Your Debt Is Not Your Fault: Six Financial Lessons No One Taught You

by Tim Arendse on December 10

Shopping gallery

“We’re just going to go look.” That’s what my wife and I said as we walked into Best Buy and bought our first big-screen TV. That finished off our line of credit, putting us at $20,000 in debt.

‘It’s Christmas’, I thought, as I put a $2500 iMac on my Visa, only a few months later.

“WHAT HAPPENED!”, my wife and I demanded from each other, when we realized that for the first time in our seven year relationship, we were broke. With nothing left on the line of credit and a hefty bill, the party was finally over. It was time to change.

My journey out of debt was pretty standard. I read books and practiced the techniques. It took three years of sustained effort and numerous screw-ups. One day, I made the last payment and it was over. Besides my wife and me, no one cared. The bank didn’t call to congratulate us on paying off our debt. Suze Orman didn’t send me a letter. Just as the descent into debt had been quiet, so was the victory.

I used to consider myself (and others like me) a fool for getting into debt. But here’s the biggest lesson I learned from getting out of debt: the deck is stacked firmly against you.

You probably didn’t get a proper education about how to handle your money in school. You grew up with insidious advertising. Chances are that your parents were voracious consumers themselves.

By the time we reach adulthood, our financial education consists of what we’ve seen other people doing and whatever messages we receive from the media. In other words, you’re probably screwed.

There’s a stigma around people going into debt or otherwise not being able to handle their money. We don’t talk about it. We don’t share what’s working for us. We don’t accept other people’s advice. Why? Because you should know how to handle your money.

Blaming people for not knowing how to handle their money is like calling a mouse stupid for eating cheese off of a trap. There will always be some mice who are wary enough to stay away but most are going to fall for it.

It’s not your fault that you make bad money decisions. The system is rigged against you. If you think that sounds like a conspiracy, I bet I can change your mind. Here are six truths about money that will save your finances:

  1. The World is Built for you to Spend

     

    Advertising is big business. According to eMarketer, the world’s advertisers are on track to spend nearly $600 billion dollars in 2015. That’s nearly $600 billion dollars spent on trying to part you with your money. Do not underestimate how brilliant these marketers and sales people are, and how heavily they rely on psychology.

    Renowned psychologist and author Robert Cialdini has written about the six principles of influence in his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The book is a salesperson’s bible and a frugal person’s weapon of choice. Once you read it, you will feel like you’ve been living in a dark room your whole life, and someone just turned on the lights.

    The gist of the book is this: there’s a handful of psychological cues that we are likely to react to. These cues work well enough that they’ve worked their way into modern sales tactics.

    Here’s an example from my own life:

    Shortly after reading this book, my wife and I were considering a new vehicle. We went into a dealership, just to look, and came across the new Toyota Venza. The sales person told us how he’d sold many of them already, mostly to couples just heading into retirement and young married couples. People just like us (social proof)!

    When we said we would sleep on the deal he was offering, the sales person told us that if we walk away from this deal, we might not be able to find a Venza for a long, long time (scarcity).

    So let’s think about that for a second… The sales person was basically saying that there were no other available Toyota Venzas within a reasonable distance. They were flying off the lot at a rate so unprecedented, that my wife and I would be foolish NOT to buy one now. We may never get the chance again.

    Anyone else remember the great Venza shortage of 2009? Me neither. It never happened. I drove past a Toyota dealership nearly every day, and a healthy population of Toyota Venzas sat on the lot for months.

    I’m ashamed to say that we almost bought a new car that day. That is how well these tactics work. Every major company, from the department store with sales people wandering the floor to your local Walmart, is built to extract the maximum amount of dollars from you. There are no accidents.

  2. Companies Love Recurring Payments

     

    Whether it’s a payment plan or a membership, recurring payments are NOT for your convenience and are something you want to keep to a minimum.Of course, car dealerships are the place to go if you want to see this in action. You walk onto the lot and notice that the vehicle you thought was expensive is a mere $200/biweekly. “That’s not so bad… I can afford that!”. You sign a fat contract and now you’re roped into paying $200 biweekly (plus the taxes and extended warranty you didn’t take into account), for the next EIGHT years. You now owe $40,000 on a vehicle that will lose most of its value by the time you pay it off. Did you think that through?

