Updated on 06.15.11

Shallow Bottoms and Deep Bottoms

Trent Hamm

For many people, making a significant change in their life requires them to hit bottom. They have to reach a low point of some sort where the drawbacks of continuing down their current path are so severe that they overcome the addictions or behavioral tendencies that have taken them down their current path.

I’ve discussed my own personal finance bottom on here many times. For me, it came one April afternoon when I realized we didn’t have enough money in our checking account to pay the bills that had come in the mail that day – and there was no longer any reasonable way to borrow ahead on a credit card to make things work for another month. I got depressed and as I rocked my infant son to sleep that night, I realized that I just couldn’t continue along that path any more.

For me, that was the point where the drawbacks began to outweigh the benefits of my lifestyle. My spending-heavy choices might have created some short-term fun in my life, but when I started comparing it to the pile of debt I’d have to pay off, the dangers of defaulting on that debt, and the choices (such as my job) that were forced on me because of a constant need for more money to feed that spending need, it became clear that I needed to change.

Although the pile of debt was certainly real, it was the threat of much worse things coming down the road that convinced me to change my ways. I didn’t lose my credit rating, but I was afraid of losing it. I didn’t lose my ability to care for my child, but I was afraid of it. I didn’t lose my marriage, but I was afraid of it.

This is often referred to in recovery programs as a shallow bottom or a “high bottom.” I had seen some negative effects, but the truly heinous effects were coming and were close enough that they frightened me into change.

For some people, a shallow bottom is all they need to bring about change. That was certainly the case for me.

On the other hand, some people need a deep bottom in order to shake them into change. For some, defaulting on debts might do it. Bankruptcy might do it. Having their home and automobile repossessed might do it. It depends heavily on the person and how psychologically attached they are to their current lifestyle.

So, how does this apply to you? Almost everyone reading this has already reached their bottom. It might have been shallow – for some people, it’s very shallow. It might have been deep. The point is that something has steered you onto a good financial path.

Now, many of you can look around your life and see people that are on a destructive financial path. I get emails all the time from people worried about their parents or their brother or their niece or their children and how they seem to be heading down a financially destructive path.

Here’s the truth, though: you’re probably not going to be able to help them much at all until they reach their bottom, whether it’s shallow or it’s deep. You don’t know when or what will cause them to reach that bottom.

Even worse, offering them financial assistance before they reach that point will almost always just serve to delay their bottom. It won’t change their choices. It won’t change their eventual path. It’ll just make the current situation a bit easier.

In those moments, offer non-financial help. Listen to them. Give them a meal at your home. Offer advice if they ask – or even a bit of advice if they don’t just so those ideas are floating around for the time they need them.

You’ll know when they reach bottom. Their actions will show you. They’ll make positive choices with their time and with their money. They’ll be focused on conserving money rather than spending it. They’ll be happy about paying off debts, not about the newest thing they’ve bought.

If you want to offer financial help, that’s the time to help a little bit. At that point, it’ll mean a lot more and have a much greater impact on the long term. The thing is, once they’ve reached this point, they probably won’t be asking for your help.

This general story matches, in some way, almost every financial turnaround I’ve ever seen. In fact, it matches almost every path of destructive addiction or behavior that I’ve ever seen. You’ve got to wait for that bottom and you’ve got to hope that the bottom isn’t too deep.

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  1. Steven says:

    Trent, there seems to be a running theme of “bottoms” and personal failings on your blog lately. It’s depressing. I’m not sure how to comment further about this, but I hope it changes soon as I believe this could be a reflection of something in your personal life that might need attention.

    If you’re trying to inspire people, or motivate them to change their life, I’m not sure wallowing in our sorrows is an effective way to do that. Instead of focusing half of the post on how horrible your bottom was, maybe link to another post where you’ve already detailed this, and focus on the positive changes that came about because of your bottom…

  2. Interesting.
    I think my “bottom” came as an early teenager watching my parents go through the loss of a business due to illness; eventually leading to bankruptcy.
    So, I suppose my bottom wasn’t really “mine”, but it was an experience close enough to me to make me afraid of being in that place(again).

