The culture of personal finance is one of personal responsibility. Any mistake with your money is your fault. Any success is the result of intelligence, discipline and hard work.
The narrative is meant to empower people to take control of their financial future, but in many ways it does the opposite. Instead of feeling inspired and confident to manage their money better, people feel embarrassed and despair at their financial circumstances.
The tool wielded by the personal responsibility crowd to keep people in line is shame. If you’re in debt, it’s because you were careless. If you have no savings, it’s because you’re irresponsible. If your financial situation is lacking in any way, it’s entirely because of your failure.
This is fundamentally untrue. In reality, the choices we make with our money are mostly determined by which choices are available to us in the first place. You will end up with student loan debt if university was not an option without borrowing money. You will not be able to save for retirement during the months you were laid off from your job. But the truth doesn’t stop the shame train.
Those doling out the judgment are probably doing it to feel better about their own decisions. Some people can’t be entirely certain they’ve made the right decision unless they are wholly confident someone else has made the wrong one. Shaming someone else for their extravagant purchases, high debts or dismal savings is a roundabout way of patting yourself on the back for doing things differently.
But shouldn’t making good financial choices feel good enough without putting someone else down?
Financial institutions are also guilty of shaming people for their poor money decisions, with the added irony of leading them to make them in the first place. The algorithms behind credit products have ensured you will be lent just enough money to be trapped. Your debt load will never be quite enough to take you under, while at the same time always being just enough to make it extremely difficult to pay off. Your credit score becomes your grown-up report card: Exactly how well are you doing playing the game of life?
It’s easy to get the impression that you’re doing everything wrong with your money, and that distress is exacerbated by the crowd insisting it’s all your fault. Even if it is, wallowing in shame doesn’t change your circumstances.
Science says it can actually make it worse. Shame intensifies financial hardship by leading individuals to avoid dealing with their finances, or engaging in behaviours to worsen their situation, such as overspending or neglecting to save.
Any minute spent agonizing over the financial mistakes of your past is a minute that could have been spent planning and building a better financial future. Not only does worrying about your past feel miserable, it distracts you from the wealth that lies ahead.
Most people feel overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to unwind their financial mistakes, but the wonderful thing about making the effort to manage your money better is you usually see results very fast. We tend to think we will not experience any relief until our finances are perfect, but it happens much more quickly than that.
Paying off one credit card still confers a quick win even if there are four more to go. Saving $1,000 for your child’s postsecondary education still provides them a benefit even if it won’t pay the whole bill. Your finances likely won’t ever be perfect, but the good news is they don’t have to be.
Financial security is built incrementally, and you benefit a little bit with each step you take. The problem with shame is it discourages people from taking that first step. Shame communicates the game is over before you even start. But you have many chances to get things right, and you always have the opportunity to make things better.
Bridget Casey, MBA (Finance), is founder of Money After Graduation, a financial e-learning company. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @BridgieCasey.