Perpetuating Myths about Poverty

March 28, 2011

I’ve said it before, I was not the brightest financial light in the bunch when I was younger. Oddly enough, I come from a wonderful upbringing in a home where financial responsibility was expected and demonstrated, if not discussed openly. So, according to the philosophy that well-to-do and financially savvy parents beget children with the same financial smarts, I should have known better. But I didn’t.

Yes, balancing a checkbook and making a dollar stretch were two skills I was taught and which I have carried with me ever since. However, the wise usage of credit what not taught, most likely because I came of age at about the same time as the explosion of the consumer credit card in the 1980s. Before that, receiving a credit card while in college was not only uncommon, it was next to impossible.

So, when I pulled my first credit card offer from my apartment’s mailbox, the only thing I saw was the $2,000 credit limit. To me, that was like shouting, $2,000 of “free money.” WMaxing Out Credit Card was NOT Goodithin 36 hours of receiving that card in the mail, I had maxed it out and would, for a decade thereafter, carry a balance and pay interest (initially to the tune of 19% APR or more).

It took years to dig out of the credit card hole. In the meantime, I dabbled in a couple of payday loans, bounced a number of checks, and continually treated my savings account as a “deferred spending” account rather than an emergency fund.

I share this lengthy history to make the point that my troubles where not actually from a lack of education or from ignorance. I quickly learned how credit cards worked, but I continued to rely heavily upon them to subsidize the lifestyle I felt I deserved. What kept me in the cycle of consumer debt was my attitude, what I termed PovertyThink in a recent blog. I had conditioned myself to believe that this was the only way to look at my finances.

So here is a synopsis of a few of the myths that lead many of us to subsidize our unsustainable lifestyles through credit, thus keeping us from building true financial net worth (aka wealth):

  1. We prefer to blame others rather than take responsibility for our own financial mistakes. Banks and creditors, in particular, are the major targets of our frustration. They, after all, charge ridiculous fees for bounced checks and late payments, right?
  2. We seem to believe that lifestyles, income and effort should all be fair and proportional. That is to say, the harder we work, the more money we should earn and/or the more money we “deserve” to spend. We compare our efforts and lifestyles to those of our friends, neighbors and acquaintances, and say to ourselves, “I work just as hard as they do, so I deserve to live as well as they do.” For example, I saw friends and classmates back in college driving new(er) cars, purchasing season ski lift passes, and living in expensive condos. Some might call it impatience, but I felt I worked just as hard as they did (harder, I would argue, since I was an early-morning janitor at my school’s science center), and that I was consequently entitled to anything they had just as much as they were. Credit cards allowed me to initially satisfy that feeling but lead to long-term troubles.
  3. We choose immediate gratification over long-term security. “Living in the now” may be a popular catch phrase in movies and among a few philosopher wannabes, but it’s a terrible idea for financial security. Of course we can enjoy life each day, but this catch phrase ignores the absolute necessity to prepare ourselves for long-term financial survival. Spending money now that should be going toward savings and investments means we’re spending tomorrow’s security for today’s gratification.

Taking Personal Responsibility for Our Finances MUST Be Our First StepUntil we take personal financial responsibility for our own choices, stop expecting life (and especially financial affairs) to be perfectly fair, and we learn to delay gratification, we are destined for financial insignificance. We do not find long-term satisfaction in living paycheck-to-paycheck. We’ll find no honor in unearned positions or possessions. We’ll find no lasting peace of mind in expenditures for the pleasures of today.

In summary, for those who continue to blame others, demand financial equality (which is not the same as opportunity), and live only for today, the future may only bring more disappointment, greater financial inequality, and the dreariness of debt and financial ruin.

If you or someone you know is stuck in this rut of PovertyThink, it’s time to reconsider your situation. Do some reading about how financially successful people accomplished their goals, and follow their examples. Here’s a nice site to see read some real life financial success stories (without all the blinding glitz and false glamour of the lottery and get-rich-quick sites): Get Rich Slowly.

Have a fantastic day!

Todd

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

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Published in: on March 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Defining PovertyThink

January 7, 2010

I read this past week of efforts in many countries to eradicate poverty by, as some have phrased it, “paying the poor.” The generic term for such programs is “conditional cash transfers” (CCTs), meaning that the government essentially pays cash to families in poverty that meet certain criteria, such as keeping their children in school, having regular preventative medical check ups, and attending workshops on financial skills and disease prevention.

