Ch 25: Helping Locally and Globally

Can I Convince My Client To Shift Her Spending?

I read your book. It is a great resource. As a legal aid attorney whose focus is bankruptcy and foreclosure, I am wondering if you have any further advice you might be willing to offer on how to deal with expenses which clients perceive as necessities, but which are actually causing their financial ruin? Cable, expensive car payments and/or rent-to-own instalment contracts are the usual culprits. Obviously I can’t make these decisions for them, but any strategy to illuminate how these things are hurting them would be appreciated. Thank you for writing a book which will clearly help innumerable people.

Thank you so much for your letter, Mathias, and for your kind and encouraging words about my book!

Your question reflects what I believe to be the most challenging piece of the puzzle. Acknowledging “want” versus “need” tends to be the place of most resistance in people of any income level, in any financial circumstance. At the same time, when a person experiences a paradigm shift in this, everything changes!

But how to convince someone of the relevance, importance, and effect of such a shift? How do any of us help the person next to us to buy in to the concept of want versus need?

It’s not easy.

Just last week, an acquaintance was talking about a third person, saying, “She can’t feed her child. She can’t pay for…” Gently, I broke in, “She chooses not to. She can, but she chooses not to.” The mother had received an estimated $4,000 in gifts in the previous week. A quick sale would see her child fed for a year and a half, even for a big eater at Canada’s relatively high cost of food. She can pay for her child’s needs; she chooses not to.

When I said this, though, the speaker balked. She snapped back, because she does the same: receiving income from work, government, community grants, and family, and blowing it all faster than she can say “more.” Both families declare a “need” for gourmet food delivered to their homes, a “need” for a vehicle even though the children and parent attend school and work within a three block radius of their home, and a “need” for high-speed internet throughout their home, plus a landline, plus a cell phone.

When people who are struggling with finances begin telling this particular version of “need,” I feel it’s important to speak up, to not accept the story, to challenge it. Most of us are bombarded by advertising but, far more insidiously, by cultural norms. When 95% of the families around us have big screen TVs, one car per adult, and a 1400 square foot home, we naturally begin to believe this is basic, normal, necessary. For a period, we are truly “in the dark” about the facts: Most people on the planet live without these. None of these is necessary for survival. All of these are extreme luxuries, new to this generation in this part of the world.

How do we help a person hurt by our cultural messages to suddenly see the difference between need and want? For most people, it won’t be the result of a quick phrase, nor one conversation. It’s a light that goes on for us at the moment that’s right for us, at the moment we’re ready to recognize the truth. No one outside of us can turn that light on.

When a person becomes willing, on her own internal schedule, to see the very possibility that money might be a resource that can be used effectively, I offer exercises and explorations (starting page 163 of the book): the “I would rather” game, envisioning your future self, want vs need.

But yes, in the meantime, I think we can only be understanding and patient. The person is not resisting financial self-care intentionally. Spending willynilly and, thus, sabotaging one’s options is an unconscious act, based in emotional and psychological patterns. We all have those in one area or another. For me, such patterns show up most strongly in my cycle of isolation. For the person next to me, such a pattern may show most strongly in blowing every dollar that comes in.

Each person’s shift comes when it comes. I believe there’s nothing any one of us can do to immediately convince another that financial self-management is an option, that choices can be made, that each spending decision has a negative or positive trajectory. What we can do is help each other cope with life, point a person to relevant resources, respond truthfully yet gently to self-defeating stories, and believe in the individual. Trust that they are doing their utmost—while not necessarily financially, certainly psychologically.

In the meantime, focus on building your relationship with each client. Live an example of simple living and prove yourself to be safe, honest, and trustworthy. Have a tiny shelf of books—Rising, Your Money or Your Life, The Simple Path to Wealth—available for loan. Monthly, offer a free one-hour workshop in money which focuses on the long-term impact of various expenditures. Ask if your client would like help budgeting, and refer them to a resource that offers this.

Not every client will respond. But once in a while there will be a moment in which the light in the client’s Money Mind turns on in the exact moment she is accessing one of the resources you offer. At that point, the resources you have allowed to wait patiently will reflect that light, and the client will shortly be on her path to optimal living.

Thank you for doing the work you do, Mathias, and for caring so much about your clients that you are thinking well outside of your job description to ensure the most effective care for those you support. You sound like exactly the kind of person who was so helpful to me in my own financial recovery journey!

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