Straight Talk on 10 Common Personal Finance and Career Issues

In a typical week, I hear from 20 to 30 readers by email or social media. Typically, the 12 most interesting questions make it into the reader mailbag.

What about the other 10 or so questions?

The honest truth is that most of those other questions boil down to the same handful of questions, over and over, with minor variations.

Today, I’m going to answer the 10 most common issues in the most straightforward manner that I can. Before I get started, though, two caveats:

One, your situation might seem special, but it usually isn’t. The core principles of personal finance and careers come around again and again because they work in almost every situation. Your situation is rarely an exception. People often want to believe that their situation is an exception because they want it to be an exception, one that will let them violate common sense. Almost always, it isn’t.

Two, most of the solutions I’m focusing on are things you can actually do to fix your problem, and many of those solutions are in your head. Mindset is a huge part of personal and professional success. Again and again, you choose how you tackle problems. You choose what aspects to dwell on and which ones to gloss over. My answers are all focused on two areas: action and mindset.

Let’s get started.

I Hate My Job

Here’s the truth: Most people hate their job sometimes. You don’t get paid for everything to be fun time all of the time; if it were fun time all of the time, it would be a hobby and you’d do it because it was fun.

Most jobs have a mix of good things and bad things. For one, you’re getting paid – that’s always a plus. You often have some tasks that you don’t mind doing and maybe even a few that you find interesting or enjoyable, and you probably have some coworkers that you don’t mind interacting with. On the other side of that, you’re spending time working that you might be using for other things. You might have some problematic coworkers. You might have some tasks that you don’t really enjoy.

The problem is that people tend to start dwelling on the negative parts of things and let them amplify until they drown out the positives. You can’t stand two out of 10 of your coworkers, but your mind keeps dwelling on that poison pair. You hate some of your work tasks, but they only take up an hour of your day if you compress them all together instead of dwelling on them.

So, people spend their time stewing over one or two coworkers and end up feeling like they hate all their coworkers, when many of them are perfectly fine and some of them might even be nascent friends. People put off and stew over a few tasks they really don’t like and the dread of those tasks poisons the whole day.

Want to know three big tips for not hating your job?

One, avoid people you don’t like. Just don’t spend time around them. Don’t eat where they do. Don’t engage in projects with them. Don’t worry about them. Let them do their thing and you do yours. Instead, focus on the people you do like. Consciously spend more time with the pleasant people at work. Eat with the quiet but friendly person in the break room. Try to get involved with projects with more pleasant folks.

Two, do all of the tasks you hate first thing in the morning. Do them as soon as you get there, and buckle down and focus until they’re done. That way, the dread of those tasks doesn’t poison the whole day. It’s 9 AM and that nasty task is already out of the way!

Three, recognize that everyone else feels these things, too, and if you hate your current job, it’s likely you hated other jobs and will hate future jobs unless you change. You decide whether you let a few difficult tasks or a bad coworker poison your entire work mindset or not. That’s your choice. It has nothing to do with the bad elements, because every job has bad elements. If you hate this job, it’s likely you’ll hate your next job, too. Rather than fixing the job, fix the hate.

Yes, there are some jobs that really are poisonous, but the reality is that most jobs aren’t that way. They’re just jobs. Jobs aren’t going to be purely fun – they’re going to have rough moments. However, jobs often have a lot of good things going for them, too. Focus on the good things – decent people, tasks you don’t mind doing, decent pay. Let the good things be your guide.

What you’ll find is that if you don’t dread your job, you’ll probably perform better there and build better relationships, and that will do nothing but help your career.

I Want to Buy a House or Car That I Can’t Afford

Don’t buy that house or car you can’t afford.

If you budgeted a certain amount for a car or a house purchase and you’re trying to find some excuse to make it okay to spend more, the truth is that the only person you’re letting down is your future self. You’re handcuffing your future self by saying, “Guess what? You’re going to be throwing money hand over fist into this car or house? Say goodbye to a lot of the perks of your life!”

The only sensible way to shop for a major expense like a car or a house is to figure out how much money you can afford to spend first, before looking at anything, and then use that as a filter to see what you can even bother looking at. If you don’t like what you see, then keep saving.

Guess what? There are always going to be nicer cars and nicer houses than what’s in your price range. The people that manage to swing those nicer cars and nicer houses are sacrificing other things in their life – they’re tied to a high-pressure career or have huge expectations on their shoulders or are facing a hidden mountain of debt.