  3. Katie says:

    This seems kind of tautological – if you define anything that makes someone decide to change as a bottom, then yes, everyone will have to hit bottom before changing. But in reality, I’m not sure that’s the case – some people decide to change based on something they read or something they observe; it’s not always about the internal factors going on in someone’s life, and there, I think, the “bottom” concept is less applicable.

    And, of course, some people avoid falling into trouble at all, and may just be reading this blog to shore up already reasonably good habits.

  4. Chelle says:

    What resonates with me is what you said about watching others on a destructive path. I have always been the one with the financial problems. I am finally turning that around after hitting my own “bottom.” Now I am watching my fiscally responsible parents make a disastrous choice at the age of 70 to move to a new home with a new 30 year mortgage, before they have sold their old home. They have had the old home on the market for over a year and the number of lookers is less than you can count on one hand. It is unlikely they will sell the first home, meaning they will be paying two mortgages at the age of 70. The new home is not cheap and they will both continue to have to work, even though my mother was forced to undergo a leg amputation in February after a cancer diagnosis and my father had a heart attack several years ago and is showing signs of memory problems.

    I am in the very strange position of being on the other side of a very unwise financial choice which, eventually, could be a financial problem for me if they die and still have two houses, one with an almost new mortgage. They will not listen to reason and have decided that this is what they are going to do regardless.

    I have finally decided that there is nothing I can do except to sit back and let them make this choice, as they are adults and have to make their own decisions. But I see this as a horrific way to devastate their financial security in their old age and leave their daughter with a financial (not to mention locational) nightmare when they die.

    Not sure what my point is, except to say that I hit my own bottom in January of this year and have gotten all credit cards paid off in the past six months and am moving toward financial responsibility and living on less than what we earn. I am having a hard time watching my parents moving from fiscal responsibility to irresponsibility and it scares me as to what this might mean both for their mental health (and whether there might be an aging problem) and their future.


  5. Jenna says:

    There is a new, surprise type of hitting bottom happening to me right now. I live frugally and even though my income is on the lower side, I never had any debt or problems meeting bill payments. Today, however, after I went for a dr. appointment, I was asked to pay an amount I did not anticipate. Fortunately, I was able to avoid embarrassment because I had my credit card with me. But this was such an increase in what I have been used to paying. So I worry that I am getting close to calamity even after very good financial habits. I get surprised at the grocery store every week too. This is not a good feeling.

  6. Christy says:

    I like what Trent said. I have a few friends that are on their way down financially, relationally, or emotionally. I am sure he gets lots of comments from people who are seeing others headed in that direction. His point is, we can’t change them. They have to find their own rock bottom. It is frustrating to see someone who thinks they are too good to take an extra job to survive, or too proud to find a roommate lose their house and file bankruptcy and that is still not that person’s rock bottom. Thes people have to fall on their own. There is nothing we can do to make them wake up. I know from experience that my words have done nothing to get these friends lives in a better place because of their own arrogance and blindness to how self-destructive they are. I think that is his point. Everyone is different.

  7. Mario says:

    Katie is very right about this. Although I agree you have to hit your own bottom with most things in life, there are ways of improving yourself over the lessons you learned from others.

    I won’t argue that might be the best strategy as you may slip into avoiding any possible risk and hit bottom the other way around. But as for me, I’m 20 years old, have no debt at all and my social circle generally is financially very stable and secure.

    I’m here because I don’t even want to slip into my own ‘bottom’ financially, wherever it may be. There’s better places in life to take a risk.

  8. BJD says:

    I agree with Katie – I never had to hit a “bottom”.
    I was in a good financial position and luckily for me I had a great work manager who took me under his wings and help me by encouraging me to go to Fidelity and start a mutual fund with an auto deposit of the raise amount my manager had just given me. Starting early (just a few years out of college) and making automatic deposits was the start of my financial success.

    I come to your blog and others like it to hear new tips and reinforcement of good habits.

  9. Johanna says:

    I agree with Steven and Katie. And this is more than just arguing about definitions, since it translates into the advice to sit back and watch your friends/family continue in their destructive behavior until they “hit bottom.”

