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Why Is It So Hard, As Americans, to Live Within Our Means?

Updated on November 27, 2016

Using credit cards seems to be the way many of us operate... But why is it so hard to live without charging?

Most Americans use credit cards quite often. I grew up in a middle class family, meaning that we weren't rich by any means, nor were we poor, either. Now that I'm a wife and mom, I consider my own family to be middle class as well. I've seen first hand how easy it is to wrack up credit card debt, and how difficult it can be to pay it down (and keep it down!) Especially when big life events come up such as job changes or a new baby on the way, keeping the finances straight can be a challenge. Here I will outline a few of my thoughts on why living within our means can be difficult. I will also leave you with some ways to challenge your wrong thinking in this area, and hopefully help you (and me) learn to better live within our budgets!

Living Paycheck to Paycheck

It seems that most of us in the middle class bracket tend to live paycheck to paycheck. We do not have much savings set aside, if any, and we count down the days until we get paid again. It's easy to get in the mindset of spending all your money, knowing that it's only X amount of days until you get paid again. Plus, with the cost of rent, gas and food being so steep, plus all of one's other bills, it always seems that there is not much left over to save. However, I want to challenge my own thinking (and maybe yours as well) by suggesting that one can always save at least a small amount out of every paycheck, no matter how little money you make. It is just a matter of getting into the mindset that you are going to live within your means, no matter what. Once you are able to set aside a small amount of savings from every paycheck, that amount will grow, until you have a nest egg set aside for a rainy day. That savings can be used for car repairs if needed, or any other unexpected bills that may arise. Hopefully, that savings will stay there in case of emergency and will otherwise not be touched. If you feel that you are so poor that you cannot set aside anything at all, try foregoing a luxury item that you would previously not allow yourself to live without, i.e., don't purchase that People magazine at the grocery store or that coffee at Starbucks. Save that $5.00 and put it into your Savings Account. See how fast even just $5.00 a month will add up when you refuse to touch it. This requires denying yourself, but it will be worth it in the end for the peace of mind you'll gain! Then you can slowly get yourself out of the mindset of living paycheck to paycheck, and you can stop being tempted to use your credit card for big purchases or emergency situations!

Keeping Up With The Jones'

We've all heard this expression before. Even if we don't do it in super obvious ways like buying the same car that Mr. Jones next door just got, many of us try to keep up with our friends and neighbors in subtle ways. For example, buying expensive clothes in name brands on a store credit card, or charging purchases in order to buy a gift for a friend because everyone else is doing it, and so on. Once again, the key is to evaluate your financial situation honestly and to deny yourself if you have to. Can you honestly afford to go to J.Crew and buy a $70 sweater to wear to your best friend's Christmas party? If you can't, then just wear something from your closet, or get something at a thrift store for $5.00. Ditch the idea of "Keeping up with the Jones'" and tell yourself how much better off you and your family will be in the long run, if you live within your means and stay on track with your budget. Trust me, no one will notice, anyway!

Feeling You are "Entitled" or "Deserve This" Purchase

Another big mistake people make is feeling that because they are "poor" and cannot afford certain items, such as a new dress they really want, or a set of nice dishes, for example, that they should go ahead and just charge it. After all, what is the point of working if you can't indulge yourself once in a while, right? The problem is, all those little indulgences add up, and no matter how much you tell yourself that you will pay it off right away next time you get paid, it is always much harder to pay it down than it was to charge it in the first place. Inevitably, more expenses come up that you anticipated once you get paid again, making it difficult to pay off the charges. Then, the interest also adds up, and soon you may find yourself hopelessly swamped in credit card debt. If you change your mindset, and keep this mindset when you are shopping, it will go so far in keeping you debt-free. Tell yourself that although you work hard and can certainly treat yourself once in awhile, you will have to do it by saving up for what you want. If you really want that new dress, set aside some cash every pay period, until you have enough. This is what we used to do when we were kids and we got an allowance. If you have to deny yourself the instant gratification of getting it "right now" with a credit card, then so be it. Better to wait and get it later, or perhaps even realize that it wasn't that great after all! Being forced to save up for the item will make you realize whether it is really worth it to you, or not. Remember, even if it is something as small as a $4.00 nail polish, but you cannot afford it, you must walk away from the item. Do not go back to convincing yourself that you can charge it because you "deserve" to be pampered or treat yourself. You deserve to live debt-free and have savings in case of an emergency or unexpected bill, which most definitely *will* come up at some point. Walk away from the item. You don't "deserve" anything except peace of mind when it comes to your spending!

Instead of Shopping, Try These...

Identify your feelings. Are you bored? If bored, make a list of things you could do instead. For example, you could...

