Seeking a Light at the End of the Tunnel

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While reading this article by Linda Tirado entitled “This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense,” I was struck by several things.

First, when you’re stuck financially, every decision is more stressful. I’ve talked about decision fatigue several times lately on The Simple Dollar, but it’s particularly true when you’re in a very tight financial situation. Every single decision is more stressful, contributing even more to decision fatigue.

Second, when one bad decision undoes a week or a month of good ones, it’s hard to convince yourself that you’ll ever get ahead. The more decision fatigue you face, the easier it is to simply make a human error with a single decision. When you inevitably make a mis-step – which you do, because you’re human like everyone else – you wipe out the small steps you’ve made to get out of your situation. You’re right back where you were a week ago or a month ago, with no progress – and it repeats over and over and over again.

Third, when there is no light at the end of the tunnel, the short term looks pretty good. If you have twenty dollars in your hand and no real hope that things are going to get better no matter what you do – which is what happens after a while – it seems like a good idea to spend it now. If you do that, then you can at least enjoy the short term a little bit – a little hedonistic burst.

It all seems like an easy cycle to escape from, but the ability to see that requires hope and it also requires a mind unclouded by fatigue, decision and otherwise.

I know quite a few people who are in situations like this. One person I care about quite a bit exists in a cycle of low-paying jobs. Several other people I know became hooked on various substances to provide that short-term burst that will take them away from the tunnel with no light at the end, if even for a little bit. Sure, they knew it was stupid, but after a month of intense stress, an evening where it all goes away can sound incredibly tempting.

I could offer tons of financial tips for people in situations like this. Make a budget! Cut out the bad habits! Eat better! Don’t buy stupid stuff and put it toward something that can improve tomorrow!

Instead, I believe that if you’re buried in stressful decisions that are adding up to some bad ones, your best option is to reduce your decisions, at least temporarily.

How do you do that? Get rid of the sources of those problems. If you can’t, enlist help from anyone responsible in your life that can help you lift that burden for a while.

If you have an extra $20 in your pocket, don’t leave the decision to yourself as to what to do with it. Give it to someone you trust and let them be your bank for a while. Take the possibility of doing something stupid with that money off the table.

Having credit card problems? Cut them up so the possibility of doing something stupid with them is off the table.

If you have children, look for child care help. Can you split afternoons or evenings of care with another friend who is a parent? Can you enlist one of your children’s grandparents for some child care support for a while? I know from being a parent that having a child adds drastically to the number of decisions you have to make, and if you’re already buckling under decision fatigue, children will absolutely contribute to that. You may love a child more than anything else in the world, but if that love isn’t backed by good decisions, you need to get yourself in a position where that love can be backed by all the good choices in the world.

At the very least, find someone you can talk to. I know quite a few pastors and priests and all of them will be glad to lend an ear to anyone who has problems and simply needs a foothold to start figuring them out. They can help you make some decisions, taking the stress out of making them yourself.

When you have fewer decisions in your life, it becomes easier to make the right ones.

Even more, I know from personal experience that when you go from making a bunch of poor choices to being able to chain together a number of good ones, it can start changing your perspective on what’s possible in your life.

When you’re on a “good” roll, hope begins to blossom.

The truth of it all is that no personal finance advice matters even a little bit if you don’t believe that something better is possible in your life. You have to do whatever you can to change your situation so that you can begin to see even a little bit of light ahead of you so that you know that good decisions will get you there.

The best advice I have for people in that situation is to make your life as simple as you possibly can (which I believe is what most social programs try to do to help the poor, with varying degrees of success). Take as many decisions out of your hands as you possibly can so there are fewer opportunities to mess up. This will likely require help from others in your life, and it will also absolutely require some hard choices from you, like cutting up your credit cards and accepting that you’re not up to the task of some things in your life right now.

Also, remember that you can only control what you do. You can’t control what other people do to you. You can only control how you respond to it. It’s easy to simply assign blame elsewhere for your bad choices, but only you are responsible for how you respond. No one else makes you spend your last $20. No one else makes you take the poor choice. It’s up to you and no one else.

You’ve got to want something better. You’ve also got to be willing to let go of some things. It all starts there.

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