I just heard that an iconic American TV personality has died. Andy Griffith was one of the most beloved characters of not just a generation, but of a few generations. After I heard the news, I started scrolling through the channels and watched a few episodes to remember the good old days in Mayberry. It took me back to a time that was much simpler, when the rules were clearer and business and personal ethics seemed to be in a better place than they are today. We tend to only see the positive when looking backward. But, in looking back at the way life was portrayed in Mayberry, I noticed something that seems like an even more far away concept.
What I saw with the people of Mayberry was (with the exception of Otis…) a higher level of personal responsibility than I see when I look around at our culture today. In some ways, we (and I know I’m painting with a very broad brush here) have become a nation of people who have abdicated some personal responsibility. I was talking with a friend tonight and in our conversation we talked about this concept. She has noticed that personal responsibility is something she’d like to see more of, especially since she’s an attorney who works in the disability field. In many of her cases, people make mistakes and end up injured. Then, they look for a way to blame anyone but the person in the mirror for what happened to them. It seems to be human nature today to look elsewhere for fault, rather than the “good old days” of Mayberry when people actually acknowledged their mistakes and claimed responsibility for their actions….even if they made mistakes! I’ll have to find a way to work some of her stories into future blog entries!
So, what do Andy Griffith and disability cases and personal responsibility have to do with financial planning and personal financial behaviors? EVERYTHING!!! Last week, I talked to a woman who was 3 months behind on her mortgage payment and is about to have her car repossessed unless she finds a way to make the equivalent of 3 payments (she is going to take a loan from her 401(k)) almost immediately, and she has a staggering amount of credit card debt. She makes a higher than average income and has had no serious medical issues that created a financial calamity in her life. She has no student loans crushing her cash flow. She and I talked and one of the things I couldn’t understand was how she got into this situation. Her mortgage and car payment were within reasonable ranges given her income. She isn’t saving an enormous amount of money and crimping her cash flow in an attempt to retire early. I was struggling to come up with an explanation, so I simply asked “How did you get into this position?”
Her answer surprised me. She said that her friends like to travel and want her to come along, so she had to put her travel expenses on a credit card. In order to go on the trips she’s gone on, she needed to look good, so she shopped heavily. And, she began to like expensive clothing and expensive shoes and because her friends always commented on how well she dressed and how she was the “fashion leader” in her circle of friends, she felt obligated to maintain that lifestyle.
I can see how she felt this way, and I understand how important it is to have friends in one’s life. But, is it worth falling behind on your car payment? On your mortgage payment? In my life, the answer would be no. To her, the answer had been yes.
During our conversation, she started laughing and said, “I know this sounds ridiculous but I blame my friends for my financial stress. If they didn’t need me to be the leader, I could live a more modest lifestyle.” She didn’t accept her role in getting to this point.
Toward the end of our conversation, I asked how she thought her friends would react if she told them that she was going to really buckle down and focus on saving for retirement, so her days of shopping sprees were done. She said that they would probably be very supportive. So, she is going to have that conversation, remove herself as the fashion leader of the group, and work to dig herself out of a financial hole. She knows that if it’s going to happen, she has to make it happen.
Allowing the goals and needs of others to shape your behavior could be a recipe for disaster. I hope that she has that conversation with her friends, that they are truly supportive and that she steps up and owns her financial decision making process. She said she grew up in a rural area and that back then life was simple. Life today is busy, hectic, and not quite as simple. Hearing about the death of Andy Griffith and reflecting back on a much simpler time, made me think of her today. I think I will email her and check on her progress, make sure that she’s on the right track and accept some responsibility for helping her get back on the right track…