The movie illustrates, in painful and beautiful detail, the problems that we humans bring upon ourselves over and over, like addicts. We want to quit, but we can't. Part inherited, part self-inflicted, the story rings true because I think, most of us have a story like that. The thing we want to quit; the way we need to improve, and we try, but we can't seem to make happen. We viewers identify with the poor characters, because we, too, try hard, and fail, and wonder to ourselves lying in bed at night, what is wrong with us?
I have a friend who'd fit right in the plot of that movie. He drinks too much, dates strippers much younger than him who keep borrowing and wrecking his cars because they're, you know, addicted to heroin, and regularly gives them handfuls of cash, just because. As you might imagine, he is not great with his money.
He lives beyond his means, and did so even back when he was earning a six figure salary. He underpays his taxes throughout the year and, every April, has to raid his 401k to pay the five figure tax bill. He'll take loans against his 401k for other things, too, like to put a down payment on a rental property that couldn't cash-flow, putting himself into a higher tax bracket in the process.
When he was laid off last year, the loans from the 401k became due immediately and financial & tax disasters ensued. Now the two mortgages are killing his cash flow, and he's drawing his retirement accounts to cover the difference, paying too much in tax all along the way.
As a true sucker, my hope for him springs eternal. I want him to succeed financially, and I trick myself into thinking he will. We talk about money sometimes, come up with strategies, build spreadsheets to track spending, and chat about ways to invest more and to spend less. Nothing sticks.
The healthy thing would be to understand the key lesson from every RomCom I've ever seen: that I can't really change him. But I can't help myself: I keep trying to get the dude to do the things I think are best for him. Maybe the next time, something will work. Of course, nothing ever changes, and I get frustrated that nothing ever changes.
Unaware of the irony, I keep myself in this unhealthy cycle...of trying to force others to break their unhealthy cycles.
I hear all the time that personal finance is more about changing behavior than it is about acquiring more knowledge. It's true, of course. (And this is one reason I'm so pessimistic about the chances that financial literacy is the answer to our nation's money problems.) But simply calling our deep seeded financial habits "behaviors" is a bit misleading.
If you find yourself habitually and compulsively shopping, pushing your credit cards to the limit and getting deep into consumer debt, might we better off discussing the possibility of a spending addiction, rather than simply talking about the problem as a behavior that can be improved with some new knowledge and hard work?
If the root causes of our money problems are clouded by denial (say, being in denial about having no retirement savings whatsoever), ought we focus on the psychological aspects rather than the behavior...which might be a symptom?
If our financial behavior is habitual and we keep finding ourselves in the same situations over and over again, even though they are bringing us negative consequences, would we be better off considering them addictions instead of habits?
On some level, I'm getting caught up in semantics. But the way we categorize our problems, and the words we use, change the kinds of approaches we choose. A bad habit is something I might tackle with a little willpower, or maybe a self-help book. An addiction is something that I'm powerless against: something I can't defeat on my own, and can't begin to address until I realize it's an addiction.
And if I'm trying to help someone else with their addiction, even if it's a friend or family member I love, then there's really nothing I can do. I'm just fooling myself.
I know this sounds defeatist, but it's not meant to be. Change is possible. But no amount of well-intentioned advice or financial assistance is going to do a lick of good until the person admits he has an addiction.
And if that's what my friend is dealing with, the thing for me to do is...to give up. I need to give up on trying to help someone who doesn't understand the problems he's dealing with. For now, and maybe forever, he's just going to keep doing what he's doing.
Like Aimee Mann tells us, it's not going to stop, until you wise up.
As always, thanks for reading.
*Photo is from shelleys1 @ Flickr Creative Commons