The Total Money Makeover: Two More Hurdles

This is the fourth of twelve parts of a “book club” reading and discussion of Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover, where this book on debt reduction is teased apart and looked at in detail. This entry covers the fifth chapter, finishing on page 92. The next entry, covering the sixth chapter, will appear on Wednesday.

ttmmThe first five chapters of The Total Money Makeover don’t actually address Ramsey’s plan at all. Instead, it’s mostly an argument against culture, mostly the idea that the easy availability of debt in our modern life is a serious problem.

I agree with Ramsey in that regard, but I usually find that the root of it is deeper: a lack of personal finance education mixed with a prevalence of awful messages about ourselves delivered by the media. Think about it: did you learn anything about personal finance in school? Also, think about the ads you see – don’t they portray the people in those ads as being somehow better than you?

Together, that’s some awful medicine. Dave, in his own way, takes on both of those factors in this chapter.

Ignorance Isn’t a Four Letter Word
We live in a culture that rewards intelligence and knowledge, and often ignorance is seriously derided when it shouldn’t be. Dave spells it out pretty well on page 78:

In a culture that worships knowledge, to say ignorance about money is an issue makes some people defensive. Don’t be defensive. Ignorance is not a lack of intelligence; it is a lack of know-how.

The idea that ignorance is not a lack of knowledge is vital. Intelligence is the ability to take the knowledge that you have and put it together in interesting ways. Intelligence shines when you read two articles on only vaguely related subjects and are able to put together a completely new idea from those two articles. Intelligence does not mean that you’ve got tons of knowledge in your head. In fact, I’d often make the opposite observation – many of the most intelligent people I know continually respect how little they know and how much they do not know.

I’ll use myself for an example. I don’t know much about world history. I don’t know much about physics. I don’t know much about high-level athletic training. I don’t know much about fixing cars. I don’t know much about plumbing. I don’t know much about complex mathematics. There are countless other areas that I’m willing to admit ignorance in.

Ignorance can be overcome, though. If I so chose, I could spend some time educating myself on plumbing with a good do-it-yourself book or two and some time around the pipes. I could learn more about physics by reading up on the subject and perhaps taking some coursework on it. I could learn more about working on cars by simply trying it. Hard work overcomes ignorance every time.

It’s not shameful to admit you do not know everything – no one does. In fact, I’d argue the opposite – pretending you know everything when you do not is dangerous and harmful to yourself and to others. This same exact logic applies to personal finance – it’s fine to admit that you’re ignorant about money. What’s dangerous is when you choose not to admit it – or you delude yourself into thinking that you truly aren’t ignorant about it.

Overcoming Ignorance About Money (or Anything Else)
Dave’s recipe for overcoming ignorance matches up well with my own feelings on the topic. On page 79:

Overcoming ignorance is easy. First, with no shame, admit that you are not a financial expert because you were never taught. Second, finish this book. Third, go on a lifetime quest to learn more about money. You don’t need to apply to Harvard to get an MBA with a specialization in finance; you don’t have to watch the financial channel instead of a great movie. You do need to read something about money at least once a year. Your actions should show that you care about money by learning something about it.

This really is a strong formula for overcoming general ignorance on a subject. It will not make you a world-beating expert, but it will give you the background you need to actually make that topic work in your everyday life.

Let’s translate it a bit. Pick a topic you’d like to not be ignorant on, then do as follows.

First, with no shame, admit that you are not an expert on that topic because you were never taught or were taught poorly. Second, read a general book on the topic. Third, go on a quest to learn more about the topic. You don’t need to apply to Harvard to get an advanced degree in the topic; you don’t have to watch documentaries or read piles of dry books instead of watching a great movie or reading a fun book. You do need to read something about the topic at least once a year. Your actions should show that you care about the topic by learning something about it.

Sounds like a recipe for getting up to speed to me!

What’s Expected of Us
On pages 81-82:

Peer pressure, cultural expectations, “reasonable standard of living” – I don’t care how you say it, we all need to be accepted by our crowd and our families. The need for approval and respect drives us to do some really insane things. One of the paradoxically dumb things we do is to destroy our finances by buying garbage we can’t afford to try to make ourselves appear wealthy to others.

I fell into this trap big time before my financial turnaround. I constantly tried to buy things to impress others. I’d pay for a huge group to go out to eat. I’d buy gadgets I didn’t even really want simply because it was impressive to have an amazing item. I had to always have the “latest” of everything.

