Debt Reduction and The Discovery of Character Flaws

Personal flaws uncovered on our journey out of debt

When I gave my talk about our journey out of debt last week at the public library, one of the topics I touched upon was the “deeper” side of debt reduction. While we might all take on our debts with minds full of practical strategies, we soon realize that there is more than logic and logistics involved. “The deeper side of debt reduction,” I said, “is that as you work on the practicalities of budgets and tracking, you’re going to bump into character flaws that you didn’t even know you had.”

I then gave a list of character flaws that I had personally “bumped into”:

  • Impatience – I had a strong willed inner toddler. “I want to buy it NOW!”
  • In denial – I’d kept my financial head in the sand for many years.
  • Pride & Shame & Tendency to compare self to others – Mortifying! I decided long ago that I was too lofty to get caught up in the pettiness of keeping up with the Jonses, of envy, and of needing to prove myself. Yet I had to acknowledge the presence of all of the above in myself.
  • Purchase-as-self-medication – I sought comfort through spending – especially on food.
  • Gullible to tactics of marketers – I had to acknowledge – again, mortifying – that the manipulative tactics of ads worked very well on me.

Yesterday, I discovered yet another character flaw.

Then: Snobbery about rusted beaters

I remember way back – I might still have been a teenager – when one of my friends made a comment about a rusted old car driving by. “I don’t understand why anyone would drive a piece of junk like that!” she said with disgust, shaking her head. I was an impressionable young thing, and though I had never had much of an opinion about cars up to that point, I adopted her snobbery about vehicles that were rusting.

You might say, “Well, rust is not a good thing. It eventually destroys a car.” And you would be right. But my response to these cars had nothing to do with the negative impact rust had on them. It had everything to do with image.

My friend had no qualms about expressing her disgust frankly, but since I was too polite to follow her lead, my snobbery took a more insidious form. “That person must be poor and can’t help it if he/she has to settle for such an ugly car.” It is said that pity is the flip side of contempt, and that was certainly the case with my attitude towards those who drove rusted old beaters. I would NEVER have admitted to snobbery at the time – least of all one so blatantly materialistic.

Now: We’re in the rusted beater club!

Fast forward to today: DH and I drive a soon-to-be 18-year-old van. And it’s starting to rust. If we had not begun our journey out of debt in 2012, I can guarantee that we would have replaced it with a shiny new vehicle by now. But our old van has become a point of pride – a symbol of what we’ve accomplished in bringing our original $257,000 total debt down to just slightly more than $90,000 (mortgage only) over the last 4½ years. Even our kids have gotten over feeling embarrassed by it. I hope it lasts another 18 years!

So what happened yesterday? I was driving slowly down an unfamiliar street – not in our van, but in our not-yet-rusted 5-year old car – and I noticed that the van in front of me had a solid line of rust running across the back. Before I consciously thought anything about it, I realized that what I felt was a friendly connection with the driver – who I couldn’t even see. A sort of “Hey! We’re doing that too. High-five for you, buddy!” My automatic assumption was that the driver was intentional about his/her financial health. Respect. Alliance. Understanding. They had replaced my former pity-and-contempt towards drivers of beaters. And I hadn’t even been aware of that snobbery.

Limiting beliefs

How limiting our beliefs and attitudes can be! “I don’t understand why anyone would drive a piece of junk like that!” Well I do! If you can tolerate a junker, your money is available to go towards your own debt-freedom or financial freedom. What’s not to love about that?

Implicit in every character flaw I’ve discovered as we’ve made our way out of debt are false, limiting beliefs that pull towards financial bondage: “It will feel good to buy this.” / “I have earned a splurge.” / “They will be impressed by this purchase.” / “I have to get a new one because my old one is embarrassing.” 

And with the acknowledgement of each flaw have come powerful counter beliefs: “It will only feel good for a moment.” / “I want to earn financial peace of mind.” / “I don’t care if they’re impressed.” / “My old one is awesome!” 

In praise of discovering character flaws

So although it’s a humbling experience to “bump into” your character flaws, it’s the single most powerful part of debt-reduction – the deeper side of it. Once you acknowledge a flaw, you gain insight into the sabotaging beliefs associated with it. You gain wisdom to challenge these beliefs – and to replace a path of limitations with a path  of possibilities.

Have you discovered character flaws in your efforts to gain better financial health? Have you challenged the limiting beliefs that come with these flaws? Do you drive a rusted car? Your comments are welcome.

*Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

20 comments on “Debt Reduction and The Discovery of Character Flaws

  1. LOL, this reminds me of my old boss. His goal was to never spend more than $250 on a car. He would search and search until he found “the one” and then drive it for a few years until it croaked, then replace it with another. He retired early – and wealthy. 🙂

    1. Unfortunately, I sometimes have to worry about the way I think about things – without even being aware of it. Old thought patterns are sneaky and stubborn.

  2. As I drove our 7-1/2-year-old Hyundai past the brand new BMW parked in our driveway (a client of my husband’s) I felt not even a pang of envy. I knew he had a big payment, while our car was paid for in cash when it was five years old, it still looks brand new and we love it. I’ve come a long way, baby lol.

    1. You HAVE come a long way. What a sense of freedom to realize, “Hey! This kind of thing used to make me envious, but now I don’t even want it.” Now let’s see if your Hyundai lasts as long as our van : )

  3. If you have ever watched the show “Pawn Stars” on the history channel, antique firearms are worth more when rusted. They call it “patina” & it can also apply to personal finance.

    In a way you could say that rust (patina) is “poor man’s gold” when it is in the right places.

  4. I’m impressed that your friend used the term “piece of junk” instead of the more colorful version. Hear hear to her! 🙂 Personally, I’ve never been one to need the very best. I just don’t care that much about designer names and that kind of hoohaw. However, I don’t like things to be rusty or raggedy, so I do care about appearance a bit too much in that way. I’m not sure if it’s just a personal aesthetic choice or if it’s also about not wanting to give a certain appearance of shabbiness to others, but unless a car is being held together by bumper stickers, figuratively speaking, a bit of rust doesn’t bother me. Would I want to drive a literal rust bucket though? Nuh uh. Call me a Snobby McGee! 😛

    1. She did use the term “junk” in that situation (but she used the other word your thinking of in many other situations). We’ll drive our van for as long as possible – no matter how rusty it gets. But I don’t think we would if we weren’t on a mission to pay off all debt. This is one of our “gazelle intense” strategies to make the goal happen. If we were completely debt-free, we’d reserve the right to say “No” to a lot of rust – just as you do, Snobby McGee : )

  5. Ruth, there’s so much good stuff in this post!!

    I hate to admit it, but your list of personal flaws is like looking in the mirror! Seriously, I am or have been guilty of all of them.

    Our cars aren’t rusty, but they’re old(-ish) and have lots of miles on them. (Each has ust under 200,000 miles!) One is fully paid off, and the other will be in a couple of months. We plan to drive them until it no longer makes sense to pay for their upkeep.

    1. So it sounds like the same character flaws get in the way of financial health for different people. That actually makes sense. You and I can both change what we see in the mirror, Amy! Great plan of action for your cars. It will be so nice to be driving them for as long as possible knowing they’re both completely paid off : )

  6. My wife and I both drove our last two cars into the ground, both reaching (and one surpassing) the 200k mile marker. They had issues, sure, but not having a car payment meant every additional day, week, and month we had the cars was a financial gain. Now I’m very much so focused on the value a car provides, and honestly much more excited for cars in ten or twenty years when some really cool technology comes to market and begins becoming commonplace. I’d rather save that money so I can join in on those advancements than drive a “nice” car today for image purposes!

    1. I think you’re referring to advancements in electric cars? I hope that in 10 or 20 years time you’ll be able to go for the car technology you’re so interested in. And based on your drive-cars-into-ground philosophy now, my guess is that you’ll be able to : )

  7. Haha we drive a very rusted car. We do try to purchase our used cars without rust but the road salt here eventually does its work.

    I think we struggle with reverse snobbery–judging people for having nicer cars! We don’t see why someone would spend $30,000 on a depreciating liability (which is bound to rust), but that’s not our choice to make for them.

    But to the main point, I’ve definitely discovered character flaws and I agree that, while embarrassing, it’s actually a good thing to become aware of and hopefully change. I am very fearful, often afraid of failure to the point that I don’t want to try. Any time my husband proposes a major goal, my first reaction is to tell him what’s wrong with the goal and why we’ll fail. Not super encouraging 🙁

    Thanks for being brave enough to share your character flaws here!

    1. It IS a good thing to become aware of personal flaws – not as a judgment or condemnation, but as a window to understanding and even compassion. The concept of reverse snobbery is interesting. I find myself drifting in that direction too these days. May you drive your rusted car for many years to come, Kalie!

  8. Impatience – I had a strong willed inner toddler. “I want to buy it NOW!”

    Oh yes, this has been me many a time 🙁 Still a work in progress, but I am getting better 🙂

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