Reportedly, the CCTs can have a widespread positive impact on reducing the income gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in that country. Today’s topic, though, is not about the pros and cons of CCTs or whether we should implement one in the US. Rather, I’d like to address the less tangible side of poverty: PovertyThink, if you will.

Financial Evolution and PovertyThink-National Financial Education Center at Debt Reduction Services IncI would describe PovertyThink as a set of beliefs, attitudes, and accepted presumptions held by individuals of ALL  income levels that prohibit them from implementing, or cause them to  take action contrary to, wisely money management behaviors, particularly with regards to building a satisfactory positive financial net worth in a capital-base economy.

Please do not misunderstand my statement. I am not referring to poverty (deficiency of money, goods or means of support) as being a choice. I am talking about people of ANY income level that subscribe (usually subconciously) to PovertyThink as a view of the financial world and, consequently, who fail to achieve financial success or independence.

Following are possible indicators of the presence of PovertyThink:

  1. Blaming others, particularly banks and creditors, for your financial woes. After all, you reason, they are the ones who have sabotaged your finances by charging ridiculously high penalty fees for bounced checks, late payments, and/or other mistakes.
  2. A strong distaste for the rich. In your mind, being rich is driving luxury vehicles; vacationing at luxury resorts; living in large homes; having mountain retreats or ocean-side cabins; having a garage full of motorcycles, ATVs, or snowmobiles; dressing in designer outfits and suits; and be able to buy just about anything else you want. You feel that those who are rich probably don’t deserve, and certainly don’t appreciate, what they have.
  3. Obsessing over the lifestyles of the rich. In spite of your feelings about the rich, you are often prone to obsess about their lifestyles and dream about what you would do if you were “rich.”
  4. PovertyThinkers play the lottery, mistakenly believing it to be their best shot at wealthPlaying the lottery. You play the lottery because it offers you the best chance of becoming rich. You feel that  the lottery is a way to become rich without having to financially injure anyone else on your way to the top, as the rich often do.
  5. Believing that finances should be fair. You hold to the belief that life should be fair for everyone and that the riches of the world should be equally available to, in not downright divided among, everyone. It galls you as completely unfair to think that the “rich” have it all and you don’t. After all, you believe that the harder a person works, the more they deserve to be rich, regardless of what they do for a living or what they contribute to society. And since you work harder than the wealthy you see on television, you feel you are just as deserving of riches as anyone.

On the surface, these beliefs seem harmless enough. In fact, #3 and maybe even #4 seem to you to be attitudes that should actually motivate someone towards financial success. So how do these points above, collectively identified as PovertyThink, actually do more financial harm than good? Let’s address them one at a time:

  1. Blaming others gets us no where. Blaming the umpire or referee for a bad call, in fact, can get you thrown out of the game.  Blaming others for our financial woes just means that we’re throwing ourselves out of the financial game. What should we do, by contrast? Accept responsibility for (and the consequences of) our mistakes. This may mean additional fees, high interest rates, and more work for us in the short term. However, once we recognize that we often get ourselves into financial troubles, we also recognize that we are responsible (and capable) of getting ourselves out of them. No one else wants us to succeed like we do. It’s time to hunker down and approach our financial challenges with more focus, patience and wisdom. Lashing out only turns would-be friends to long-term foes.
  2. Beware of misconceptions regarding what it means to be rich and what it means to be wealthyThose who dislike the rich the most are often those who want to become rich the most themselves. Unfortunately, they also usually have a warped sense of what it means to be rich. For those in the grips of PovertyThink, being rich is a lifestyle or a certain amount of income. If someone earns, say, $100,000 a year, well, they may be defined by a PovertyThinker as rich. It’s considered whether the same person earning $100,000 a year is spending $110,000 a year, is deep in credit card debt, or is staring foreclosure in the face because they can’t take care of their mortgage payment. The same could be said (and often is true) for a large percentage of people who drive the fancy cars, live in the opulent neighborhoods, and dress and accessorize themselves in the most expensive fashions. PovertyThinkers assume that the rich are greedy and have oppressed others while they earned their riches. The irony is that those who live the luxurious lifestyles tend to have noticeably smaller net worths as a percentage of their income than most millionaires, who buy used, American-made cars and live in modest homes. This PovertyThink tenant is, therefore, based upon inaccurate assumptions.
  3. PovertyThinkers are often seen buying or reading magazines about celebrity lifestyles. They know what brands of clothing celebrities wear, what types of vehicles they drive, where they vacation, which celebrities have their children in a private school and where that school is located, etc. Because many of the truly wealthy typically shun the spotlight, there is no magazine that gives an accurate description of what a real millionaire’s lifestyle is like. So, PovertyThinkers use transitive arguments to equate celebrities (who tend to earn large sums of money) with millionaires (who, outside of their primary residence, have a net worth of $1M or more in assets such as investments, accounts, business ownership, and real estate). Unfortunately, not all celebrities are (or stay) millionaires, and only a very small percentage of millionaires ascribe much importance to the extravagant lifestyles of many celebrities.
  4. Every week, we can read of or watch on television the report of the latest multi-million dollar lottery winner somewhere in the US. PovertyThinkers will see a dream come true for the winner, because they think in terms of amounts and dollars. In reality, many lottery winners (even some of the multi-million dollar jackpot winners) end up spending and/or giving away ALL of their winnings within a few years. Some huge jackpot winners have notoriously ended up living in trailer parks or with family members because they did not have a true appreciation of how much money they had won. They figured that since they were millionaires, they could give away or spend whatever amount they chose. They soon learn, though, that even a million dollars is a finite sum.
  5. The idea that reward should be directly tied to effort is not new, though it is pervasive. “Johnny got an A for effort.” However, it is a fundamental reality that effort is only one of several factors that our society rewards financially. Others include competence, creativity, productivity, personal affinity, loyalty, and on and on. To base someone’s financial compensation solely upon effort is to deny the importance of the other factors. Such an inflexible practice would lead to stagnation in productivity and innovation. Unfortunately, PovertyThinkers who fixate on the importance of effort tend to shun or ignore opportunities around them to solve problems and create solutions that could otherwise lead them toward greater compensation and reward. Developing an entrepreneurial work ethic or style, even if one works as an employee for someone else, creates an entirely new way of considering the value of work as it relates to their income.

