It’s difficult to get into this topic without sounding too much like a motivational speaker. I am strongly averse to most motivational training. Here’s my problem: Motivational training, in the corporate world, encourages teamwork — good — but often at the expense of personal identity and independent thinking — bad.
The nuances are subtle, though; task and project efficiency and the drive for overachieving become perceived as positive personality traits through motivational development, but these are traits that have no purpose for individuals unless they are in charge of their own business destiny. Working for a company, for an entity you have no personal connection with and a boss whose own success is irrelevant to you, the only beneficiary of efficiency and extra effort is the company. You may be told you’ll be rewarded “later” for exhibiting these attributes over and above colleagues who don’t “get with the program,” but that future reward, for most, never comes.
Motivational speakers often talk about overcoming psychological barriers. If the speaker’s purpose is to motivate directly and to provide tools for self-motivation, then he or she must address what typically prevents someone from taking the first step towards a goal or dream. The good thing about these barriers is that they are mental constructs — the exist solely in the mind. Thus, all it takes is changing one’s mind to overcome any psychological barrier.
People hold firmly onto limiting beliefs — these psychological barriers — that may be wrong. Why? It’s natural to protect oneself from failure, if failure is seen as a negative outcome. Limiting beliefs protect people from failure.
An excellent article by James M. Olson, PhD, published in the Canadian Family Physician, looks at psychological barriers as they prevent personal behavioral change pertaining to healthier lifestyles. The concepts form an excellent basis for financial change, as well. The psychological barriers are broken down into three categories: barriers to admission of a problem, barriers to initial steps, and barriers to long-term change.
In personal finance, coming to terms with the existence of a money problem can be difficult, but admission is essential before anything else.
These are the barriers:
Denial or trivialization
The consequences of bad financial choices aren’t so bad, right? The news media publish stories all the time about people who get into financial difficulties, are bailed out by someone else — could be the taxpayers — and they go on living their lives. It makes it easy to say, “I don’t need to worry about losing my house. Other people are fine when they stop paying their monthly mortgage, according to an anecdote in today’s newspaper.”
Perhaps the media do show someone else’s negative consequences. Here’s a common thought process: John learns about Mary who had to declare bankruptcy (and thus couldn’t buy a house when she wanted) after being faced with a surprise medical bill without insurance. John doesn’t have medical insurance, either, and because he has the same risk as Mary, he comforts himself by accepting the belief that he would probably not be faced with a surprise medical bill, and therefore does not need to worry.
This psychological barrier overlaps with the previous example. A smoker might intellectually understand that the habit causes lung cancer, but to protect itself from the cognitive dissonance that arises from trying to understand why he continues to smoke with this knowledge, he allows himself to feel that the worst won’t happen to him.
If someone punches you in the stomach, you feel pain right away. If you habitually spend more than you can afford with your credit card, you won’t feel the pain until much later. This delayed effect makes it easier to feel like no harm will come. You would probably avoid getting punched in the stomach repeatedly because you know the pain is immediate and will compound with each blow. But increasing your debt load doesn’t hurt physically, and it’s easy to ignore the damage by refusing to calculate your net worth each month.
Misconceptions about how aspects of personal finance works can prevent someone from recognizing a problem. One of the most glaring misconceptions comes from advertisements. Television, radio, online, and print advertisements often name loan interest rates. It’s popular with mortgages and auto loans. “Visit your local dealer today for 0% APR financing on a beautiful new car!” Mortgage interest rates are low, we hear, so combined with low prices, it might be a good time to buy a house.
Maybe. But only a small percentage of customers qualify for those low rates. If you go into a situation with the conception that you will automatically get a great deal, you’ll likely be spending much more money than you expected over the long term.
In the same respect, consumers tend to be conditioned to believe that financial salespeople are obligated to do what’s in their customers’ best interest. We trust the broker when we go to the bank to invest money. We trust websites that provide stock trading advice and analysis. The truth is there are few salespeople that have any motivation other than their own self-interest. Even the concept of a fiduciary standard, where some advisers are members of organizations or have certifications that require them to supply advice towards the customer’s best interest only, is not a perfect guarantee that the advice will be good. Everyone is selling something, and the belief that we can trust salespeople is a naive misconception that could have expensive consequences.
On the other end of the spectrum from denial, there’s the possibility of becoming so overwhelmed about the existence of a problem that it becomes too emotionally painful to accept. Dr. Olson’s article offers the example of a patient who refuses to undergo a test for a disease because the consequences of having that disease are life-threatening.
Is there an analogy in personal finance? I think so. Turn back the clock to 2000, and pretend your net worth is fully invested in technology stocks. You hear the news about the tech crash, and you don’t want to open your statement. Thanks to your lack of diversity and safe asset allocation, you are afraid to see the damage.
Perhaps you and your spouse are not getting along well, and your significant other decides to go on a spending spree to spite you. Will you open that credit card bill? Or perhaps a divorce is in the works and your partner is taking whatever steps necessary to ensure you’ll end up on the financially losing end of the deal. While there’s not a lot of situations that could be considered life-threatening, being overwhelmed with emotions or being frightened of an outcome can prevent you from even knowing if you have a problem.
Overcoming barriers to admitting you have a financial problem
- Nothing is permanent. People have the capacity to deal with problems, and they have the efficacy to be able to move in a better direction.
- Financial education helps. Where misconceptions abound, education can go a long way to help people feel more comfortable about their situation. Education isn’t much of a motivation for change — and I’ve written often about the studies that show the traditional approach to financial education is ineffective, but one-on-one guidance with a specific problem can help alleviate misconceptions.
- The negative effects of ignoring the situation are worse than the situation itself. This brings me back to the problem I had with multiple speeding tickets. I couldn’t afford the fees, so I just ignored the various tickets I received. And I thought I received them unfairly, that my car was just a police magnet. But I ended up in much more trouble — financially and legally — when I just ignored the warnings.
In a future article, I’ll address psychological barriers to making the first steps towards change and to being successful with long-term change.
Published or updated April 3, 2013.