of each 2-week paycheck cycle, my parents would fluctuate wildly between extravagant “Great Gatsby” style spending, to not being able to buy any groceries for up to a week because “There’s no money until payday.”  My youth was also marked by having to call my parents and tell them things like “The cable/tv/internet got turned off again, can you call them?”  My parents seemed to have no respect for bill deadlines, and so this was sort of a recurring theme of my youth.  As I got older, I also began to witness and become aware of the deep seated fear my parents had of banks, as though they were all powerful, a fear that in hindsight, I have begun to understand based on the broader context of their life (Side note: they did eventually clean up their act).  So how can two people who arguably made quite a lot of money by middle class standards have such a hard time with money?  I think the biggest insight I gained into this came from one of the first personal finance books I ever read: The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko.  This book described how people who are actually millionaires don’t spend the way we generally think millionaires should spend.  They explained that actually, real life millionaires save their money, and are quite frugal in their expenditures, which is a crucial part of how they became millionaires in the first place.  I clearly remember reading this book because it was like a light turned on in my head, and I finally began to understand the error of my and my family’s ways.  I do not mean to imply that this struggle is in any way over for me, because it’s not.  Once you have been raised for the first 20 years of your life in this type of extravagant, spend-all-you-can lifestyle, it is very difficult to change it.  It’s not just a behavior (which is hard enough to change on it’s own), but at this point, your sense of your identity and your self-worth and self-esteem are all tied up in your purchases and the things you own.  In my experience, it takes a long time and a lot of introspection and personal work to learn how to derive your self-worth and self-esteem from places other than what brand names you own.  Getting into the specifics of what I have tried the the strategies I have found effective so far is a subject for another blog post, which I promise to start working on soon!

All of that to say that I understand, and can really empathize with the stress I saw the people around me having towards talking about money.  Believe me, I know this as well as anyone.  I personally spent my three years of grad school knowing in the back of my mind that I was quickly growing a mountainous debt, and I repeatedly swept it under the rug in my mind and just pretended it wasn’t happening.  If you had tried to talk to me about money or personal finance at that time, I would NOT have liked it.  I imagine it would have stressed me the f*&% out!

Post Climbing

At this point in my life though, I have turned around and faced the mountain, and I am trying to climb it.  Bit by bit, every day, I drag myself a couple feet farther up that sheer rock face.  Some days I even slide a ways back down, but I just keep climbing.  At this moment, I have a lot of motivation for the climb, because I am seeing small accomplishments, like nearing completely paying off the first small chunk of my debt (which also happens to have the highest interest level at a whopping 19.99%!).  So I didn’t find this course stressful on the whole, I found it fascinating, encouraging, and highly motivating.  I wish it had been a whole week long! I share this experience just to nerd out on personal finance and human behavior (which I enjoy), and to encourage you to keep on climbing!  Day by day, and inch by painful inch, we can climb back out of this thing together, and hopefully find like-minded others to help encourage us along the way.  If you are looking for some extra motivation, I will share a podcast I listened to this week that actually made me cry in standstill traffic in my car because it was so relatable and motivational.  It was an interview with a journalist who paid off OVER 100 THOUSAND DOLLARS of debt in 2 years.  Now this is not very realistic or achievable in terms of timeline, but his explanation of his struggle was universal, and the fact that he came out the other side was highly motivating.  I LOVED this man’s story.

See the link here: http://farnoosh.tv/episode/john-kapetaneas/

Until next time, thank you for reading!

Debt Dummy

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