Now? I realized that people didn’t like me because I had the latest things or because I bought dinner. They liked me because I was me. Sure, there were a few hangers-on who didn’t want to hang out with me any more because I wasn’t engaged in whatever activity they were obsessed with, but what was that friendship, really, if that happens?

In fact, it became easier to relate to people once I realized this. I was no longer worried about saying the right thing, having the right thing, or keeping up appearances. People wanted to be around because I was me – and that’s all I needed.

Who cares what the Joneses have? I can either be me, or I can be me with a car I don’t really want and a debt burden making me sad.

What’s Your Jaguar?
I really liked the tale Dave told about owning a Jaguar, starting on page 86:

I had the eye of my heart set on a Jaguar. I “needed” a Jaguar. What I needed was for people to be impressed with my success. What I needed was family raising an eyebrow of approval based on my ability to win. What I yearned for was respect. What I was so shallow to believe was that the car I drove gave me these things.

My Jaguar was food. I felt a constant desire to take people out to eat at my favorite restaurants – often very expensive ones. I’d take my parents out. I’d take my friends out. I’d seek out really expensive amazing places and tell the waiter to just give the whole bill straight to me. I’d tip really big right in front of everyone.

Doing this made me feel like I was important and that I was earning respect. What I found was that mostly I was just making the other people feel sort of awkward. They weren’t there to be shocked by my largesse – they were there because they wanted to go out for a nice evening with someone whose company they enjoyed.

Guess what? I stopped paying for meals for others. Guess what else? Whenever I ask any of my family or friends to actually go out to eat – something I don’t do too often any more – they’re still quite happy to accept and quite happy to fit the bill. In fact, they may be happier – they don’t have that vague sense of discomfort they used to get when I’d grab the bill and throw down the plastic.

The American Nightmare
If you’re jealous of what others have, put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Do you think they are actually able to afford what they have? On page 83:

They present the perfect picture of the American dream that has turned into a nightmare. Behind the perfect hair and the French manicure, there was deep desperation, a sense of futility, an unraveling marriage, and disgust with themselves.

The people that you’re jealous of often have had to make huge sacrifices to get the things you want. The fancy car? It’s often paid for with a huge pile of debt. The amazing career? That person spent a lot of sleepless nights cutting their teeth to get there – and likely has sacrificed a strong relationship with the people around them to get it. That perfect marriage? It’s likely either the result of a lot of maintenance or it’s a facade.

There is no such thing as a free lunch in life. The people that have those things that you’re jealous of have often paid dearly for those things. When you peek behind the mirror a bit, you’ll see the cost they paid – and are likely still paying – to get there. And, quite often, when you look at things as a whole, you find a balance of affairs that you don’t want yourself.

That’s why I gave up so much spending. I once thought I couldn’t imagine life without lots of trips to bookstores and game stores and coffee shops. At the same time, though, I was up at night sick with worry about my debts and leashed to a paperwork-filled career. I had those little oases of seeming happiness, but they were surrounded by lots of unhappiness. If you saw me out and about at the bookstore or at the coffee shop, you might have been jealous – look at that guy with the armload of books and the smile on his face?

But if you saw the worried guy, sitting there writing computer code at eleven at night, then not sleeping at two in the morning because he was worried about the bills… then you might get a different picture of things.

A Useful Lesson from Twelve-Step Programs
On page 91, Ramsey points out a worthwhile lesson from twelve step programs:

The Twelve Steppers have it right. They say, “Continuing to do the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity.”

If you’re trying to succeed in life – or in some specific aspect of life – and you keep failing at it or never getting anywhere, you probably need to change your approach.

Obviously, Dave is referring to money issues here. If you keep doing the same things you’re doing and you’re not getting ahead financially, you need to make some changes.

But it’s true for everything. Let’s say you’re a writer and you’ve finished a book. You’re trying to get it published but you’ve received twenty rejection letters. You need to change something. Why not give away the book in bite-sized increments? Why not chunk it down into 1,000 word segments and blog the entire book? Why not put that book aside for a while, write something new, and look at it later? The key here is that what you’re doing isn’t working, so you need to try something else. Getting a steady stream of rejection is never the road to success.

On Wednesday, we’ll tackle the sixth chapter – Save $1,000 Fast.

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