Updated on 02.14.08

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

Trent Hamm

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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  1. Frugal Dad says:

    This got me into financial trouble as a newlywed. I bought everything under the sun for my new bride and the in-laws (who were not well off). Pretty soon I ran out of cash and turned to credit cards. Here I am 10 years later trying to dig out from that original hole, plus several years of stupidity on top!

  2. Kate Coldwell says:

    I’ve recently relocated from Australia (very relaxed and reasonable views on paying for your share of the bill) to the UK. We would usually pay for our own meal or split the bill if we have shared dishes but always pay for your own drinks.
    A European visitor to Australia invited a group of us out for her farewell and ended up paying the bill for over 20 people! We didn’t expect that this would happen but she snuck off to pay and afterwards- wouldn’t accept our money. I’ve been led to believe that European custom is that if you invite people for a meal in a restaurant you pay for the whole bill.
    Now (in Europe) I’m terrified that by inviting people out for a meal or for a drink or even a coffee, that perhaps the act of inviting them means that I am then expected to pay. I don’t mind buying the odd drink for people (especially as a strategy to build the friendship further with future payback drinks at a later date). However, now I’m hesitant to invite people to a restaurant or even accept offers for fear that the entire bill might be one person’s/couple’s burden.
    To me, it seems like a ridiculous custom which probably originated as a way to demonstrate your own wealth very publicly. I’m looking for strategies to avoid falling into this trap so that an invitation can be given/accepted with appropriate etiquette to ensure the bill is split fairly. One tactic I have used in the past is to always have a good collection of cash and change so that I don’t have any difficulty paying my share of the bill cleanly by handing over the correct change.

  3. Becky says:

    My husband was like this before we were married (with everyone, not just with me). He has scaled back a lot since we’ve been married. I think it’s because he has another person to provide for, so he doesn’t feel like he can just blow cash paying for everyone else :)
    He still likes to pay sometimes when we go out with friends, but he always makes sure it’s ok with me first.

  4. Dave says:

    I was, and still can be like this, over meals. And a good friend’s brother was the exact same way. We had an opportunity to talk about why we both felt the need to cover dinner.

    It was kinda interesting to discover we both did it as expression of…. not love but care/concern for others. I’m not the most expressive person verbally, so paying for dinner was a way for me to communicate my feelings. Strange I know.

    Trent, and everyone else, have any idea if this is a more guy than girl thing?

  5. Tyler says:

    It is a very liberating feeling to know that you have the will power to control your finances.
    My wife used to buy everything in sight and she now understands the points that you brought up here. It has made a world of difference in our finances.

  6. Saving Freak says:

    Ultimately this kind of behavior should be seen as vanity. We want others to know we are successful and to prove it we take the bill. Same as people who purchase super expensive cars they cannot really afford and houses that are way too big for what they need. The key for me not falling into this trap was to surround myself with ambitious but thrifty people. I will consider myself successful when I pay off my mortgage before the age of 40 instead of racking up debt for a lifestyle I don’t need.

  7. KMunoz says:

    In response to Dave, I think this can definitely be something that happens a lot with guys, especially those in relationships. When my boyfriend and I started dating, he would pay for everything, even when my friends did stuff with us… even though we offered to pay. I think he wanted to look like the cool, generous boyfriend. But after awhile, I started to assume he would pay (bad me!) without even thinking about it. We’ve since started paying for ourselves when we go out, or splitting the costs (I pay the movie, he gets the popcorn and drinks) and I find that makes things more enjoyable… I don’t feel guilty that he is footing the whole bill, and he isn’t broke.

    That said, us going out these days usually means going to the grocery store and picking up ingredients for dinner, so I guess we’ve changed a few things about money!

  8. This post makes me think of my dad, who always wanted to pay for everything. I remember a dinner where he and another person almost came to blows about who was going to foot the bill – they both wanted to!

    Dad had financial trouble in his later years. He didn’t live in our town, but he would come here occasionally for work. We discovered later that he was here a lot more often than we ever realized. One of the reasons why he didn’t let any of the family know was that he couldn’t afford to buy dinner. It didn’t matter to us, but it was important to him.

    I think it ultimately made him wonder if that was the only reason why people were around him. I think his fear about the answer to that question was one of the reasons why he avoided family and friends when he was in town.

    He died pretty much penniless. There were many reasons for this, not just because of his need to pay for everything. But it certainly didn’t help.

  9. !wanda says:

    My mom is Chinese, and when she goes out with friends, I know there’s going to be a confrontation over who gets to pay the check. On occasion her friends have resorted to subterfuge- the friend’s husband will say, “I’m going to the restroom” just before the check should come and will secretly go to the cashier stand and pay for the meal. I think it all balances out in the end, and I’m not sure how much the fight is for real and how much it is for show or ritual.