Don’t put yourself there. Don’t burden your life with an expense you can barely carry. You’re signing yourself up for a lot of misery by doing it.

Don’t ever buy that house or car that you can’t afford. It is a giant mistake.

I Want to Lend a Friend or Family Member Money

Don’t lend money to friends or family members.

I don’t care how much they need it. I don’t care how much you want to help.

No one likes their lender. No one feels happy warm positive feelings about making a mortgage payment. No one feels strongly affirmed in a relationship when the person lending them money insists on payment. No one feels great hanging out with the uncle that they “forgot” to pay back.

Debt between friends and family members is poison. It will haunt you forever unless they happen to miraculously subscribe to the perfect expectations you have for them in your mind – and they almost never do, if they’re in a situation where they’re borrowing from family members.

If you really, really, really want to financially help someone, make it a fully no-strings-attached gift that they never, ever have to pay back. Ever. This isn’t a secret hidden loan. This is a gift. They never have to pay you back.

That way, there is no burden of expectation. There is no relationship on the line. There is no family tension involved. Yes, you’ll be out that money. That’s okay.

My Friend or Family Member Won’t Pay Back the Money They Owe Me

Either forgive them the debt or kiss the relationship – and possibly other relationships by domino effect – goodbye.

Right now, you’re speaking like a lender in a situation with a bad borrower. You’re not speaking like a friend or a family member.

You have to decide, right now – are you a lender interacting with a borrower, or are you a friend interacting with a friend?

You can’t have it both ways. One relationship is borne out of love. The other is borne out of contractual obligations. Love and contractual obligations don’t mix.

You can pursue this debt doggedly and probably eventually get paid back, but if you do that, you’ll almost assuredly have done irreparable damage to the friendship because you acted like a lender toward a bad borrower and that’s not an act of friendship.

On the other hand, you can just forgive the loan entirely and maintain the relationship. You will have learned something about that person, of course, but that doesn’t exclude a good friendship or familial relationship going forward.

You have to choose. It is exceedingly rare to have it both ways in a situation where a friend or family member is failing to pay you back in the expected way.

Are you a lender? Or are you a family member/friend?

I Can’t Afford to Pay My Bills

There are many, many paths to this conclusion. They all boil down to one thing.

You are spending more than you earn. You have to stop that.

“But I can’t!” Yes, you can. You’re just refusing to even consider a lot of the moves you might need to make to put yourself in a position where you’re spending less than you earn.

Sell your house and move to a small rental. Sell your car and buy a used beater. Eat all of your meals at home. Ditch home cable/satellite and internet. Ditch your cell phone.

If you’re reading those things and thinking, “I’m not going to do that,” then you’re choosing to stay in a situation where you can’t afford to pay your bills.

There is no magic recipe. There is no magic solution. The only way you can keep your bills paid is to spend less than you earn, and the only way to get there quickly is to make some major cuts to your spending. (You can also earn more money, but that generally takes more time as it often involves a job hunt and probably a career reboot.)

If you think that you “deserve” certain things, think again. No one “deserves” a nice house. No one “deserves” a nice car. No one “deserves” an iPhone with unlimited data. People earn those things. They’re perks. If your perks are keeping you from keeping your bills paid, then you’re going to have to dump some perks.

“But that sounds miserable!” It might be miserable, but, again, it comes down to mindset. Are you looking at and obsessing over the things you don’t have, or are you appreciating the things you do have? Are you depressed because you don’t have a mansion, or are you glad that you have any roof at all to keep the rain off your head? Are you depressed because you don’t have a shiny new car, or are you glad that you have the means to get around at all? Are you sad because you can’t afford exorbitant treats and trips, or are you happy because you just made some killer scrambled eggs for yourself?

Is the glass half empty or is the glass half full?

If the glass is half full, not being able to pay your bills is an easy problem to solve. You cut a lot of stuff, sure, but you get your bills in order. There’s a positive thing there.

If the glass is half empty, then the solution to your problem isn’t in the dollars and cents. It’s in your head. Once you learn to appreciate your situation as it is, then solving that problem is easy. If you can’t stop thinking about what you don’t have, then the problem will always be hard.