    I’ve never been in financial trouble, myself, but when I’ve had trouble in other areas of my life, I would go for long periods of time either completely unaware that there was a problem or trying to convince myself that there wasn’t. When people who were close to me (close enough that I welcomed their involvement in these areas of my life) would say, “No, actually, what’s going on here is not normal and not good,” that’s been a huge help. It wasn’t always something I wanted to hear, and I didn’t always act on it immediately, but I’m very glad that those people didn’t sit back and “wait for that bottom.”

  10. Gretchen says:

    Didn’t even read past the title.

    Bottoming out? Again?

  11. Michelle says:

    Amen Gretchen.

  12. Kim says:

    I’m beginning to think that you are too far removed from your meltdown/recovery to maintain a blog about going through a financial recovery. That’s not a criticism in any way. It’s actually a really good thing. A few years ago the blog had a “in the trenches with you” feel. Now it just feels like you are rehashing the same strategies you used over again. It feels stale because it isn’t really about your life anymore. I think that’s why all of the introspection is happening. You’ve rehashed it all so much that it’s becoming more philosophical. That’s great for you, but it doesn’t really resonate with the original audience. Maybe it’s time for the content to evolve and the audience to change. Wealth building, self employment, time management, goal planning. These are all things more relevant to what you are actually going through right now. These are topics that can be fresh.

  13. Carole says:

    Some people seem to be born without any money sense at all. It’s like they don’t realize that they have to reimburse the credit card company. Of course they are soon in a mess, but after family bales them out, they are right back at it. Hopefully some day they will reach their bottom and get their lives on track. I wouldn’t count on it, tho.

  14. Another Katie says:

    I agree with Johanna. Waiting for someone to hit bottom before trying to help does a disservice to those you love. I turned my finances around before they ever really hit a bottom. My parents emphasized the importance of good financial management and staying out of debt throughout my childhood and early adulthood. I didn’t want to hear it, and I still developed bad financial habits and messed up financially. However, due to the unwanted guidance of my parents I knew that wasn’t a wise way to live my life, and I knew they would be disappointed in me if they could see my whole financial picture. That knowledge did give me motivation to do better even though it took a while.

    I also disagree with this statement:

    “You’ll know when they reach bottom. Their actions will show you. They’ll make positive choices with their time and with their money. They’ll be focused on conserving money rather than spending it. They’ll be happy about paying off debts, not about the newest thing they’ve bought.”

    Hitting bottom or having a desire to change doesn’t meam that person automatically starts making good choices. Most people will try and fail many times before they succeed. It takes time and a lot of effor to change bad habits. Someone hitting bottom may not be obvious to everyone else since the change will not happen immediately. The person Trent describes probably hit bottom a while ago and has put in a lot of effort since that time.

    I would also say that how we regard those who struggle is important as well. The rest of my family has always been responsible with money, and I was the one who was bad with money. I always thought of myself as not being very good at managing money. Changing that perception of myself was an important step in learning to manage my finances. It was very difficult to do when I knew everyone else considered me to be bad with money.

  15. Mary Dyer says:

    I have noticed a change in your Simple Dollar b
    logs over the years.

    back when people got laid off and had a reasonable chance of being rehired in the cash money economy on a timely basis.

    or people who werent financially trashed out for reasons unrelated to their bad planning and bad spending habits

    like medically bankrupted and forclosed and evicted from their home, evgen if they always did balance their check books and made home made biscuits from scratch as well.

    Some of what is going on not many years later boils down to a globalizing economy that is not benefitting former memgers of the former middle class who do have highschool diplomas plus a couple more now useless college degrees

    and laid off school teachers in an era of budget cuts and increasing class sizes are still hoping for paid employment without a paper hat and name tag too.

    you need to update to coping with todays globalizing economhy that is not benefitting former membgers of the former middle class at all.

  16. Ann says:

    I agree with #10 Another Katie. The trajectory from one’s “bottom” isn’t a straight line. It usually looks more like the stock market. Up and down and up and down. Hopefully, you end up higher in the end.

    I think there’s a strong link between other kinds of addiction and financial distress. I am not saying that all people with financial problems are addicts etc. But it’s been my experience that those with other addictive behaviors (drugs, alcohol, food etc.) almost always have financial problems.

  17. Johanna says:

    @Carole: Actually, nobody is born knowing how a credit card works. That’s something everybody has to learn. And maybe some people are better at learning it than others, but some people also have better teachers than others.

