I don’t know about you, but when something bad happens to me, I blame myself. Every time. Without fail or hesitation.
Up until a couple of months ago, I thought the whole “what should I have done differently?” script that runs through my head whenever something goes wrong was totally normal, that all responsible people experienced this same inner monologue in troubled times. Then I started seeing a therapist, and she quickly debunked my cognitive knee-jerk response to setbacks by letting me in on an important secret: sometimes shit happens to us (yes, she said “shit”) that we have no control over. In other words, sometimes it’s not my fault.
When it comes to money, there are so many forces that shape our financial decisions and behaviors. Age. Gender. Family environment. Cultural background. Education (or lack thereof). Any of these factors can significantly impact how we handle or mishandle our finances, and the cumulative effect of all of them guarantees that pinpointing the source of our financial difficulties will be complex. Our money habits, good and bad, are built on layers and layers and layers of circumstance and experience.
With all this in mind, I find myself nagged by the question of blame. That is, when our finances go wrong, whose fault is it? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few weeks, and I’ve identified three broad “sources” of blame for financial mismanagement: our parents, our culture, and ourselves. I’ve been keeping a running mental list of who or what should be held responsible for each type of financial mistake that crosses my mind. So far, this is what I’ve got:
We can blame our parents for:
- Failing to teach us the basics of spending, saving, borrowing, and investing
- Setting a bad financial example, thereby influencing us to develop bad money habits and ideas
We can blame our culture* for:
- Glorifying consumerism and dork-ifying financial responsibility, which sends the message that to be loved and accepted, we have to spend money
- Women’s piss-poor compensation in comparison to men, because we continue to tolerate pay inequality
- Failing to treat personal finance as a subject which as important as history, English, or calculus in our public schools
- Instilling us with the totally inaccurate idea that poor people are just lazy, whiny freeloaders, thereby dissuading citizens from righteously raising holy hell about inequities in the tax code, corporate pay structures, and the disproportionate influence of powerful financial lobby groups
We can blame ourselves for:
- Failing to take advantage of available financial education resources (including the Internet)
- Not pursuing jobs, internships, or other professional growth opportunities which will advance our earning potential
- Throwing away or not paying adequate attention to bills and other financial documents
- Almost every other bad financial decision we make once we are over the age of 25
I’ve been reticent to write this post up for a few weeks now, mostly because I was afraid it might read, on one end of the spectrum, as shaming (“you dumbass, how could you throw a bill away!”) or, on the other end of the spectrum, as a free pass to bad financial behavior (“see, there’s no way I could possibly know anything about money – my parents didn’t teach me!”). Please don’t misunderstand – I’m not trying to shame “bad” financial behaviors or issue any free passes to financial recklessness. I’m just trying to peel back the layers – understanding who’s responsible for our financial actions is an important step in correcting unhealthy patterns and setting us on a path to empowered money behaviors. But make no mistake: ultimately, I think that anyone’s financial cards can be re-dealt. Our parents, our culture, and our past mistakes are not our financial destiny. And let’s face it: if you’re self-aware enough to be reading a personal finance blog, you probably believe the same thing, no matter who you try to blame for your money woes.
What do you think? Did I leave anything big out? Should any of the financial behaviors or ideas above be shuffled into a different category? Is there anyone or anything to blame besides our parents, our culture or ourselves for our financial mess ups? Let’s hear it: who’s to blame for YOUR bad financial behaviors?
* When I refer to “our culture” in this post, I’m referring to American culture