  • Read a book (that you already own.. don't buy one!)
  • Go for a walk
  • Call a friend
  • Ride your bike
  • Clean out your closet
  • Find something to sell online
  • Draw or paint, or do a craft
  • Watch a movie
  • Write a blog post (!)

and so on.

Ask yourself, Am I Depressed? If you're feeling slightly depressed, you could...

  • Pray. There is power in our prayers to connect us with God and spark real change. Ever heard the expression "Prayer Changes Things"? It truly does.
  • Read your Bible. The depression and emptiness you're feeling could be a longing to connect with the Creator of the universe. He loves you. No amount of shopping for shiny new clothes and toys can give you the joy and abundant life He promises!
  • Call a friend. Plan to get together in person for a coffee at one of your houses (free!)
  • Get out in Nature. Sometimes simply getting outside and surrounding yourself with God's creation can make you feel a million times better.
  • Connect with your kids (if you have any). Get away from the distractions, like your phone, tablet, or TV. Really get on the floor and play with your kids, or do a craft with them. Before you know it, you'll be laughing and being silly together and you'll forget your cares for awhile.
  • Do something for someone else. Whether its baking holiday cookies for your neighbor, or taking flowers to a nursing home, thinking about others is sure to lift your spirits!
  • Volunteer. Once again, getting the focus off yourself and your issues will make you less likely to shop and keep you on budget.

Being Simply Bored, or Depressed, or Feeling Obligated

I will admit that I've shopped in the past because I was bored, or sometimes out of sadness or even a mild depression. I've made the mistake of going to the clearance rack and finding a purchase that I may have not even needed terribly, or at all, but because it was only $3.00 on sale, I told myself it was fine to purchase it with the store card and that soon I would "pay it back" and everything would be fine. It gave me a little high to make a purchase and go home with some shiny new item.

But let me tell you honestly, shopping out of boredom or depression doesn't cure the real heart issue inside. Once the novelty of the new item wears off, the boredom or sadness, or even slight depression, will still be there, just waiting to reemerge. Consider some other options instead, as I've outlined here in the margin. Keeping your peace of mind when it comes to your spending is worth it! Remember, the shopping only masks the true issues at hand and won't fix what's really happening beneath the surface. Then, when the credit card bill comes, you're sure to be *truly* depressed at your mounting expenses!

Now, let me bring up another topic: feeling obligated. Sometimes, we make purchases we can't afford on our credit cards, due to feeling obligated to others. For example, a birthday party for a co-worker is coming up, and you forgot to budget to get him/her a gift. I've been through this myself, and it's no fun. You can't really afford to splurge on this extra item, yet you feel you have a social obligation to do so.

However, I challenge you (and myself) to change your thinking in this matter. If you truly can't afford it, and are going to have to charge it on a credit card, remind yourself that those little purchases are going to add up, and so is the interest. It's not worth it to destroy your financial future because of a perceived obligation. Instead, find another way to deal with the issue at hand. Make a homemade card or gift for the person instead. Write the person a poem, if appropriate. Handmade types of presents are sometimes even more meaningful than something store-bought. You can also often tastefully re-gift something you already own, and no one will be the wiser (but use good taste here). Or perhaps you can tell the person you will do a rain-check and give them their gift at a later time. Better to be honest and humble now, than staring down that astronomical bill later! Plus, people are often more understanding than you would expect, because times are tough and most of us have felt that financial crunch with the downturn in our economy. So don't let obligation to buy a gift or attend an event keep you from financial freedom!

Finding Things You "Can't Live Without" via Internet Websites or Stores

We've all been there. You log onto a website just to "see what the deals are", or you walk into a store "just to look" or "window shop". Then, before you know it, you're walking out, or "checking out" online with an item that you previously had no idea that you "couldn't live without". Well, one way to nip those impulse purchases in the bud is to not look to begin with. That's right, if it's too tempting for you to charge purchases on your credit card that you know in your heart of hearts, aren't a necessity to live, then don't subscribe to those emails for shopping websites. Don't allow yourself to log onto said websites, either, unless you have a specific item to search for that is within your budget. Also, don't make it a habit to go to the mall with friends just for fun, or to window shop, if you know it will be too much of a temptation for you. Find other ways to spend time with your friends, that don't involve shopping. Or, take some cash out of the bank, with the firm rule that you will only spend the cash you have, and no more. "Just looking" whether online or in person at a mall or store, just invites trouble if you don't have any extra cash to spend. Changing your thinking in this way will help you make great strides toward reaching your goal of financial freedom!

Our Whole Country Needs Help

America is trillions of dollars in debt. So, you are definitely not alone if you struggle with living within your means. However, by altering your way of thinking and avoiding the pitfalls listed above, hopefully you (and I) will be able to stay on budget and avoid charging on credit cards in this upcoming year. Feel free to leave a comment with any other reasons you feel its hard to live within our means as Americans, as well as any other insights you've found helpful!


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