A Money Attitude Adjustment
by Carrie Rocha
My husband Marco and I were shocked in the spring of 2006 when we took account and realized the amount of debt we had. For a few weeks after that, we grappled with some very serious questions, like “How did we get here?” and “Where will we end up if we don’t stop ourselves?”
I remember a particular conversation Marco and I had, where we calculated how much money we’d cumulatively earned over the previous ten years. It was well over half a million dollars. Then we looked at each other and said, “What do we have to show for half a million dollars?” The answer: $60,000 in debt. How could that be possible?
We were ready to make a change. We wanted our lives to amount to something different than that. We had dreams of living overseas in Brazil and working full time to enrich the lives of Marco’s countrymen. We weren’t ready to give that up.
1. We decided to get out of debt.
2. We decided that we would stay out of debt for the rest of our lives.
And so we did. It took thirty months, which is exactly two and a half years, but in November 2009 I wrote the check that paid off the last of our non-mortgage debts.
To date we have avoided incurring any new debt (other than moving houses recently and replacing our old mortgage with a new mortgage). We’ve self-funded Marco’s graduate degree, a three-year-old minivan, and every other curveball life has thrown at us since June 2006.
Our Attitude Changes
The question I’m always asked when I tell our story about getting out and staying out of debt is, “How did you do it?” And my answer is always, “We changed our attitudes toward money.” An attitude is a disposition, orientation, or mental or emotional outlook on something.1 As Marco and I changed our outlook about money, we were able to make decisions consistent with our goals. Prior to that, we said we wanted financial success and stability, but our actions didn’t line up with what we said.
At the start of our financial journey our attitudes sounded like this:
• “If only I had more money, then I wouldn’t have so many money problems.”
• “It has been a rough day. I deserve to treat myself to dinner out tonight.”
• “We don’t have to save money for our car’s next brake job. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
• “If it’s on sale, then I have permission to buy it.”
• “Wealth is demonstrated by what you own.”
Seven years and no new debt later, we sound more like this:
• “Financial success isn’t about how much you make, but about what you do with what you make.”
• “I work too hard for my money to spend it on fruitless things.”
• “It’s our responsibility today to plan for tomorrow’s expenses.”
• “Most of America’s wealthy aren’t showing it off.”
Behavior Change Is What We Really Want
But why shouldn’t you focus on behavioral changes? After all, to bring about change in your finances, you need to save, spend, and/or account for your money differently from what you are doing today. There is no question about that. However, my approach to the changes required of you is not centered on changing each individual problematic behavior. Life is too varied and too complex for us to make meaningful changes one problematic behavior at a time.
Let’s say you want to lose twenty-five pounds. You decide that the one thing you need to do is get back into running. Effective immediately, you’ll lace up your sneakers after dinner and head out for a vigorous run. That beats plopping down on the couch for a few hours of TV and Facebook.
That works okay for a few days, until you eat dinner out one night. You aren’t home to lace up your sneakers, so you skip the run. Then it rains for a few days straight and again, you can’t head out. Now school’s back in session and you need to help your kids with their homework and get them to bed earlier; an evening run doesn’t fit into your schedule anymore. Your plan to lose weight is thwarted. Circumstances don’t line up exactly as you’d hoped, and you’ve excused yourself from modifying your behavior.
A better approach would be to start with an honest look at the underlying issues of why you’ve gained the weight. Maybe it’s low self-esteem due to a recent divorce, stress from financial pressure, boredom at work or a hopelessness that change is possible for you. Once you uncover and deal with the real issue, then eating healthier and living a more active lifestyle are more easily sustained.
Attitudes Are Roots
When Marco and I became determined to get out of debt, our first step to lasting financial change wasn’t a laundry list of no-no behaviors. And yours isn’t either. (Yes, I heard that sigh of relief.) After deciding to get out and stay out of debt, the first thing we did was replace the attitude “If only I had more money” with “I can choose my own financial future.” It’s not about how much money you make, it’s about what you do with what you make.
This was an effective first step for us because it was manageable. That means we actually did it without quitting. Additionally, it was intertwined with a handful of other attitudes that we didn’t know we had. One at a time we realized additional unhealthy beliefs, perceptions, and outlooks we had on money, and changed them. Each one was manageable. Each one was powerful. Each one made making right choices a lot easier.
It’s like we pulled a dandelion out by the roots rather than simply popping off the flower.