So what’s the answer for PovertyThinkers? Since becoming a financial educator, I’ve always felt that the formula for personal finance success has more to do with motivation than with numbers, math, or school grades.  PovertyThinkers, if left to themselves, often have to hit rock bottom or experience some other sort of life changing event before taking the decision to make changes. Otherwise, not surprisingly since this is coming from a financial educator, I believe education is key. Whether through workshops, webinars, conversations, or reading materials, learning about others who have broken the PovertyThink cycle and learning how they did so can provide the hope and belief that makes such individual progress possible.

Such stories are not hard to find. Most of us just don’t look for them or don’t recognize them in the context of breaking the PovertyThink cycle. A large percentage of rags-to-riches stories (excluding lottery winners and those who inherit their money) are case studies in overcoming PovertyThink.

Have a fantastic day!

Todd

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lottery vs. Stock Market: Aren’t They Both Risky?

January 8, 2010

With the media broadcasting the faces of names of this week’s Mega Millions lottery jackpot winners at every opportunity, I believe today is an appropriate time to address a question (though sometimes hidden as a statement) I’ve heard many times.

When talking about the importance of saving for emergencies and investing for long-term goals (including retirement), I’ve heard many people state that investing in the stock market is so risky that they believe spending money on a lottery ticket is a better investment.

First of all, let’s clarify the MISNOMER before addressing the LACK OF REASONING:

Investing in the stock market has to do with RISK.

Buying a lottery ticket has to do with CHANCE.

CHANCE IS NOT THE SAME AS RISK.

You may be able to increase chance, but you can NEVER impact it.

By the choices we make, we can have a significant impact on the outcome of risky situations, including investing in the stock market. We choose the timing, the stocks or funds, the amounts invested, and the timing of when we withdraw the funds. Each choice (which we can improve with experience and education) has a direct impact on how much our investment grows or shrinks.

We have virtually NO impact on situations involving chance. No matter what is written in books meant to take more money from lottery players’ wallets, the only way to improve one’s chances in the lottery is to continuously buy more lottery tickets.

