Sunday, February 6, 2022

Denial - Part of Human Nature?

People live in denial up until the very last minute.  But not all people!

When I met Mr. See, I though the had his shit together more than I did.  After all, he had a new car, a nice apartment - which was nicely decorated and clean - and decent furniture.  But when I moved in, I realized that some of this was a facade.

I went to get a bath towel one day and a $20 bill fell out of it.  "What's this?" I asked.  "Oh, when I get paid, I hide money around the apartment so I don't spend it all.  If I need money later on, I go on a treasure hunt to find it!"

This was the most insane thing I ever heard in my life.

Yet, a lot of people do this.  I had a great uncle who used to hide money in book (at page 99) or in old overcoats in closets.  When he died, his heirs swooped in and dove through his possessions, looking for that cash, letting out a whoop! whenever they found a $100 bill in an old jacket or pocket.

So I guess it is a "thing" but a stupid thing, on two counts.  First, it is like the guy who buries money in a coffee can in his back yard - you can lose that money if you forget where you buried it or someone sees you burying it and steals it from you.  Second, that money could be doing better things for you in the bank than under a mattress.

By default, I was put in charge of our finances, which was a case of the blind leading the blind.  I wasn't putting $20 bills in the towels, at least.  And I later discovered - to my horror - that Mark had not paid his car insurance (!!).   Sadly, he has become dependent on me balancing the books and figuring out financial things - even though he has an intuitive financial savvy.  He can spot financial shenanigans (such as that State Farm Agent proposed!) a mile way.  But I do worry that if I keeled over tomorrow, he would revert to hoarding money in the towels again.

I tried, at one time, to get him to balance the books on a regular basis, but he just flipped out over it. Worse yet, when it didn't balance out properly, he would click on "balance adjust" in Quickbooks (which should never, ever be used!) to make it come out even.  It took me a week to unravel that.

I blame his schooling for that. He was never a whiz at math, only because he felt that unless he gave the "right answer" to a math question, he would be laughed at.  Sadly, many math teachers, particularly in Elementary School, subscribe to this notion, as they themselves really don't understand mathematics - they just have the "teacher's edition" of the math text book with the answer key.  So when I ask Mark how much something cost, he says "I don't know" instead of "about thirty bucks" because it was beaten into his head, at an early age, that the correct answer was $29.99 plus tax and there are no other answers that are of any use.

But in finances, it really helps if you can envision numbers and estimate and round-off, as it allows you to see the big picture.  My fourth grade teacher thought that the "big picture" of mathematics was rote memorization of the multiplication tables.  Hell, even Jethro can do cipherin'.

But I digress....

It struck me, though, that Mark was living in denial about his finances when I met him.  It wasn't that he couldn't live on his income, but that he didn't want to be bothered thinking about whether he could afford this or that.  He spent - like we all tend to do - based on what he saw other people spending.  Problem is, those other people were making a lot more money than we were.

The "hiding money" thing was an attempt to limit spending.  If his friends from work asked him to go out to dinner or drinks, he could look in his wallet and say, "Uh, not tonight, guys!"   This was in the days before everyone had credit cards, believe it or not.

And yes, I did this too, in a manner of speaking, by squirreling away money into different accounts, so I would not be tempted to spend.  When I was younger, a dollar in my checking account was a dollar to be spent and most of it got spent on junk I really didn't need, in retrospect. I tired not to carry money in my wallet (back in the days when we paid cash for everything - credit cards were for airline tickets!) so that it would act as a limit to my spending.  In a way, it was like an alcoholic hiding booze or a smoker trying to stop smoking by not buying cigarettes but instead just borrowing them from other people.

As I got older, I consolidated a lot of my squirreled accounts. Funny thing, at my age, the idea of spending money fills me with dread.  I don't want to lose my financial security, and I realize now, that it can go away at any moment, particularly if I spend it.  When I was young, spending money was like 'Yahoo!" fun, but today it is like death itself.

Thanks to a roaring stock market (Companies are making record profits in a pandemic, but cannot afford to give anyone raises, even as inflation tops 7%!) and a goofy real estate market, our net worth continues to climb.  We made more money on our mutual funds than we spent last year - and the year before that.  The "bottomless purse" effect at last!  But I don't expect it to last - I still remember 2008 when everything tanked by 30% or more, sometimes a lot more (like 100%!).  But we're prepared for that contingency as well - because we spend so little.  Inflation is the one bugaboo that is hard to hedge against - and most things offered as "hedges against inflation" are just bogus come-ons.

But again, I digress.  Or maybe not?  A lot of people are enjoying the great returns on investment right now - and assuming they will go on forever.  Living in denial, again.

But getting back to personal finances...

Funny story - the first time I went to Japan, my boss told me to put the airplane ticket on my credit card and the firm would reimburse me before the payment was due.  He was shocked when I told him I didn't have a credit card.  I had to go out and get one.  Back then (the 1980's) you didn't need a credit card to get by, and indeed, few places outside of major retail stores and larger restaurants, took them.  Paying by credit card at McDonald's - or the convenience store?  Unheard of!  And no, they didn't have credit card swipe machines at the gas pumps back then.  It was not so long ago.

One reason I didn't have a credit card is that I knew it would get me into trouble - spending more money than I had.  I remember I had a Sears card when I was 21 and I spent a year paying off a set of tires for my car.  I didn't want to fall into that trap again!  So my not having a credit card was my way of stashing money in towels or old coats, I guess.

We all live in denial - denial of our most basic impulses.  I have friends who will drive 20 miles to the "upscale" grocery store to buy food - at 50% or more than what Walmart "Ghetto Gourmet" would charge.  It is funny, but at one time, I too fell into that trap - thinking that people of "my caliber" shopped at the upscale grocery store and never looked at prices - much less wrote down a shopping list! 

I stopped doing that.  And I stopped living in denial - or at least tried to do it a lot less (alas, it seems to be part of our primitive programming).   Maybe this isn't so much a matter of self-control but basic survival after a while.  When we are young, we figure there will always be more money, another paycheck, and a chance to recover from financial setbacks.  When you are older, you realize the amount of money you earn in a lifetime is a finite number - and one that is fairly easy to calculate.

When we realize that, it is harder to live in denial.