By Ken Robinson, JD, CFP®, AIF®, Cleveland, OH
Have you ever worried about money? Chances are you have. And you probably weren’t concerned you’d have too much. Worry about money is usually an expression of fear that we won’t have enough.
I often speak to groups about how to save more money out of every paycheck. At one presentation a few years ago, my host had introduced me and I was just stepping up to the lectern. But before I could say anything, someone from the audience spoke up:
“I’m not giving up my cell phone!”
This guy was nervous that I’d say he couldn’t keep this expensive part of his life. Those seven words—”I’m not giving up my cell phone” speak volumes about why saving is often so difficult.
Fear and anxiety are common reactions to the subject of budgeting. Many people are concerned they won’t have enough money to buy basic necessities. Although this is true for lots of families, many others believe they are in this category when they’re actually not. If a family buys a wide-screen TV and then complains about being short of cash, chances are their problem isn’t that they have too little money available.
Even so, those with much more than they need for their survival often resist the call to save money. It’s not that they don’t know how. Almost every adult has heard of a budget and could probably explain to you how it works. So what makes budgeting so uncomfortable that many prefer to tolerate being frightened about not having enough money?
Consider what the budgeting process asks people to do. They’re supposed to examine all their spending and determine how much goes for food, rent, transportation, entertainment, and every other category in their lives. Many budgeters don’t want to face what they’ll learn. “I’ve been afraid to look at how much we spend eating at restaurants,” a client told me recently. He knows it’s too much, but it’s more painful to actually know the amount than to remain willfully ignorant, even though frequent eating out leaves him unable to save as much as he’d like.
Even if budgeters don’t think they’re spending more than they should, they’re already thinking, “I’m not giving up my cell phone.” Because after they identify all their spending, they know what’s coming next: they have to decide where they can cut back, what they can do without. The unpleasantness of having to do this can dwarf the danger of not being able to pay all their bills or not being able to save for their own self-sufficiency.
Even worse than the risk of giving up things we want; budgeting is a threat to the way we are viewed by others, as well as how we tend to see ourselves. Our culture teaches us that who we are is largely determined by what we possess and what we show to the rest of the world. Of course, we all know there are qualities about us that are far more important than money or possessions.
But most of us want to be like the people we hang out with and the people we’d like hang out with (although this strong need often goes unrecognized). When budgeters decide “I can’t afford that,” it can feel like an attack on their sense of themselves and their very idea of who they are or who they thought they could be.
This is the most significant roadblock to budgeting. It’s not the saving that bothers people. For powerful (often unconscious) reasons, the problem is facing up to the cutbacks needed to achieve the savings. It’s like that old joke about the man who lost his balance and nearly fell off the roof. “It’s not the fall that would bother me,” he said. “It’s the sudden stop at the end.”
The difficulty with budgeting is why so many advisors prefer to have their clients pay themselves first. If you’re meeting your bills and saving enough for your future goals, very often it doesn’t matter where the rest goes.
You probably would benefit from making a traditional budget. But for those who can’t budget or find it too painful, saving money is not a lost cause. Putting money aside out of every paycheck as soon as you get paid is often the most effective way to fund your future goals.