The difference between financial independence and a life of financial frustration comes down to attitude. The way you approach all aspects of your life, not just money, has a significant effect on your long-term financial growth. Personal philosophies dictate how you act and how you react to any situation you face.
It’s worth the time to take a look at your personal philosophies to determine how they are helping or hurting you. Think about how you view the world and your place within it. Consider the relationships you have with people and the way you make sense of situations.
I didn’t think about this much until I had a boss who encouraged me to take a look at how my own thoughts were preventing me from succeeding. Never being a fan of motivational nonsense, I wasn’t always willing to listen. This was more about delivery than it was about the message itself; once I was ready to accept some criticism of myself, much later, I understood more about what he was trying to communicate.
When I was younger, I tended to look for external reasons when any situation did not work out in my favor. I attributed bad results to things outside my control. For example, if I was late to the office, it was because traffic was worse than I expected. If I was going deeper into debt, it was because I wasn’t getting paid enough by my employer to cover my basic necessities in addition to my costs to transport myself to the office every day. My approach to life required me to believe that many of the bad things that happened to me were brought on by external events, things which I could not control.
Eventually, I came to realize that I had much more control over my life. I learned to accept every moment as a choice, and that I had no one to blame for any bad circumstances but myself. While there are certainly situations that are affected by uncontrollable external forces, but these make up a very small percent of the factors that affect my life.
While I wasn’t familiar with the psychology behind my approach to life at the time, I was shifting attribution. As I’ve read more about attribution theory in the years since the time I started changing my approach, I’ve come to see how the experts have clearly defined the effects of life philosophies pertaining to attribution.
If you do well on a test in school, you can attribute your success to a number of factors. If you perceive your success is due to your effort or your skills, you are likely to have an internal locus of control — you believe that this positive result is the effect of something inside yourself. If you attribute your successful results on luck or ease of the test, your locus of control is external.
It’s a natural defense mechanism to want to differentiate this locus of control based on the outcome. It’s not uncommon, particularly for managers of people to see this among employees who do self-evaluations, for people to focus on external forces when asked about poor results and on internal forces when asked about favorable results.
The feeling that bad situations are the result of bad luck, difficulty, or an external event more specific can make it more difficult to succeed financially over the long term. If you don’t believe the choices you make every day can have a positive effect in your life, there’s no incentive for making better choices. Blaming ourselves for our bad circumstances requires admitting that we’ve made bad choices. Most people want to feel good about the choices they’ve made, so there is natural resistance to accepting responsibility.
I’ve heard these external attributions — and in some cases, the one having these thoughts at some point might have been me.
I can’t get a job because the economy is bad. With companies laying off employees during the recession, this is something I heard frequently over the past few years. The media perpetuate the story that people are having a difficult time staying in their current jobs or finding new ones, and this helps those in the same situation feel like they’re going through a tough situation with many other people.
There’s camaraderie in the unemployed. And that makes it easy to accept that you won’t succeed until the economy improves — you’re just waiting for the statistics like the unemployment figures to be more in your favor. Once companies start hiring again, once consumer confidence increases, once the public wants to buy products again, you’ll have more options.
The best way for most people to reach financial independence over the course of their lives is to be employed at all times. You can’t wait around for the economy to improve. You need to adjust if your particular skills aren’t needed in today’s market. Being able to adapt is one of the biggest factors in your measurement of your human capital, because it means you can meet adversity with the type of thinking needed to survive.
A factory worker can lament the loss of jobs with outsourcing or computerization and blame the government for unfavorable policies or blame corporations for looking to save money. He will do much better for himself if he accepts the fact that the skills he has do not meet the needs of an economy that relies more on technology and has more access to distant locations where a family’s financial needs are not as cumbersome as they are in this country.
The quicker he concludes that he needs to adapt to a changing world, the sooner he can take responsibility for his future and maintain a healthy income that grows into wealth.
I keep getting charged fees by my bank, and it’s due to their policies.
No matter your bank, read the fine print around overdrafts, choose the best possible bank, and save your money so your balance isn’t dangerously close to zero.
I’m in debt because of a financial emergency. Getting struck as a pedestrian by a moving vehicle is one of the worst things that can happen to someone. Hospital bills for major accidents are one of the biggest causes of financial devastation. Losing a job, helping a family member with her own emergency, and going through a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy are other reasons — besides compulsive shopping — that people fall into debt without a mechanism in place to get out.
While emergencies can never be fully avoided, you can be prepared. You can avoid risk by living somewhere that is not prone to weather-based devastation, though that doesn’t limit the possibility completely. You need to have the appropriate level of insurance. That includes automobile, life, health, hurricane, earthquake, flood, disability, long-term care — and enough to cover whatever you might not be able to pay for yourself. You need to have an emergency fund of the appropriate size. With these tools, you can face financial emergencies without jeopardizing your future.
I lost money on my investments. This is one of those cases where people love to look for external reasons for their failure rather their own lack of skill or ability in picking an investment. I’ve seen people absolutely convinced that no real estate purchase is a bad idea significantly overpay for their house and then need to take a significant loss when they needed to sell in the middle of the recession. I’ve purchased stocks I thought would perform well in the short-term, only to find they did not provide the returns I was hoping for.
The list of possible blame recipients is long when it comes to investments gone bad, and here are just a few:
- The market crashed, so it’s just a matter of bad timing or bad luck.
- The company’s marketing — or even lying — persuaded me to make a bad investment.
- I was fooled by Bernie Madoff or some other swindler, who promised great returns amid a tough economy.
- The company’s CEO was involved in a scandal that destroyed the stock’s value.
External forces certainly play a role, but every one of these reasons can easily be turned around to show the investor was at fault. You can’t time the market, so invest for the long-term or put your money in an investment or savings vehicle much less volatile. Don’t trust marketing. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Ask questions if you have concerns. Diversify so you’re not significantly affected by the actions of one person or one company.
That’s just the beginning in terms of taking responsibility for bad investments.
Once you come to the conclusion that the choices you make have a direct effect on your finances, you’ll be in a much better position for building long-term wealth. If only external forces were to have control over our lives, no one would be able to consistently build wealth or the life they want. Give yourself a chance by recognizing the effect your choices have on your success and failure. The correlation might not always be perfectly clear, but accepting responsibility for outcomes that don’t go your way is the first step towards ridding yourself of toxic financial attitudes that prevent you from achieving your potential level of wealth (and separately, life satisfaction).
The idea that “nothing bad is my fault” is the first of several negative attitudes I plan to consider over the next few weeks. How do you accept responsibility or place blame for the less-than-optimal financial situations in your life?
Updated December 28, 2015 and originally published November 29, 2012.