    Recurring payments also come in the form of subscriptions. Cell phone plans, cable, and Netflix (albeit a really good deal) are all examples of subscriptions. Subscriptions quickly become part of the background in your life, which is exactly why they can become problematic.

    It happens embarrassingly often that I’m going through my credit card and I find charges for subscriptions that I haven’t used in months.

  3. The More You Have Available, The More You Will Spend

     

    “That’s not me, Tim! I have SELF-CONTROL!”. Cool story, bro, but let’s just go ahead and assume what I just said is true.When I finally woke up from my years-long shopping spree, one of the first things I did was lower the limit on my credit card from $7500 to $1200. Every few months, the bank sends me a letter, exclaiming how I’m approved for a higher credit limit. I always give those letters the same treatment: the paper shredder.

    Why not take the higher limit?

    Think about it: if I gave you $1000 and told you that you have to survive for one week, how carefully would you watch your money? Would you turn down a Friday night with your friends? Would you splurge once in a while? Unless you’re living in a very expensive area, $1000 is a lot of money for a week’s expenses.

    What if I gave you $100 and you still had to survive the week? All of a sudden, things are looking a lot different. That nutritional abomination from Arby’s just cost you 10% of your money. A Friday night out with your friends just turned into a box of wine and a game of cards, all expenses shared.

  4. Credit Information is Not Stored For Your Convenience

     

    Here’s a fun exercise: remove your credit card information from all online outlets (Paypal, Amazon, ect.) and keep it offline for the next six months. Sound inconvenient? Sure. But how much less do you think you’re going to purchase?Whenever my spending goes off the rails, this is one of the first things I do. I delete all my info and make spending online a rocky, inconvenient road. The prospect of having to take out my wallet and reenter my credit card information has deterred a lot of impulse spending.

    Think about it from the store’s perspective: they want to turn your desire to a sale as quickly as possible. Just like the car salesman who did everything he could to make a deal that day, Amazon knows that when I click off, I’m probably gone.

    They save things in my cart, suggest I get myself a little something based on previous browsing experience, and keep putting my Wish List in my face. None of that is as effective as simply getting a quick sale.

    My rule of thumb is that if it’s good for online retailers, it’s probably bad for me. If I really want something, surely I can take the time to enter my information. If that simple barrier is enough to deter me, how badly did I need it?

  5. Be selective about which advertising you receive

     

    I’m a cheap bastard who shops the flyers. I specifically seek out the mailing list of local grocers and sign on. Once a week, I look for certain items and if their prices meet my frugal expectations, I stock up. For staples, this works great.Where I fail is on entertainment sales. I’m a gamer, movie buff, and life-long reader, so places like Steam, Amazon, and Audible have me over a barrel when they put on sales.

    Companies do this because it works. I used to sell on eBay and whenever I sent out a newsletter, the sales would roll in. It was absolutely amazing. I highly doubt anyone was itching to spend five minutes before my e-mail but they were instantly sucked in by my offers.

    Don’t be a chump. Unsubscribe from mailing lists where you’re prone to spend. As my brother likes to say, “Unless you’re looking for something specific, don’t look at all.”

    As an aside, there is a good site for tracking Amazon prices called camelcamelcamel.com. It’s a price tracker where you enter the price you’re looking for, your e-mail, and it will notify you when the price is ripe for the picking. It also graphs the price history, giving you an idea of how often the item goes for sale.

    It works very, very well, but once again, don’t populate it with unnecessary crap.

 

  1. Debt is not a good place to be

     

    Debt and spending on credit is so common nowadays that it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. People casually talk about “working on their debt”, like it’s totally normal and expected to have spent more than all of your money.Debt is not a good place to be, and you should not be okay with it. There’s only one way to get into debt: credit, and companies love that shit.

    One of the best examples I’ve ever experienced is when my old roommate happily walked into our living room and announced that despite having $0.53 in his bank account (yes, 53 pennies), he’d walked out of Best Buy with a $4000 laptop. As expected, the payments were a big problem a year later.