Getting you to buy more lottery tickets is exactly what the government, schools administrators, the lottery corporation, the media, and even convenience stores want. After all, just here in Idaho, here’s what these organizations received in profit from the Idaho Lottery in 2010 alone:

  1. State Government (public schools, permanent building fund, and Idaho Bond Levy Equalization Fund): $35,000,000 ($35 Million)
  2. Retailers that sell the tickets: $8,400,000 ($8.4 Million)
  3. The Idaho Lottery corporation that administers the products: $4,200,000 ($4.2 Million)
  4. Media outlets, such as television and radio stations, that collect marketing and advertising fees for promoting the lottery: $2,800,000 ($2.8 Million)

These are probably pretty typical percentages for state lotteries around the country. Not one of these organizations, that collectively touch the lives of every citizen in the state, has a financial incentive to curb lottery ticket purchases. It’s just too easy to say, “Play responsibly” and then turn back to collecting their share of the profits. They’re not easy to find, but some media outlets (particularly newspapers and financial education sites) have done reports on former lottery winners and what their lives are like now. See http://on-msn.com/gmqjtKhttp://abcn.ws/eHXkzY, and http://read.bi/hUTY7M.

Rather than equating the lottery with stock market investing (which, for anyone with the patience and skill of delaying gratification, is almost a sure bet to receiving more money in the long run than you invest), let’s rather put it in terms of numbers:

THE LOTTERY IS A TAX ON PEOPLE WHO ARE BAD AT MATH!!!

There you have it. The reality is that people overwhelmingly lose money playing the lottery. Even “winners” of the $1,000 secondary prizes usually spend that much in tickets every year or two, so they don’t even break even.

Compare the odds of winning the Powerball (http://www.powerball.com/powerball/pb_prizes.asp) and the National Weather Services’ statistics on annual lightning strike deaths and injuries (www.lightningsafety.noaa.gov/medical.htm), then figure out your annual likelihood of being struck by lightning in a country of 300,000,000 residents.

If you have trouble figuring out that your chances of winning the Powerball are 1 in 195 million for one-time players (or 1 in 3.7 million annually for weekly one-ticket players), stay away from buying lottery tickets based solely upon the principle cited above.

Statistics say that about 540 in 300,000,000 Americans are injured each year by lightning strikes (about 60 additional are killed). That’s an annual statistic of about 1 in 555,555 Americans. That means that left up to chance, you are about as likely to be injured by lightning SEVEN times in one year as you are to win the Powerball jackpot playing one ticket a week for a year.

But that’s not a fair comparison. You can greatly minimize the likelihood of being struck by lightning by staying indoors during storms. Being struck by lightning is a risk, not a chance.

So, the next time you’ve been struck by lightning six times in a twelve-month period, perhaps then you’ll should feel lucky enough to play the lottery. Otherwise, keep your money and place it into a slightly risky but exponentially more rewarding investment, and you’ll end up much better off financially in the long run.

Have a fantastic day!

Todd

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

Published in: on January 7, 2011 at 1:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Paradigm Shift in Personal Finance Attitudes: Millionaire Lifestyles

December 10, 2010

National Financial Education Center at Debt Reduction Services Inc-Personal Finance Evolution from Debt to WealthI generally have the pleasure of facilitating three to seven personal finance classes each week, usually around the Treasure Valley of southwest Idaho. Many of those classes are for high school students in an economics or a personal finance course.

Inevitably, whether I’m discussing budgeting, credit, avoiding debt, or effective consumer spending behaviors, questions or comments come up about wanting to be rich.

In a previous post (“What It Means to Be Rich“), I discussed what I believe is a good definition of wealth, as well as some important tips for reaching the level of being wealthy. Today, though, I’d like to share thoughts about the “millionaire lifestyle” that so many of our youth (and many in our adult population) so desperately want to live. Thanks to the extravagance of many in the entertainment, professional athletics, and other high-profile industries trumpeted in magazines and publications proclaiming themselves to be the luminaries of and guides to the lifestyles to which we, as patriotic American consumers, ought to aspire, many young people have a warped sense of who the wealthy are and how the overwhelming majority of them live.

To many of the students in the classes I visit, wealth is all about spending. There is little concept of how the wealth was created or of the finite characteristic of wealth. Too often, wealth is only for fulfilling today’s appetites for thrills, frills, and glitz designed to attract attention.

Such a view of wealth discredits the hundreds of thousands of millionaires who, typical of most in their group, have spent decades dedicating themselves to their business, their employment, their investments, and the management of their own money in order to reach such an achievement. And when they wake up one morning, look over their finances, and discover that, not including their primary residence, they have a net worth of over a million dollars, they do not then go out and begin buying fancy cars and designer clothing. It is not their habit.

One of my favorite series of books that help to enlighten us on the “secret” lifestyles of the rich is the “Millionaire Next Door” books by Thomas Stanley and William Danko. They may not be the most compelling of readings, but the substance of their surveys should shake long-held, though misguided, attitudes and beliefs too many of us and our children cling to.

