I lie to myself about money and food more often than I do about anything else.
About two years ago we moved to a house where there is a McDonald’s just around the corner, at the end of the street.
Growing up, McDonald’s was a treat for me. I remember my first Big Mac. I remember the joy of dipping McNuggets in little white cartons of honey. I still love their sausage egg biscuits.
Moving into a place where McDonald’s was a 4-minute walk away, I told myself that I couldn’t fall into eating there very often. My wife and I put in effort to eat healthy foods, and McDonald’s really doesn’t make the cut. So for a while, I didn’t stop in the McDonald’s. I hadn’t been eating there before, and I was content to leave it be.
After some months, I found myself stopping in to grab something about once a week. Not necessarily a meal, but maybe a sandwich or a small fry. I told myself that this was okay. That I worked out enough to deserve a treat here or there (not true). That it was really only once a week, and that couldn’t possibly matter.
I continued to tell myself that I was only eating there once a week, despite the fact that once a week was the actual frequency for about a month. For the ensuing eight months it was closer to 2 or 3 times a week. After one stretch of stopping in three days in a row, I finally had a moment where I questioned if it was really only once a week. I took a look at my credit card statements, and realized the truth.
I successfully lied to myself about how much fast food I was eating, for two-thirds of a damn year.
A few months ago, I finally said enough and stopped with the little trips to McDonald’s.
This moment of catching myself, of calling myself out, was valuable. It let me evaluate how I felt about my fast-food habit (not great) and what I wanted to do about it (stop eating crap, eat healthier, be healthier). It was nice that I was getting to call myself out. It wasn’t my doctor questioning my habits and telling me that I had to change; I was taking action and finding my own lies.[i]
I do the same thing with money. I lie to myself in small and big ways. Here are just a few examples of where I’ve caught myself.
Story: I told myself I was good with money because I was saving a healthy percentage of my salary. In truth, I was just stashing away cash because I was scared, and putting away cash made me feel better. In my head I thought that because the Internet told me, by and large, that I was doing better than everyone else my age, I must have been doing it right.
Part of being good with your personal finances is setting goals and approaching them with healthy mindsets. For a long time, I didn’t really have a defined goal outside of maxing out my Roth IRA, though I spent an inordinate amount of mental energy concerned about that goal. But I could avoid all of that, because the story I told myself was that I was good with money. I didn’t need to dig any deeper than that. I didn’t spend any time on my mindset.
Also, if I could go back and give my younger self some advice, I would tell him that there’s always someone doing it better than you. There are people out there saving a higher percentage of their salaries, finding ways to hustle and earn more money, setting themselves up even better for the future. Don’t get caught up comparing yourself to other people, and definitely don’t get caught up making false comparisons based on blog posts about what the average person your age is saving—or should be saving. Keep the focus inward, on your relationship with money, saving, and spending.
Story: I told myself that I was making more money than I actually was. I was inflating how much I was earning.
My organization has a salary table with regular increases; assuming I do well in my performance reviews, I get a pay bump. I was constantly looking ahead to the next pay bump, and rounding up what I was earning to the new amount. I thought to myself, “Well, I’m pretty close to making $XX,XXX.” This created a couple of problems: first, I was constantly looking forward, instead of accepting where I was at in that moment. Second, I was holding myself to the saving standards that I’d have for an amount of money that I wasn’t making, which only increased my anxiety. By giving myself a pay increase before it arrived, I was losing track of how much I was actually earning, and worrying about money that I hadn’t earned. While I was doing well, I was setting myself up to feel attached to an increase that was not yet mine.
Story: I told myself that I wasn’t worth the salary I was earning. This was a particularly painful lie that I told myself for at least the first year of post-grad school employment. It wasn’t based on the fact that I was earning a ridiculous amount of money; I really wasn’t. I just couldn’t see the value in my position. I worked very hard before grad-school as a classroom teacher and got paid very little. To be in a position where I wasn’t working nearly as hard, but getting paid more, it felt like I wasn’t actually earning the paycheck.
Now that I’m in a manager role, it’s a lot easier for me to see the value in my former position. I’m down one staffer now, and I would love to pay someone to come in and do that job as well as I was performing in my old role. My current position and my former position create a lot of value and just because I haven’t struggled at the same level in these roles that I sometimes struggled teaching in a high poverty school doesn’t mean that I’m not worth my salary.
These are just three examples where I’ve caught myself. This doesn’t cover any of the times where I’ve created a narrative to justify spending money, or any instances where I convince myself that a situation is fine so I can avoid spending money. I’m sure there are a lot of instances where I haven’t caught myself. Again, I managed to convince myself I was eating McDonald’s once a week for eight months.
Like with the McDonald’s example, I’ve gotten a lot out of catching myself feeding myself a false narrative. I’m facing the fact that I have some money mindsets that are flat-out unhealthy. I keep in mind how much money I’m making, and I’m not always looking ahead. I’m aware of the value that I bring to my employers.
What lies are you telling yourself? Evaluate the narratives around your earning, spending, and saving. It feels much better to catch yourself and, for me, it has led to some pretty great changes.
[i] My wife is a psychology Ph.D. student and noted while editing that this concept is part of her dissertation, she assured me that it is a “Real Thing™”