Defeating Superman Syndrome: How to Progress Beyond the “Need” to Be the Financial Hero

When I was freshly out of college with my first high-paying job, I would constantly insist on paying for everything. Meals out with friends, lattes at the coffee shop, even sometimes shopping purchases – I felt this deep need to step in, bust out my plastic, and say, “I’ll take care of it!”

This burning desire to always save the day led me down a path to a lot of debt. Even as the credit card bills rolled in, I didn’t worry about it too much – I figured I was earning good money and would soon be earning more and thus I shouldn’t worry about the bills. I kept being the superhero until I was drowning in quicksand myself.

It took many years, but I finally realized that I don’t need to be the financial hero all of the time – or even much of the time at all. Being the credit card-bearing Superman, like in that video above, doesn’t lead to being a hero – it leads to overspending, a sense of guilt, and a false image presented to others that you must keep up.

Over the long run, doing this over and over again leads to unhappiness. You might feel great when you’re doing it, but later that credit card bill will come in and you’ll feel sick as you pick up that envelope and open it. It’s just like the thrill of buying something new – it’s exciting at first, but very painful when the bill itself comes in.

Even worse, you damage the relationship’s dynamic by buying everything. When you repeatedly engage in a certain behavior, people come to expect it from you. It comes to define you. When you regress from that behavior, then people’s expectations are hurt. Don’t let yourself be defined as “the person that buys everything,” even if you’re tempted to – eventually, something will have to give and it won’t be good for whatever friendship or other relationship you’re trying to maintain.

Here are some of the tactics and ideas I used to break out of this mindset and learn to keep my credit cards in my wallet when those opportunities arose.

Recognize that you don’t have to buy stuff to be seen as successful and valuable to others. Most of the people you associate with don’t value the fact that you can buy things – they value you and the unique characteristics, personality, and charm that you bring. Friendships and relationships aren’t about buying stuff (at least healthy ones aren’t), so don’t actively try to make it that way. They already like you for who you are, not for the stuff you buy.

Commit to not buying anything when you go out. Whenever you go out with a group of friends, don’t buy anything (other than a bare minimum of your own food or drink) when you go out. In other words, practice the opposite of your previous behavior where you would feel compelled to buy everything.

Engage in activities that have fewer buying opportunities. Instead of going shopping and out for dinner, why not go to a free concert or go play disc golf at the park? Your activities don’t have to revolve around spending, thus you don’t have to feel the strong urge to be a superhero.

Don’t worry about losing a “friend” who expects you to buy their way. If anyone stops spending time with you because you’re not buying, that means they weren’t your friend – instead, they were merely milking you for what they could get for free. Let it slide – don’t feel guilty about it. They weren’t really friends with you, just your bank account.

Talk about it to your inner circle. This was a big step for me – I talked about it to my wife, then to a few of my friends. They were unbelievably understanding and supportive, to the point that they would basically yank receipts away from me and such. Your friends and family will help you with things like this – just open up to them and trust them a little.

I still like taking my parents out to dinner, but it’s no longer because I need to fulfill some inner desire to be a hero, it’s because I love them and they make great dinner companions. The time spent together enjoying wonderful food – and the guilt-free pleasure of my parents as they’re eating the meal – remind me of why I do it. It’s not so I can be a hero, it’s so that we can all enjoy a wonderful evening together without guilt, either now or later.

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