  10. Tana says:

    That is such a real issue in finance that is often overlooked, which is why I love reading this blog. You hit the nail right on the head.

    In my life, we’re generally on the receiving end of such things. In my family, everyone else is much better off, so they pick up the tab for things. Like next week, we’re visiting my parents who live 45 minutes from Disney and they are taking us there for the day. My part, though, is planning our meals so we eat out less and they can save money on that end.

    My grandparents always paid for everything when we visited them. Now my parents are doing the same, so it’s not an issue per se. But it is nice to be able to contribute by asking my mom to make Rivel Soup (my favorite that I haven’t learned how to make) rather than naming a restaurant when they asked us where we want to eat.

  11. plonkee says:

    My dad is like this, and it’s cultural. His family are Irish and there’s always a polite discussion about who gets to pay the bill, it’s like a marker of success.

    I too feel the need to foot the bill for my siblings if we got out. Fortunately I’ve got too strong a grasp on how much money I actually have to do so regularly. I do often pay for the youngest who isn’t old enough to have a job or anything themselves though.

  12. jm says:

    Man…I must have the wrong friends…. I’ve never heard of this before.

  13. Neo says:

    I tend to pay for things more often than I let my fiancee pay for things. We used to do a very good job splitting the check, but as she moved to grad school, she has less disposable income. We still like to go out, though we don’t go as often, and sometimes I’ll pick up the her half of the check so she can save a few dollars for another week.

    We’re both diligent about keeping track of our money and we’ve discussed this subject on numerous occasions, so I’m not concerned about this becoming an issue in the future.

  14. Jessica says:

    This may be common among people going into higher paying jobs than their peers. When you were in college everyone had equal status and were all probably equally broke students (relatively speaking).

    But when some friends go from being engineering students to engineers, teaching students to teachers, and liberal arts students to all those jobs they tell you can get with a liberal arts related degree; a group of friends no longer has the same status or same pay. This change can make people uncomfortable and that can lend itself to the higher paid friends (or lower paid in some cases) try to level the playing field by paying the way for others. Or, it may be even a feeling of guilt if one friend in a group of like-degreed friends gets a much higher paying job (or one at all) and that friend wants to “make up for it” by paying for everyone.

    And yet others may do this because they really like taking care of others, and this is one way they do that.

  15. Anitra says:

    We don’t pay for a lot, but we do fight with some friends and family over paying for dinner. It usually see-saws back and forth, like “You got it last time, let me pay this time.”

    I’ve noticed that this happens less frequently now, especially since we go out to dinner less often. It’s becoming more common to have a home-cooked meal with friends, and if we’re not hosting it, we’ll just ask what we can bring.

    We do insist on paying any time we go out to dinner with my husband’s family, who are near the poverty level. It’s our most common way to express our love outside of holidays (birthday gifts are usually “we will take you wherever you want to eat”).

  16. DNA says:

    I like to make sure I have enough cash to cover our expenses when we go out with others. If we had to pay by credit card, it was just too convenient to pick up the entire check.

  17. money_me says:

    Trent, this is one of my greatest weaknesses. I am sure I picked it up from my mom. My brother also has it and his desire to always pick up the tab is worse than mine. My mom would take care of the whole world if she could. Lately, she has been struggling with her many business because she constantly donates all the money and never knows how much she has made etc. Unfortunately, she is so charming that my dad can’t overrule her decisions and he is an introvert who lets her be anyway.

    All our relatives, friends, strangers, church people know her as the giver to everyone and anyone and they always ask of her. If you (anyone) visited our home (in Africa) you’d be amazed at the treatment you get. She treats everyone either as her own son/daughter or very good friend. People love this of course. One time she had guests from Belgium who she took out for an evening and the bill came to about US800. Now, I come from one of the poorest countries in the world but my parents have been blessed with resources. However, my mom happily paid the bill although she was a little shocked that alcoholic drinks were that expensive (she’s never had any!) but then again, she took them to a five star hotel. By the way she also has extremely expensive tastes.

    Anyway, until two years ago, I always wanted to be like my mom in terms of giving but when I moved to N.America I started to think differently (change of culture, I guess) although I now see that I always lived lavishly because of what I grew up seeing. When I was in London as a fully-funded postgraduate student, I also took on two jobs to make money for myself. I never invested any of it but each time I’d go home to visit I’d carry 3-4 suitcases full of gifts for friends, family, and whomever! Isn’t that madness? Of course culturally, in my country we are a more communally-based society as opposed to the western world etc. But I now see that my parents might have to keep on working longer than necessary because of mom’s giving. And I am talking about tens of thousands of dollars at least.