Some of the most interesting findings:

  1. Most millionaires never purchase new cars. They buy and drive used cars.
  2. Most millionaires have never spent more than $55,000 (in 2010 dollars) on a new car.
  3. Most millionaires live in homes worth less than $300,000 (in 2010 dollars)
  4. The most common make and model of a millionaire’s primary mode of transportation back in 1996 was a used Ford Taurus, not a Mercedes or a Lexus or a BMW.

High school students in my personal finance workshops get a kick out of that last one, especially when I ask who, in the class, drives a Ford Taurus. It seems there’s always at least one or two, so I congratulate them as likely being on their way to becoming a millionaire.

My hope is that eventually, we can collectively teach our young people to value life as an experience and not as a race to collect and show off as much superfluous STUFF as our incomes will permit.

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Education@NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney

Published in: on December 10, 2010 at 12:10 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What It Means to Be Rich

August 23, 2010

Today, I read a good blog post about the 3 Ps of True Wealth (http://bit.ly/9WxV8l) and felt to add some of our own insight into the concept of wealth and riches.  People, Passion and Purpose make up Jason’s 3 Ps, though all of them revolve around building relationships and the people with whom we interact day to day.

What it means to be richI added a comment regarding what we teach about being rich. In a way similar to the 3 Ps standing for true wealth, being rich involves setting personal goals that require money and then making your money work for you in order to reach those goals.

Being rich is not an amount, an income, or a lifestyle. It’s not about showing off. It’s not about envying and wishing. It’s about doing what’s important to you. Accumulating money, unfortunately, serves as a pseudo-goal for too many people.

“I want to be rich” is a phrase we hear far too frequently. Having a lot of money is a relative concept. For someone living in poverty, a few hundred dollars could be a lot of money. For a recent college graduate, a lot of money might be a $40,000 annual income. For others, it might be $1,000,000 lottery ticket (Please!!! Don’t get me started about the lottery unless you’re truly willing to listen).

The reality, though, is that if we were to set a financial goal to have or earn a certain amount of money, we would find that amount insufficient to satisfy us once we reach it. It’s not how much money you earn or have that counts so much as how much you keep. By “keep,” I mean hold onto in order to reach your own truly satisfying personal goals.

A goal needs to be specific (in outcome, time frame, and amount of money needed), but it needs to be, most of all, motivating. What is it that truly inspires you? Relationships? Accomplishments? Charitable work? Respect? Admiration? Knowledge? Time with family or friends? Experiences? Ask yourself, “When all is said and done and my time on this earth is over, what do I want others to remember me for?” How’s that for a question to get you thinking?

Whatever your goal may be, write it down and keep that goal on top of any spending plan (budget) you every work on. Post it on your fridge. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Carry it in your purse or wallet. Look at it regularly and recommit to it every day. You’ll soon find that you have little care for spending your money on “stuff” that you’ll now see as frivolous. Saving for an important goal will become fun and exciting.

Once you have your motivating goals in place, it’s then time to act like you’re rich already. But remember that the rich don’t work for money (duh!). Act like the rich by making your money work for you (savings, investments, lending). You may not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to act like the rich, but first of all, you have to get rid of the Hollywood stereotypes of the rich. Most millionaires do NOT drive luxury vehicles, don’t live in mansions, don’t have butlers and maids, don’t take vacations every month, don’t fly in personal jets, don’t frequent trendy boutique shops, and don’t call attention to themselves with what they wear, drive, or live in. That sort of ridiculous spending is targeted at members of the middle class who think that they can spend their way into the upper class. Seriously? How can you spend your way up the wealth ladder?

Most millionaires earn their own wealth through running their own business or being careful with their own money and investments. They are conscientious about and control their own finances. They make they’re money work for them, not the other way around. When they do spend, they spend with purpose. And that purpose is what we’re talking about today.

What’s your purpose? What do you want to accomplish and do in life? How much money will that require? Does it really involve a $500/month car payment and designer clothing? Does it require the biggest home mortgage you could possibly qualify for?

Goals goals?

Goals are the Key to Financial Success and Personal SatisfactionWrite them down! Write them down!  Write them down!

Goals that are not written down are just wishes, and except in fairy tales and the movies, wishes are earned, not granted.

Best wishes for financial success in reaching your own goals!

Todd Christensen
Director of Education
www.NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Education@NationalFinancialEducationCenter.org
Facebook: MoneyDay2Day
Twitter: Day2DayMoney