Early in my time as a financial coach, I worked with a woman who dutifully kept her appointments, but for some reason, had difficulty actually making progress. While she had very modest means at the time, she was both looking for work and looking for business. She was quite talented at administrative work and was attempting to both find a steady paying gig, while also filling in her financial gaps with contracted services. Unfortunately, being diffuse in your efforts only provides less than half your attention to each activity, with the difference used up in switching focus between them. It’s never as effective as focusing all your attention on one point.
However, it became apparent over time, that this divided focus wasn’t the biggest issue preventing her progression. Remember the whole “If I only had more money…” way of thinking? Well, this was where we were initially aiming her efforts, bringing in more income. But often, when that refrain is our go-to solution, it’s diverting our focus from the deeper issue. It’s what we tell ourselves to keep us from reading the true reality. As we came to better understand her habits and patterns, it became evident that the issue was with the behavior around her expenses. She was an incredibly kind and sweet person who deeply appreciated her relationships. She wanted to spend time with those close to her and to be generous with them. And so, sometimes she would take a friend out to lunch at an expensive restaurant. And she liked to have beauty around her in her apartment. And so, sometimes she would buy items of beauty to adorn her abode. And she of course liked to cook and needed to eat well. And so, sometimes she bought expensive cuts of meat for her meals at home. And she needed. And so she spent. Except it wasn’t sometimes. It was all the time. She couldn’t reign it in.
Coaching wasn’t the right tool; she needed stronger medicine. She needed a 12-Step program.
When you don’t have control over your actions like this, it’s probably entered the domain of addiction. This is where the self-help isn’t enough and you need to get qualified assistance to help you though. How do you know if what you’re facing is a full-on addiction and not something you can just handle on your own? You could go to a qualified clinician and they could take you through a questionnaire that might tell you. Or people around you have been raising their eyebrows, trying to drop hints that your behavior may be a problem. But in the end, I find for a lot of people, it’s when they ask themselves that question, they get honest with themselves – truly reading their reality – and don’t just listen to the loudest voice in their head (“Nah, it’s not that bad”) which always likes to justify everything anyway, but in listening to the quiet voice in their heart, the one that says, “You know what, you’ve tried stopping every day, telling yourself that you won’t do it again… and so how’s that working for you?” That’s the voice that deserves an honest response and can tell you just how bad it is. There’s often a sense of guilt and emotional unease following the action: it felt great in the moment (the hit), but you’re wallowing in hell in the aftermath.
Not everyone has an addiction (Whew!), but chances are, someone you know, does (Pooh!), and that person might just be you or in your household. Just about anything can turn into an addiction that will impact your financial well-being, not just excessive spending: the act of shopping, hoarding / excessive saving, gambling. And then there’s every other addiction out there which may not be explicitly financially related, but does impact your financial bottom line, either because you spend money to get it (drugs, alcohol, porn, tobacco, food, etc.), or because you’re so focused on scoring the next dopamine hit that you can’t see past the next ten minutes into the future (social media, video / app gaming – yes, games are designed to be addictive -, exercise, sex, work, anger, etc.). Meanwhile, your ability to maintain the rest of life, keep up with your responsibilities, and manage your relationships, is eroding. Often addiction develops as a coping mechanism to sooth some emotional discomfort you feel: stress, fatigue, loneliness, anger, boredom, jealousy. But while it feels good and helps you forget the pain in the moment, it doesn’t actually do the hard emotional work of healing. That requires confronting the problem (reading reality) and then taking the actions, sometimes minute-by-minute, to get yourself back on the straight and narrow.
So, if this describes you, do yourself and everyone around you a favor and get help. There are different approaches to dealing with addiction. They might involve medication, therapy, group accountability, connecting with others, or connecting with God, depending on the therapeutic framework being applied. What might work for one person, may not for another, so be patient and persistent. It’s important to appreciate the difference between a judgmental attitude – “gotta pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” – which blames the individual for something which the environment holds an equal amount of culpability, and the gentle healing, nurturing, strengthening, and ultimate triumph of the human spirit. Chances are, the addiction didn’t blossom over night; it’s been years in the making. So it’ll take a while to establish new, healthy patterns of behavior. But know that it is possible.
A final word about this new project of yours is that it doesn’t usually operate in isolation from the rest of life. We may want to escape the temptations by physically removing ourselves from the equation: get the cakes out of the house, stop visiting the antique stores, don’t vacation in Vegas. If it’s not present, it can’t tempt us, right? Sort of. Creating clear boundaries of what is acceptable and what isn’t, is important. But with many things, moderation – that middle road – is best. You’ll still have to eat, have a chair to sit on, and unwind, right? So it gets back to the idea of knowing, for yourself, how much is really enough. And the arena in which we find that out for ourselves, is in the everyday life. As I like to say, the only way you can develop the quality of patience, is not by meditating on a mountain-top, but by having your patience tested. Generosity, sacrifice, patience, selflessness, are the unexpected qualities parents develop after countless sleep-deprived nights with a toddler screaming from night terrors. And so putting together a shopping list, passing by the Cheetos, and opting for the apple with natural peanut butter (because behavior change without a suitable substitute is guaranteed failure), will help to nurture the self-care and generate the good habits we need. Simply stopping the bad activities isn’t alone going do the trick. It’s important, and that’s what you’re seeking help with from the professional. But developing the good qualities, the principles to guide you and the habits to sustain you, will move you forward. And that’s what we’re aiming for in this book.
This book is a work in progress and we’ll all benefit from your input and collaboration. In the “Leave a Reply” below, please post examples, comments, questions, and needed edits. By posting, you grant permission for inclusion of any content to become part of the book, now or in the future, in whatever form it may take. I’ll give attributions to the extent possible. I know sharing about our financial lives can be sensitive, so if you want to share anonymously, please use the contact form instead and I’ll honor your request.