I Am Panicking Because My Credit Cards Are Maxed Out and I Can’t Get a New One

This is something of a cousin to the above question, except this person is often in a situation where they have the resources on hand to right their ship, but they’re just treading water and probably have a pretty bad credit rating.

Generally, the people in the “I have six credit cards that are all maxed out” situation are people who are otherwise in really good financial shape but have lost all grip on their day-to-day spending habits. Their household income is often really high and they’ve gotten so used to having plenty of money that they begin to charge things to the credit card without thinking about it and soon… boom. They’ve got a handful of maxed-out cards and don’t know what to do next.

I’m honestly stunned how often I hear some variation on this story.

The solution here is simple: get back to basics. Stop using plastic for purchases entirely until you get those bills paid down and get back in touch with the realities of your financial situation. Live entirely out of your checking account, and do it after paying all of your bills and making a big extra payment to the credit card with the highest interest.

Many people in this situation are often married and are not exactly making their credit card situation clear to their spouse. You have to come clean. Yes, it’s going to be hard, but if your debts are so bad that everything is maxed out and you’re juggling cards, you’re going to need help fixing things.

Sit down with your spouse, reveal everything, accept that your spouse is probably going to be pretty upset with you, and then work together to build a plan to fix it. Here’s my guide to creating a debt repayment plan that will work. I should know – it’s how we went from five figures in credit card debt and a bunch of other debts to complete debt freedom with a fully paid-off house.

I Need a Financial Advisor

Unless you are incredibly wealthy, a financial advisor serves solely to excuse you from having to learn about your finances and investments yourself. Everything you really need to know about managing your money and investments, up to the point of being exorbitantly rich, can be found at your local library and online, for free.

It’s even more troubling than that, though. If you’re trusting all of your finances to a financial advisor without thoroughly understanding what their decisions are, you’re placing most of your financial future in the hands of someone who you hope will have at least a little of your best interests at heart. Many – but not all of them – do.

Without knowing your finances yourself, without knowing your options, you have no way of knowing whether or not that advisor is making good choices on your behalf. Of course, when you actually invest the time to know your own finances and know your options, you’ll realize that you don’t actually need an advisor at all for anything beyond a simple second pair of eyes to check your work (a quick session with a fee-based financial advisor is the right path).

Do you need a financial advisor? My guess is that if you’re writing to The Simple Dollar, the answer is almost definitely no. You might need a lawyer, though, if you’re concerned about legal implications, but if you’re just concerned about making good financial and investment decisions, the best thing you can possibly do for yourself isn’t hiring an advisor.

It’s learning.

Head down to the library, get some books on investing, and start reading. Educate yourself. Become the master of your own destiny. Put your money someplace safe while you’re learning, like a savings account, and then make moves when you begin to understand them.

Not only will you feel far better about your finances, you’ll also avoid the cost of a financial advisor almost entirely for the rest of your life.

Nothing beats education.

I Want to Get Married but My Partner Has Very Different Financial Values Than Me

So, here’s a quick lesson about marriage. There are really only three things that matter: mutual love, mutual respect, and open communication. People with drastically different values can make a marriage work if they communicate.

What you have in this situation is two people with very different financial values. Typically, one person is fairly frugal and a saver, and the other person is a spender and doesn’t really worry about it at all.

If you have mutual love, mutual respect, and open communication, you can overcome this. You can figure out a solution that works for the two of you, where each of you compromise a little bit to find something in the middle that both of you can live with.

In the end, a lot of marriage is compromise, and compromise is the end result of a mix of love, respect, and communication. When you throw a problem into a batch of love, respect, and communication, you get good compromises.

So, ask yourself this. Do you feel completely comfortable talking about this difference in values between the two of you, and does your partner feel completely comfortable talking about it, too, without holding anything back? Do you have enough respect for your partner to understand that they have somewhat different values in this area than you and that they don’t have to completely change for you, and they have the same feelings back?

If you feel hesitant to say anything other than an unquestioned yes to those questions, then you need to very, very strongly question whether or not you should get married.

Remember, it is very possible to love a person deeply, but also recognize that there are differences between you that make it impossible to build a relationship together that will stand the test of time. That’s okay. What’s far worse is to try to force a lifelong commitment into a relationship that isn’t built for it, because it will eventually come crashing down in an incredibly painful way.

I’m Already Married and My Partner Has Very Different Financial Values Than Me

What do you do if you’ve already made that commitment and then you recognize that you and your partner have very different financial values?

