The Fault Lines in Our Financial Self Image

The Fault Lines in Our Financial Self Image

It wasn’t all that long ago that popular radio stations in my hometown were regularly airing a commercial that never failed to make me guffaw.

The ad was for some debt-elimination service that promised to extricate its clients from a slag heap of bills. As I recall, the reassuring voiceover went something like this: “Okay, so you bought more home than you could afford, you loaded up your credit cards with high-priced purchases, and now you can’t afford to pay your mortgage or credit card bill. Sure, it’s a serious problem. But it’s not your fault!”

It was those last four words that invariably had me doubled over in mirth. If you were to believe the ad’s message, you had to assume debt-ridden listeners were helpless to battle forces beyond their control, which insidiously schemed in diabolical, unseen ways to ensure they’d spend a lot more money than they earned.

The ad ran for weeks, months, perhaps even a year or more, a sure sign it was resonating with listeners and getting results for the advertiser.

It played to the apparently widely-held belief among American consumers that even if they show the budgetary restraint of a baboon, they bear no culpability when they find their bank accounts empty, their cars repossessed, and their belongings out on the front yard of the home their mortgage provider has just snatched back.

Let’s see, if I’m not mistaken, this could be why – according to a recent USA Today article reporting the findings of a University of Michigan survey – no more than 14.6 percent of American households have savings of $50, 000 or more, and almost a quarter possess no savings at all. The same report chronicled the finding that one-fifth of American families owe more on credit cards, medical bills, student debt and other unsecured debt than they have in savings.

Apparently, the vast majority of those U.S. households have not fully absorbed the message that if you don’t have enough to afford a McMansion, a fully-equipped Lexus, Infiniti, BMW or Mercedes, a two-week vacation in Aruba and/or a 26-foot pleasure craft for weekend boating excursions, you simply do without these pricey acquisitions until your income and savings catch up. And that even if your consumer spending goals are much less ostentatious, you should show similar self-control.

Hall of shame

The ads proclaiming “it’s not your fault!” are among my candidates for first-ballot enshrinement in one particular Advertising Hall of Shame. That’s the repository of advertising spots that most effectively promote personal financial irresponsibility. It’s the hall that celebrates ads prompting their audiences into frenzied quests to spring for purchases they should never even consider.

But the “it’s not your fault” ads are hardly alone. Another one that I love is the one for a vacation travel company, in which consumers are informed they should immediately start planning a beach holiday in a glittering capital of sun, fun, sand and umbrella drinks. Why? “Because you deserve it!” the ads trumpet.

Surely, there are some in the audience who do deserve it. They’ve busted their tails, worked weekends and overtime, scrimped and saved, squirreled away cash in jars, all with the dream that when they have enough that they won’t go into debt to do so, they will jet away to their long-planned fantasy vacation.

The undeserving

Just as certainly, there are also many whose debt burden is so punishing that the only way they’re going to get out of their funk is by taking on more debt for a vacation. Rather than telling prospective customers that they deserve it, the vacation travel company would be more truthful to simply say the following.

“Do you have a steadily-mounting pile of bills you can’t even force yourself to glance at? A week of sun-drenched days on a beach overlooking the azure Caribbean, followed by nights of dancing till dawn in sizzling nightclubs, could be your antidote.

Are bill collectors harassing you with constant calls? Getting away for a seven-day, six-night jaunt to Europe’s great capitals could be a way to at least temporarily evade these persistent pests.

Is your mortgage provider breathing down your neck demanding the last half year of monthly payments you’ve missed? A couple weeks in Waikiki should distance you from these nagging issues.”

Irony rules

Here’s the irony… I suspect those exceptionally responsible folks who saved all they needed and more for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation just might be the very people most likely to question whether they truly deserve the getaway.

And yes, the folks who’d put off all personal financial responsibility might be most inclined to delude themselves with the thought that, “Yeah, it’s been really tough dealing with this huge debt of mine. I really am owed a nice break from all this stress.”

So for those finding it tough to dig out from all the debt accumulated through unwise spending and general irresponsibility, the best first step on the road to debt-free status might be to look yourself in the mirror and say, “It’s my fault.”

Harsh? Yes. But you deserve it.

4 Responses to “The Fault Lines in Our Financial Self Image”

  1. Anonymous

    DISCLAIMER: Being unemployed sucks! I spent 9 months without a actual full time job in the recession of 1992. I was young and did not have a family, so many are in a much worse position than I was in then. HOWEVER, it was one of the best things that happen to me financially. Sure, I match a statistic that I will not earn as much as those who did not entering the work force in a time of recession, maybe because I less aggressive seeking compensation, but I also have savings and lifestyle that is less aggressive spending. I am not invulnerable to economic cycles but far better protected because of that time.

    I think those ads are a symptom of maybe too much prosperity, to the point where folks decoupled the cause and affect of money, work and time. still, I have a lot of hope. The recession after the housing bubble burst was bad enough, the stagflation we currently are in after that recession in our own ‘lost decade’ just might be enough to change habits and attitudes of Americans. My parents were born in early 1930’s, into the Great Depression, so while they were not active in the economy, they were affected. They were life long savers, who were also very debt shy (who, also, late in life took many trips around the world, after we kids were out of the house).

    As I said, I have a lot of hope for our nation. I think overall we’re strong enough to weather this storm, but our own ‘lost decade’ will bring these lessons home and across generations who lived through it. We just might see patience and personal responsibility return in attitudes towards money.

  2. Anonymous

    Nickel, all the well intentioned talks about personal responsibility are very well & fine, but the reality is that the reality & what is perceived as reality is determined by the majority. And when that majority becomes so super predominant & the minority shrinks to such a level as to be viewed suspiciously by everyone else………then those ads you’re talking about will become commonplace. I’m not a doom & gloom guy, but if you look you can see signs out that some severe wealth transfer is a real possibility within the next decade here in the US. In that scenario only a fool will admit to being part of the 1% or the 14.6%. Of course that 14.6 number would be a lot lower by then. 🙂

  3. Anonymous

    I was at Macy’s tonight and the guy on the overhead promoting a sale said, “so the more you buy the more you save in the shoe department!” I think he captured the mindset of most spenders. Why is it that people think they are saving money when they spend it? This is American consumers biggest misunderstanding if you ask me.

  4. Anonymous

    At some point, spending habits in America switched from “what you can afford” to “what you deserve”. One is a question of means, the other of morals. Everyone feels like they deserve the best. The key is to get back to the “what you can afford” mindset. Financial institutions have responsibility in this too, since they’ve been selling the “living on credit” lifestyle for decades.

    Great post!

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