    After reading so many personal finance blogs last year, I decided to make a change in my life. But I can assure you, I get a lot of ‘real’ inner pain, heartache, confusion and constant struggles with not giving to others. I love to cover the bill, buy gifts for people, donate to charity (usually in hundreds per charity) but I know it’s not healthy to do it all the time. I almost ran crazy (or so I thought) between October and December last year because I had been seriously frugal until then. So, in that period I donated/gave away close to 6,000 dollars, in different amounts to people, causes, my church etc. Then in January 2008 I started to feel bad that I couldn’t control the obsession to spend on others, it’s crazy. Now I am telling myself to take each day at a time but to stick to my future goals. I have put myself on a tough budget and will also be moving out of my brother’s home so that I can live on my own to really figure this thing out. I was contributing towards rent. I have no debt (thanks to my parents) but I feel bad that to this day my mother loves to send us a couple of hundreds of dollars from time to time because she believes her children in the U.S and Canada might not have had enough to eat i.e might have gone to bed hungry!.

    Interestingly, last night I was at church and a girl told me she liked the scent of my perfume and then I asked her when her birthday was. You see, I have an extra bottle that I bought on sale while stocking up as a frugal person and immediately I thought I could give it to her. On my way home I realized that if I give that bottle to her I will have to buy another one (expensively) for myself and thus my frugality will be wasted. I felt uncomfortable yet I want to stick to frugal living.

    So far this week I haven’t spent any money (one of my strategies to spend less) but everyday is like hell although today is Thursday and I feel successful so far.

    Honestly, Trent, what is this thing? Can anyone out there throw some more light on this? People, I am serious. I could have been a millionaire by now considering I’ve been working for the last ten years but always giving away. Any suggestions are welcome. Thanks, Trent, for the blog.

  18. “Trent, and everyone else, have any idea if this is a more guy than girl thing?”

    Any guy who has never pulled out his wallet to buy dinner & movie for a girl, or a trip to the shopping mall, or a down payment on a car, in exchange for expectation of something more, is a liar. This has personally cost me dearly in real money. My goal is before I die to break even, and sucker out as much money from women as they have already taken from me. This will be a tough task though. Happy Valentines Day!!

  19. Recent Grad says:

    I think taken to excess, this trait can actually make you look weak. In college, I had a crush on this girl who I ended up taking out on a few dates. After one particular dinner (which I paid for, of course), we stopped by the grocery store so she could pick up a few items for her roommmates. For some unknown reason, I couldn’t let her pull out her wallet that night, so I insisted on paying for her groceries!

    Looking back, I don’t think she ever really respected me & I can’t say that I blame her. Rather than proving my worth as a potential mate, I was too busy trying to impress her by paying for everything.

  20. partgypsy says:

    I don’t think it’s a guy thing. In fact, for women there is guilt where one can never give too much of oneself, whether time, money, etc as a sign of affection. I love my Mom and sister, and love showering them with really nice gifts for their birthday or Christmas, things they would love but wouldn’t normally get for themselves due to cost. Now that my husband and I have to agree on purchases this is way scaled back. But it is one of the things I miss doing with my money, and if I was rich I would love to “take care” of them, and I’m sure if they were in the same boat they would do the same. Though my behavior has changed due to budgeting I don’t know if my feelings about it will.

  21. I think you really need to have a level of balance between spending and saving/investing. I mean if you spend everything then you have nothing left over for yourself and for the future. If you save everything and don’t know how to give and spend then are u really living?

    So i think that there needs to be a good balance between the two. But a good thing to remember is to pay yourself first. And to not spend more money then you have.

    Stick to these two rules as a general principle and you will most likely be better off financially in the future.

    Young Investor


  22. Rev says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who fell into this. I used to be very bad at it but I still often feel guilty or have dread of going out with people because I feel like I should pick up the check. Weird.

  23. Sangrail says:

    Just so you know,
    I’ve actually felt extremely uncomfortable when friends have ‘insisted’ on paying for things for me.

    It’s left me with the odd feeling that they felt like they had to ‘pay’ for my friendship, which is untrue and very uncomfortable, and left me feeling like I ‘owed’ them.
    People assume from comments about say, networking that it’s good to have people owing you things – it’s not. It makes people feel uncomfortable, and for networking, when you do someone a favour, it’s good to suggest/offer them something they can do back for you right away. It leaves you both feeling good about the exchange, and more likely to exchange favours in the future.

    It’s also felt like it’s reinforcing that I’m poorer, but hey, I’m frugal with my money, so I can afford reasonable expenses – I just avoid going to pricier things. I feel uncomfortable when I’m pressured to go to something outside my price-range also, especially because there’s often no real difference in outcome between the cheaper and pricier options.
    A couple of times, it’s seemed like someone was actually ‘showing off’ by making us all go somewhere expensive and then ‘offering’ to pay. Not in all cases, but still, a couple of times, it was a weird, and I’d just prefer not to go than to have someone paying for me.

  24. Mneiae says:

    I did this. I lost a lot of money doing it. It taught me a very valuable lesson. Perhaps the money lost was worth the price.

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