As seen in the February 2012 issue of Reader’s Digest
If you’re struggling to pay off debt, you’ve probably spent some time asking yourself, “How the heck did I get into this mess?” In fact, you might be reading this because you googled a variation of that question.
For a species that is supposed to be intelligent, we sure make some dumb choices at times! Many of us have difficulty understanding the reasons behind our mistakes, especially those that cost us in the long run. We can’t figure out how we make so many wise decisions every day, like wearing seatbelts and not peeing in our pants, yet mess up in the area that matters most – our finances.
Lest you think I’m pointing fingers, I’m including myself when I say “we.” Because I have spent years doing the whole “swim against the tide” thing – paying my minimum payments, trying to figure out how to survive until I get paid again, watching my paycheck drain away the second it hits the bank… Yep, been there. Luckily I’m pretty much done with that part of my life, but not before I nearly drove myself insane trying to get to the root of the problem.
I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your bank balance down!
As children, we grow up surrounded by stories, songs, and movies that are supposed to teach us lessons about life. We all know what happened to the boy who cried wolf. We know you aren’t supposed to take a shower or say “I’ll be right back” when there’s a killer on the loose. And if your bedridden grandma suddenly develops fangs? Forget about it – you’re going to drop that picnic basket and run like hell.
Unfortunately, while we’re basking in the glory of all that media goodness as kids, many of us absorb some lessons that aren’t so helpful. And while we don’t sit around going, “Wow, my Visa is maxed out again! I knew I shouldn’t have watched that episode of Spongebob,” we can learn a lot about our adult financial choices from the stories we heard when we were young.
Not buying it? Check out these fairy tales and their unintended messages..
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- Summary: Snow White’s stepmom is jealous of her beauty. Snow White hides out with some dwarfs, but her stepmom dresses up like an old lady and convinces her to eat a poison apple. The dwarfs put Snow White’s corpse in a creepy glass coffin, and Prince Charming shows up and kisses her, breaking the spell and saving the day.
- Intended Message: Love conquers all, good triumphs over evil, etc. etc.
- Unintended Message: Sometimes people do things even when they know it might be a bad idea. But if we’re lucky/kind/beautiful enough, someone will come along and save the day!
- How it keeps us in debt: None of us are dumb. We know we shouldn’t take on debt. But deep down, I think many of us believe something will come along to save us. An inheritance, a six-figure job, a wealthy husband or wife… Even if we don’t consciously admit it, we believe it just might happen.
- Summary: Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The new king is taxing everyone’s pants off. There is an archery contest where the winner gets to kiss Maid Marian, so Robin Hood enters in disguise. He wins, he’s discovered, and there’s a huge brawl. People end up getting put in prison. Robin Hood helps them all break out, steals all the king’s gold, and marries Maid Marian.
- Intended Message: Sometimes you have to break the rules to do what’s right, especially if it involves helping people who are being treated unfairly.
- Unintended Message: We deserve to have the same things as the wealthy. So what if we have to do it in less than honest ways? It’s okay as long as everyone benefits.
- How it keeps us in debt: We grow up thinking “That’s not fair!” every time we see someone who has more than we do. We get sucked into advertising that tells us we can have all those things, too – it doesn’t matter how broke we are, because we can use convenient financing! We justify it by telling ourselves it will benefit us and/or our families in the long run.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
- Summary: Charlie’s family is totally impoverished. He wins the chance to meet his idol, candy maker Willy Wonka, who ends up being a total weirdo. During the tour of the candy factory, the other kids are brats who break the rules and nearly get themselves killed – Charlie is the only one left at the end. Except he did something dumb, too, but he’s really sorry and Willy Wonka gives him the whole factory. His family is rich, hooray!
- Intended Message: If you’re a decent person, you’ll be forgiven for your mistakes and get all kinds of cool rewards. If you’re a crappy person, your life will suck and no one will like you.
- Unintended Message: It’s okay to screw up, as long as you screw up less than the other guy.
- How it keeps us in debt: We tell ourselves that we may be borrowing money, but at least we aren’t in debt like Bob at the office or Carol down the street! It’s easy to make excuses when you compare your actions to those of others – you start thinking in terms of “it could be worse.” Many of us also think that if we do our best, everything will work out. But if you allow yourself to carry around a bunch of debt instead of saving for retirement, there won’t be an awesome candy factory waiting for you at the end of the tour.
A Christmas Carol
- Summary: Ebenezer Scrooge is an old fart who hates Christmas and hoards money. He screws his employee, Bob Cratchit, out of every dime he can despite the fact that Cratchit has all these sickly children running around. Scrooge has some trippy dreams where the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Future show him what he’s missing and how he’ll end up if he doesn’t change his ways. Scrooge freaks out and goes to celebrate Christmas with the Cratchits, who generously allow him in despite the fact that they probably secretly want to punch him in the face.
- Intended Message: Don’t be all evil and greedy or you’ll regret it later. Have a giving heart.
- Unintended Message: Life is short; better spend that money!
- How it keeps us in debt: No one wants to be a Scrooge. We spend an insane amount of money on gifts to show how generous and caring we are. We don’t just buy for our family; we buy gifts for our coworkers, our kids’ teachers, the neighbors we don’t even talk to, and even our pets! With so much pressure to give something to everyone we’ve ever met, is it any wonder we pull out the credit cards to pay for it all? We live in the moment instead of considering what the future might hold, because we’re convinced that having fun now will pay off later.
- Summary: Aladdin is this mangy vagabond who finds a lamp with a magical genie inside. He wishes to become a prince so he can make the amazing Princess Jasmine fall in love with him. The evil sorcerer, Jafar, steals the lamp and exposes Aladdin as a fraud. Oh yeah, and Jafar also makes himself ruler of the world. With the help of his friends, Aladdin saves the day and everyone forgets he wasn’t a real prince because he’s just so darn nice. He marries Jasmine and they live happily ever after.
- Intended Message: Don’t judge a book by its cover.
- Unintended Message: If you want to be accepted, you have to pretend to be something you’re not.
- How it keeps us in debt: So much of the urge to spend comes from trying to be like everyone else. Look at your credit card statements – are you using credit to buy clothing, finance vacations, and furnish your expensive home? Many people feel the need to keep up appearances even when they know they can’t afford it.
Are you living in a fairy tale world?
We’re all adults here. Of course we’re not seriously influenced by children’s stories! Or are we?
If you’re still adding to your mountain of debt, you’re absorbing messages from somewhere that tell you it’s okay to do so. I won’t say it all comes from stories and movies, but those are just examples of the way these beliefs invade every part of our lives.
The reality is, debt never leads to a happy ending. You don’t hear people on talk shows gushing about how glad they are to be in debt. We don’t go to credit counseling agencies to learn how to borrow more money. Couples don’t divorce because they were so debt-free they fought all the time.
If you want a real life lesson to share with your children, let it be the story of how you stopped believing in fairy tales and became debt free.