  18. Charlotte says:

    I think I’ve hit both-but my deep bottom was when we lost our house. Standing on the porch in my $200 jeans trying to ‘reason’ with the sherif who had come to evict us, pointing out that my spouse was cleaning the pool RIGHT NOW and we would ‘figure it out’ if they would just give us another month….wow. That was 6 years ago, and I have done a complete 180 (well, for the most part. Maybe a complete 172)
    Funny thing is, at the time, I thought we WERE living frugal. In the years since then I have come to see many many many of our ‘needs’ were very mild ‘wants’ (A pool is expensive, but look! We’ll save the $40 per month on gym memberships! $800 custom curtains may SEEM expensive but they are double lined to help insulate-we will save $ on our TXU bill!)

    I agree it IS hard to watch loved ones head down that path, but if you intrevine they WILL get upset (just as we did when people tried to help us) because either a)they don’t think they have a problem or b)its none of your business. Personally I always got irritated when broke people gave me advice-like childless couples giving kid rearing advice or large people giving dieting tips. I’d think ‘well who are YOU to tell ME?’

    Before I go let me say STOP THE TRENT BASHING! Just move your little finger over and click on another site if you don’t like what he has to say. Simple.

  19. Laura in ATL says:

    #6, I wish Trent would just do one article a day, instead of trying to do two. He is rehashing themes lately and this post is an example. Do one article and instead of working on another article, spend time answering the TONS of questions, followups that are in the Comments section. (Sorry, it just bugs me that Trent can’t even find time to occasionally respond in his comments section.)

    I used to really enjoy this blog. Every day. Not anymore. For me, it just seems that there is maybe one or two articles a week that seem to offer anything new. I’ll still keep reading . . . I just come away less impressed/enthused/charged than I used to.

  20. Heather says:

    I actually found the article hit home for me. I spent the better part of my 20’s on a spending spree. I hadn’t been taught any good financial principles by my parents and didn’t have any innate understanding of money so I wandered around blind to the lasting financial damage I was doing to myself. I WISH my parents had helped me out less. It wasn’t until they stopped enabling my out of control spending by bailing me out when I made stupid financial decisions that I finally had to look what I’d done square in the eye and deal with it.

    The lowest point for me was having to pawn my ipod because I literally had no money to live on for the week and I am a white collar professional that makes good money. That was when things started to turn around for me. After that encounter I was so happy to get my next paycheck and so grateful to have funds available to take care of my needs in life that I started spending differently for the long term and cleaning up the massive financial mess I had made.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Trent’s statement:
    “You’ll know when they reach bottom. Their actions will show you. They’ll make positive choices with their time and with their money. They’ll be focused on conserving money rather than spending it. They’ll be happy about paying off debts, not about the newest thing they’ve bought.”

    This article couldn’t be more true of my experience. Maybe this article doesn’t apply to those who grew up being taught good things about money. Maybe it only applies to people who had inadequate financial training, lack of financial common sense or a proclivity for compulsively spending to feel better. For me it very nicely summed up the experience I had to go through to get to a point where I started handling my finances in a healthy and responsible way.

  21. Tamara says:

    @Carole, your comment “It’s like they don’t realize that they have to reimburse the credit card company” really struck me funny because it’s TRUE!

    I worked collections for a major credit card company about 10 years back. You know those 0% introductory offers they’d send? Yeah, people would apply for a card, run it up, and then not pay the bill. I’d call to collect and they’d be gobsmacked – they thought 0% interest meant they didn’t have to pay at all, ever! And you can imagine just how they reacted when I told them that because they hadn’t paid their interest was now 24.99%….

  22. SwingCheese says:

    Wowsa! This may sound naive, but I’ve never heard of a 24.99% interest rate. Is that really possible? How high can credit card interest rates go?

  23. Sonja says:

    #13-I think the max rate they can charge is 29.99%. That is a penalty rate for accounts that are in bad shape; late, overlimit, etc. All of this is in the fine print in the disclosures.

  24. Des says:

    Actually, there is no upper limit for credit card interest rates if they are issued by a national bank. Rate caps vary by state, and there are a number of states with no cap, so banks are often located in those states to avoid caps. National banks are exempted from usury laws.

