Has this ever happened to you? A statement arrives from the bank, your financial professional, or the tax authorities. You look at the envelope, you get a sick feeling in your stomach, and you tell yourself "I'll look at it later."
Except, later never happens -- until next month. Another envelope appears, with next month's information. You feel anxious, guilty and you know you shouldn't ignore it. You know better but you just can't do it. You'll do it later. And later never happens. We get into a cycle of denial which feeds upon itself until we are dug in so deep, we don't know how to get out.
Why do so many of us do this? What are we afraid of? For many people, dealing with their money is associated with having to take action in an area of their lives in which they feel incompetent. They aren't sure about how to react to the information contained in the statement, so they ignore it. People also hate acknowledging that they may not have managed their money well. The monthly statement is a reminder of that. It's human nature to protect yourself from feeling badly. Unfortunately, you pay a hefty price for this.
What are the consequences? Enormous! While you remain ignorant of your financial situation, professionals have great influence over your decisions and how to manage your money. While many professionals have your best interests in mind, there are others who don't. We have seen countless situations where investors have been swindled out of their life savings. On a less dramatic scale, we have also seen people whose ineffective management of their finances has resulted in financial disaster. Home foreclosures, bankruptcy, no retirement savings are some of the consequences.
Jonathan Chevreau, in a November 2011 column in the Financial Post, stated that it is never in the interests of large financial institutions to have an educated client. Paul Farrell of Marketwatch.com says the institutions make their billions off investors who are "clueless financial illiterates." Every time you avoid opening your envelope, you open yourself up to being a client who is, as Professor Richard Thaler says, who consumers are "irrational and woefully uninformed." This means that you are not only not managing your money well, you're not managing your money at all.
So what can you do?
- The first thing to do is figure out what your emotional trigger is when it comes to your money. Ignoring your finances is a response to the anxiety that you feel whenever you need to deal with your financial picture. Sit with the anxiety for a few minutes and try to understand why you're so vulnerable in this area. Your fear likely goes back many years and is a response to something that is in your past. Put that experience in your current context and realize that you have control over how you deal with it
- Secondly, set up a very simple method for keeping track of your spending and a time for paying your bills. Sit down twice a month on the same date and reconcile your bills and your financial statements. Take a deep breath and commit yourself to doing this, no matter how badly it makes you feel. The more you avoid the task, the worse it gets. Set up your environment so that you are relaxed and feeling positive. Then, just do it.
- Thirdly, take control. You will find that being out of control of your financial life is likely happening in other parts of your life. Not having control over your money, avoiding unpleasant reality is a way of coping with difficult situations. Make a decision that you want to become better organized and more in control by taking charge. Look at the areas of your life that are disorganized and chaotic and make the changes that need to be change.
- Finally, stop sticking your head in the sand and looking to others to take care of you. It's time to face up to the discomfort of your money and take charge of your future. Because if you won't, why do you expect anybody else to?