Money is not objective. Everyone, I read once, can reduce their emotional relationship to money with one word. For many, though fewer now, it's success. For lots of others, it's security. For many, especially in America, it's sex. Mine is independence, which sounds great except it means that when I get help of any sort I worry about what I might owe in other ways, and the mention of joint bank accounts makes me break out in a cold sweat.
On his blog, The Simple Dollar, Trent Hamm writes about his own "financial meltdown" and how he went on to mend his own personal fiscal crisis, in partnership with his wife. One important day, he looked at his infant son in his crib and realized he'd equated taking care of his child with giving him things. The epiphany was that his son needed only his love and attention, not more stuff. And the wolf was at the door, so there was that.
Hamm is very brave in relating his own experience with money. His parents lived paycheck to paycheck, and every windfall, in his experience, meant a new toy and, eventually, a television for his room. His parents, of course, were working on their own emotional desire to remedy their son's lack of material possessions, because they worried about what others thought about their ability to provide. Then there were the relatives who slipped him a twenty and asked him not to tell his parents but to "go spend it on something fun."
His takeaway? First, that extra money was for immediate gratification. And second, that getting help from anyone was shameful, but for also to be blown on something one could enjoy instantly. So, he never learned to save anything, and then, as a new father, his whole world crashed down. His story is compelling because he found a way out, and he learned some valuable lessons, the most important of which is that appearance (beyond keeping oneself extremely clean and well-groomed) is much less important than a future without financial angst. His first steps out involved taking a long, hard look at how he was spending. This is not fun at all, in my experience, when one first starts, but if you can stop beating yourself up and really look, it gets easier, because once you know what's going on you can take control.
Most money "experts" don't talk about the emotional aspects of money, at least not as the first bit of said wisdom, and so their advice on saving and investing is really lost on the vast majority of readers. How, the rest of us ask, can I possibly save when I need so many things? Don't these people know what life costs? What will the other parents at school think when my child isn't at art class or soccer or lives in that house?
Spending well is like eating well, to my mind: we simply cannot do without it, but we can determine how we deal with it. So, decide what you care about and plan ahead, and also know where your weak spots lie. (It's all hard in the world we live in.) Do the best you can, and forgive yourself for the unconsidered splurge, as long as you keep track in general. Life is really short, so enjoy it. But for most of us, it's longer than ever, so eating dessert first isn't the best course of action, at least not every day.