  25. Kevin says:

    Banks in Canada are allowed to charge up to 60% interest.

    PayDay lenders are explictly exempt from that limit, and can charge much higher interest.

    Ain’t capitalism grand? :)

  26. kristine says:

    @KIm- that’s a great insight. Good advice!

  27. SwingCheese says:

    I once cancelled a credit card because they wouldn’t lower my interest rate from 19.99%, even though I hadn’t been late, made more than the minimum payment, etc. I thought that 20% interest was absurdly high. Now I guess I had it (comparatively) good, haha!

  28. It would be ideal if everyone were thoroughly educated on financial matters to the point of being able to avoid personal financial disaster before it happened. Obviously this is not the case. Some must learn from personal experience, the hard way. Once a person has “figured it out” I think it’s important to be proactive when you see people close to you who are making destructive financial decisions. The focus should be keeping people from falling, not waiting until they hit the bottom. This has to be done by educating, which you can do because you already learned “the hard way.”

    Randy A. Schaller

  29. kristine says:

    I prefer the negative interest rate of paying it off every month, and getting about 100/year in rewards gas cards

    Honestly- I do not even know what my interest rate is, as it is irrelevant. Last time I checked, 8.99, which is really very low. My hubby has a credit score over 800, and BofA recently raised his rate to 20, (right before the new rules) because he also pays it off each month! They find it a nuisance to keep on the books, as he loses money for them, and they want to get him to leave!

  30. Jenny says:

    I found this post extremely insightful. I’m stuggling with how to support a brother of mine, but believe you are right in this. Got to step back and let them make their own choices, and then find the internal motivation to change. Thank you! Jenny

  31. Michael says:

    First off, #’s 1, 6, 7 & 8 – it’s time that you stopped reading Trent’s work – your negativity is making me reach my ‘bottom’. My patience with the group you is running out. Rather than be grouchy about what he’s writing, stop reading and go to another author that better matches your perspective. Trent can’t connect with everyone – no writer can. Save us all of the ‘suggestions’ and move on. I get it – you used to get something from this blog and are not getting it anymore. That’s too bad, feel terrible for you. Now, your grieving is done – go crap on someone else, for I’m sure that’s what you’ll do. Or, better yet, if you’re so knowledgeable about blogs, start your own. Stop complaining and take action – leave.

    Now, I like the notion of shallow vs deep – it’s true that some folks get the spark to change earlier in the process. Obviously, the more shallow the least amount of damage and the fewer years to recoup what was lost. My concern lies with the folks who are in deep who still don’t learn, then find themselves in deep again. “When you’re in a hole, stop digging” is a tough lesson to learn….

  32. Jake says:

    I think it’s this is real good advice about helping others. I find that people have a great deal of pride and mask there problems until they can trust you. Once a person trust you, and that can come by having them over and providing a meal with them, you can give them hypotheticals. Discuss your own goals and ask them to share theirs. Then ask them to hold you accountable for your goals and you will do the same for them. This is mentorship without them even knowing it!! It will raise there expectation of themselves, hence shallowing there bottoms.

  33. deRuiter says:

    #16 Kevin, “PayDay lenders are explictly exempt from that limit, and can charge much higher interest. Ain’t capitalism grand?” Evidently payday lenders provide a service which people want and need. With capitalism, if you provide a (legal) service which people need, and establish a rate they will willingly pay, you can make a profit. If you offer to sell goods or services which people don’t want, or you charge too high a price, you will not get customers, you will not earn a profit, your business will fail. No one has to go to payday lenders, options include: borrow from Kevin (who will not get his money back, most likely), get a part time job, pick up aluminum beverage cans off the street and recycle them for cash, do overtime at work, cut out cable tv, stop eating out, buy used clothes from yard sales instead of the “new stuff” store, the options to a payday loan are endless. Some people are willing to pay the interest on payday loans, and the lender is willing to trust them for the money. This is seen as a good deal by both parties, or the borrower would not borrow this way.

  34. tb says:

    you negatives do realize that he said “For MANY people, making a significant change…” He doesn’t say ALL.

    @#11 Really? you had to point that out?

    Actually, trees make up a forest. There are many kinds of forests and they all have trees. Some are different than others, but they do all have them. Many people can’t see the forest at all because they spend so much time looking at one tree. Others can see the forest just fine.

