Escape from 'money autopilot'

Mood of the Market

By Inman News Feed
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Mood of the Market

Tara-Nicholle Nelson
Inman News

We're now on week three of a foray into changing our money consciousness, collectively. Last week, we explored what it would look like to let go of our pattern of money immaturity, and grow up in our money matters. After dealing with our financial immaturity, though, there is another shift we need to make: from unconscious to conscious.

Many Americans largely operate unconsciously, when it comes to money. We've checked out, flipped the autopilot switch, and are simply humming along, buying stuff, spending, procrastinating on getting financially organized and swiping that debit card until we can buy/spend/delay/swipe no more.

When my kids were young and wanted to buy something in the store, I'd say, "Guys, that's too much to spend on X." Their evergreen response? "Write a check, Mom -- just write a check!"

It's cute when a 4-year-old says it; not so much when a 40-year-old does. And this is essentially what Americans are saying all day, every day. The more layers of disconnect technology and convenience have added between the way we pay for things and their actual cost (think: installment payments, auto-debits and tap-at-the-register debit cards), the more asleep at the wheel we have become to the link between our purchases -- from houses to Snuggies -- and the underlying fiscal truths.

So, why do we check out of our money matters? Mostly because we find staying checked in to be stressful or, rather, distressful. When we check in and pay attention to what we spend, the state of our accounts and other financial matters, the the facts we find can be dismal, so we bury our heads in the sand.

It isn't our money facts that are stressful, as much as it is our beliefs about money and how we interpret the facts of our situations that are stressful. For example, one person does her bookkeeping and thinks: "Geesh, I'm broke. Not looking at those bills again!"

A person with different money beliefs might see the same account statements and think: "Hmm, these four expenses are out of whack with how much I care about those things. I'm going to cut these four things back, then put 75 percent of my savings in the retirement account and use 25 percent to fund my Christmas gifts. Whoo hoo!"

So, going on money autopilot is more about the money beliefs we hold than about the facts of our money situations. There's one particularly effective solution for correcting dysfunctional beliefs that I know of, and it's a simple system of questions taught by author Byron Katie. It's called "The Work," and it is a system for exploring beliefs that are not really working for you.

Before I brief you on how to do "The Work" on your money issues, know this: One key tenet of doing the work is, to put Katie's doctrine much more colloquially, minding your own dang business. Not your husband's business, not your parent's business, not your grown kid's business -- but your business.

If any of your stressful money beliefs -- the things about money that cause you distress enough to send you right into retail therapy or falling asleep, literally, when it's time to pay the bills -- could be articulated as "My wife is spending us into the poorhouse," or "I'm broke because my kids think money grows on trees," you are not minding your business. The way your wife and kids manage money is their business, not yours. Even if your finances are very tightly intertwined, I challenge you to explore how you are responsible and empowered to change what's not working about the situation.

So, let's mind our own business. Some of the common stressful money beliefs that we Americans hold include:

  • I'll never make enough money.
  • As soon as X, I'll start saving/investing/paying off my debts.
  • I don't like to balance my checkbook/pay bills/manage my taxes.
  • Creditors are vultures.
  • Buying X will make me feel better/be perceived as more important/stop feeling the pain.
  • Paying bills/planning about money makes me feel like things are scarce, there will never be enough.
  • Money is so hard to come by.

The first step of doing "The Work" on your money beliefs includes asking yourself a series of questions about the accuracy of the beliefs themselves, once you articulate them, one belief at a time. The four Katie recommends are:

1. Is it true?

2. Can you absolutely know that it's true?

3. How do you react -- what happens -- when you believe that thought?

4. Who would you be without the thought?

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