Well, most of the above still applies.

Do you feel completely comfortable talking about this difference in values between the two of you, and does your partner feel completely comfortable talking about it, too, without holding anything back? Do you have enough respect for your partner to understand that they have somewhat different values in this area than you and that they don’t have to completely change for you, and they have the same feelings back?

If you do, then sit down and talk about it. Wrap this difference in values in a warm cocoon of communication, love, and respect and you’ll find yourself with a solution fairly quickly.

If you don’t… then there are deeper relationship issues going on than money issues. There’s a trust and a respect issue there, and it’s one that you’re going to have to solve before you can address money issues.

Those types of deep wedges – trust, respect, communication – are very difficult to correct. They can be fixed, but they take a real commitment from both sides that the relationship is worth it and that they’re willing to work for it and make changes within themselves.

Honestly, if that’s the path you’re going down, you need to be looking at a counselor who can actually help fix your marriage. Those types of issues are beyond the scope of a personal finance site.

I Want to Be a Stay At Home Parent

This is a surprisingly frequent issue that comes up in reader questions. A person is suddenly looking at the possibility of having a child in a much more serious way than before and that person has come to the realization that they want to spend that child’s earliest years at home with them. Many parents want to bridge the gap between birth and entry into school; some may want to homeschool after that, while others may simply want to spend the first year or two at home.

My answer to this is simple and direct: Can you live on your spouse’s paycheck? If yes, then you can do this. If not, then can you and your spouse work together to develop a lifestyle that works on just one paycheck?

The ability to be a stay-at-home parent is a real perk for many people, a huge positive. It can even be a pretty big positive for the spouse that’s still working, because it means that the child is in a very safe and nurturing environment.

However, that big positive comes with a drawback: less household income. There is no magic way to slice this. If one member of the household stops working, there is going to be less money coming in.

So, what can you do? You prepare. You start changing your lifestyle now so that you know what it is like to live on one paycheck. You move, if necessary. You try living on just one paycheck, and use the other one entirely to secure and stabilize your finances by building an emergency fund, paying off debts, paying off student loans, and so forth. If stay-at-home parenting is really something you want to do and you’re both on board with it, start now. Start before that baby is ever on the way.

Another tip: When you have a child, whether you’re a stay-at-home parent or not, familial support is golden. It has incredible financial value. It saves on a lot of supplies, as you’ll probably have access to hand-me-downs and doting relatives. It saves on child care, as you’ll often have free babysitting available. It saves on de-stressing, as you’ll have people to talk to and offer suggestions. It helps immensely, in ways that you won’t think of or see until after the child is born. So, if you’re considering children at all, consider whether it makes sense to be near family.

Sometimes, these preparations will be enough. You’ll realize that you can make this work and you can be a stay at home parent. Sometimes… it won’t be enough. You’ll find that there are some things you just can’t decommit from, whether it’s your house or aspects of your lifestyle or something else. That’s okay, but it should come with the recognition that you’re swapping stay-at-home parenthood for those things that you won’t give up. Recognize what things you’re really comparing and make sure you’re okay with your choice.

  • Related: The Type of Stay at Home Parent You Are Makes All the Difference

Final Thoughts

I really enjoy writing the Reader Mailbag columns each week because I’m constantly reminded of the human side of personal finance. It really isn’t just numbers. It really isn’t just formulas to follow. It’s about lives and the choices we’re constantly making to shape them.

More than anything, the mailbag shows me that people all over the world, from all walks of life, have a lot of similar concerns. They’re concerned about the people that they love the most. They’re concerned about what their future holds. They worry about their work. They worry about their dreams and whether they’ll be able to achieve them.

When I write the mailbag, I love highlighting stories that are, on the surface, very different, but when you start looking deeper, you realize that there’s a lot there that seems familiar. We all want better things, for us, for our families, for our communities, and for the world. We all have fears and worries and hopes – some are different, of course, but a lot are very, very similar.

We’re all just people.

When you go about your business today, look at the people around you and think to yourself that a lot of those people have or have had financial worries and thoughts a lot like your own. They may feel frustrated in their jobs. They may be wondering whether their relationships and families and friendships can stand up to financial pressures. They may yearn for things that are just out of reach. They may be worried about their immediate future or their long term future.

Just like you.

Have a great day.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.