  35. Johanna says:

    @tb: Congratulations on reading the first sentence of the post. Now, please read the rest of it. Specifically, the parts where he says:

    “you’re PROBABLY not going to be able to help them much at all until they reach their bottom, whether it’s shallow or it’s deep.” (With the “probably,” he’s shifted from talking about an indeterminate “many” people to *most* people.)


    “You’ve GOT TO wait for that bottom and you’ve GOT TO hope that the bottom isn’t too deep.” (So now he’s saying that this “bottoming” phenomenon does apply to everyone.)

  36. Jake says:

    I think this is real good advice about helping others. I find that people have a great deal of pride and mask there problems until they can trust you. Once a person can trust you, and that can come by having them over and providing a meal for them, you can give them hypotheticals. Discuss your own goals and ask them to share theirs. Then ask them to hold you accountable for your goals and you will do the same for them. This is mentorship without them even knowing it!! It will raise there expectation of themselves, hence shallowing there bottoms.

  37. djac99 says:

    Thanks for this timely post. It gave me insight into how to provide effective help to a young adult in my life.

  38. Kathryn says:

    People are all so different due to temperament and training.

    I don’t think we ever came close to a “bottom, ” but we did reach a point where we said, “I don’t like where this is going. We need to change.” We were never deeply in debt, we had money to pay bills, but we could see that we were making choices that could lead to trouble and we wanted to make different choices before things became difficult.

    Ii bless the day that i found Trent’s blog. I’ve been reading for 2 years now and it has helped me be mindful and make the changes i need to make. I’m not sure i had the “tools” to do this before.

    I like that he shares values and the way he looks at things. I also can see that it would be a turn off for folks who come strictly to deal with finances and are looking for financial advice.

    It is hard sometimes to know how to help. We are rather involved with a family in crisis. Our interest is in an unofficial mentoring of the 3 kids. The problem is that we see the parents making all kinds of decisions that are not healthy or helpful. I don’t think they want to hear it from us, and i’m afraid they have neither money or the knowledge to make the changes themselves.

    We HAVE to tell ourselves that we have to let them work this out. We are willing to assist, if asked, in some ways. The mother approached us about doing a marriage mentoring (going thru a marriage book we recommended). After discussing it, we agreed with some reservations and some boundaries. We said, “You may not like what we have to say,” and that was enough. They didn’t even want to hear it. (Mama wanted us to say, “You’re 100% right and he’s 100% wrong” and when we couldn’t do that, she lost interest.)

    People have to be willing and motivated to change before it will happen. I don’t think Trent is saying that everyone will reach this place (of drowning) before seeking help, but there sure are a lot of people like that. It IS hard to stand by and watch.

  39. tb says:

    @#11 he says some people not most. he didn’t shift, you did.
    you should try reading it again without so much prejudice.
    ACTUALLY! what he actually says is “This general story matches, in some way, almost every financial turnaround I’ve ever seen. ”
    general, almost and some. not every.not all. many, not most.

  40. SKS says:

    #31 Michael: THANK YOU for your post — it makes no sense for the grumblers to keep reading the post, since their “suggestions” are just complaints, and add nothing to the content. I’ve been reading Trent’s blogs and the comments for a couple of months now; enjoy most of the blogs (just take what I can use, gratefully, and leave the rest) and a lot of the comments, but am amazed by the negativity in some of the posts. I can already tell who wrote some of them without checking first! There are thousands of blogs…find one you like (or at least pick on someone else).

  41. Annie says:

    I have also noticed that it’s a constant thread of articles about failing and pulling yourself back up responsibily. Don’t worry about what others think, don’t buy this to please others ,etc.. I read it and think ok YES this is all true but everyone has heard this a million times. I would love to see more real life examples of people in debt that took action to payoff their debt and now are successful, what measures they took, they might have an idea we haven’t heard about… i like real life examples of winners. There is nothing wrong with the Question and Answer section where you help people in need of guidance but i would like to see some articles on people you know that are actually successful. So far it seems that all you write about is failure,people going through issues where they take on debt they can’t afford,etc…I hope you don’t take offense to this, we are just trying to make your post more welcoming to audiences.

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