    Repeat after me: companies do not care if your decision is responsible; they care that you buy today. That is their goal. Their prime directive. Make a sale now because if you walk out, you’re probably gone forever.

    Debt is a sign that the party didn’t stop when it should have. Credit is the friend who pressured you into keeping it going but doesn’t take any responsibly for the damage.

 

Ultimately, money management is your responsibility. But unless you’ve taken some serious time to understand the capitalistic society we live in, you’re probably going to run into some problems.

You may have heard of bazaars in some countries where vendors will yell at you to come to their shop and buy. They’ll insult you, make you feel guilty, single you out… many people find it comedic. Being brash works for them, so they keep doing it.

The west also has a system that works: the smoothest shopping experience possible. Most of the time, you don’t realize you’re being sold. That is not an accident; that is a product of engineering.

If you’re drowning in debt right now, take a good look at the system that got you into debt. Who does it benefit? You or the companies? Credit gets you instant gratification, but does that actually benefit you?

Remember, companies want to make money. Don’t fall victim to their crap.

 

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Tim Arendse

When he’s not playing with his kids, Tim is finding new ways to make his life more efficient. He likes to draw inspiration from unlikely sources, like Minecraft, and is willing to explore almost any paradigm if he thinks there’s something to learn. He also hates bananas, loves candy, and holds strong opinions about the best brand of beer.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Peggy December 10, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Tim, this stuff is brilliant and new to me and spot on. I owe no debt (house – nada) but still could use this information. Advertising #5 was very helpful. I need to boost my retirement savings. Thanks for sharing.

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Tim Arendse December 10, 2015 at 2:56 pm

Thanks, Peggy!

I’m glad you found it helpful. Personal finance became a bit of a hobby for me after I killed off my debt. I treat saving money like a sport and I really enjoy it.

Mr. Money Mustache is very worth checking out as well 😀

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Karin December 10, 2015 at 5:45 pm

Excellent article, Tim, and a good reminder to stay aware!

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Tim Arendse December 11, 2015 at 11:50 am

Thanks Karin!

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Prateek December 11, 2015 at 8:50 am

Reading this has been very helpful, Time. You were spot on. I also think
One of the other reasons of spending is peer pressure . if my friend has the latest gadjet, car, earphones, etc I need to have the same, if not more. This articles of yours has been a eye opener in that regard. Thank you.

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Tim Arendse December 11, 2015 at 11:50 am

Absolutely, Prateek. It’s pretty hard to resist when the people in your social circle are big spenders. I’m 32 and I still have this problem, haha.

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Prateek December 11, 2015 at 8:53 am

Damn, autocorrect, I meant Tim.

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Eben December 11, 2015 at 11:38 am

Great article, lots of insight. Great ideas about not falling a victim to the advertisers. Love it!

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Chysom December 12, 2015 at 10:48 pm

If only I read this 10 years ago…I would have ignored it of course, but at least then I would have had a better idea of who exactly to be blaming…other than myself of course. It flows nicely Tim, good job man.

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Tim Arendse December 13, 2015 at 3:29 pm

Thanks Chysom! Do I need to write a follow up on how to get out of debt?

Gotta fire up that Wii U one of these weekends.

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Irene December 16, 2015 at 2:54 am

Hey Tim,
This was a great read I must say.

One one hand encouraging and the other very enlightening. Please do write about how you got out of debt. I would love to copy paste.

Regards,
Irene

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Shelley December 26, 2015 at 4:45 pm

I appreciate this post, Tim. While I was trying to figure out psychological reasons why I got into debt and got stuck at certain income levels, I realized an important point that nobody ever seems to talk about, which is something you said here: “You probably didn’t get a proper education about how to handle your money in school.” Absolutely not. And I didn’t get a proper education about it from my parents either. They were very much anti-credit, but they never taught me why. I learned about the value of saving money but never got any pretend-practice with what credit does to the bank account. My high school offered a consumer math course but didn’t require it. They should have.

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Leolin December 28, 2015 at 4:30 pm

#1 is so true. Stores like Target must pay a pretty penny to whoever designs their stores because it seems as though products just jump into my cart whenever I go there. I have to literally tell myself “You only need_____” so that I come out with only what I need.

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