“Debt Reduction: Keeping Smugness At Bay” – It was a post I wrote three years ago, only a few months into our journey out of debt. “Smugness is such an unfortunate characteristic,” I wrote at the time. “It takes the shine off accomplishment, and it obliterates the possibility of inspiration. Judgment brings on defensiveness, so the walls go up. And when we defend our position and keep barriers against outside influence, change is less likely than ever to happen.”
I had known through years of chronic indebtedness that smug, money-smart people only succeeded in putting my defenses up. I did not want to follow their example. They could have their mortgage-free homes, their paid-outright cars, and their well-padded savings and investments. If it all had to come with smugness, I didn’t want it.
Discovering my own inner-smug & biting my tongue
I had made a discovery when I wrote that post three years ago. A money-smart smug was threatening to take root in me. A young teacher had told me about the house he had just bought, and about how it was “a stretch” since he still had student loans. And a nice new car – with nice new car payments. “I tried to stay pleasant and non-judgmental,” I wrote of that conversation, “while everything in me screamed, Why did you take on a mortgage when you’ve already got so much debt?” It took all my willpower to bite my tongue.
What happened when I didn’t bite
Last week, I didn’t bite hard enough. A young woman was casually chatting with me about her hopes to go back to school next September, and about her husband’s unhappiness at work. She was trying to convince him to quit his job and to travel with her. Uh-oh! Red flags! He had never had “that life-changing experience” of travel that she had had, and it was time for his life to change. Teeth set on edge, not quite biting tongue.
“Can you afford to do that?” Politely asked. Doing OK.
No, they would have to take out a line of credit.
Don’t do it!!! screamed my inner-voice. “I’m not a fan of debt,” I said with might pass as a tone of motherly concern.
“Neither is my mom. She doesn’t think we should do it.”
More talk of her sympathy for her husband and his strong desire to change his situation.
Just nod and smile, Ruth. Don’t say anything. “What about looking for a new job?” I couldn’t let it go. “If he finds something he likes, you could save up for travel instead of going on a line of credit.”
“We have no debt at all right now,” she said.
“You don’t know what a treasure you have!” Stop it, Ruth!. “If you go into debt to travel now, you’ll kick yourself ten years.” Stop it!
The young woman’s eyes widened. She said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t be telling you what to do.”
She found her voice again. “It’s fine.”
And unfortunately, I found mine. “But don’t do it. Sorry! It’s just a really good idea NOT to go into debt . . .”
I fumbled between apologies and blasts of urgent wisdom combined with intermittent tongue-biting for the remainder of our time together. I just did not handle that conversation well.
What should I have done?
But I can’t decide upon what I should have done. Should I really have just nodded and smiled? Should I have said, “That sounds like an exciting plan!” Should I have said how good it would be for her husband to stop working the job he hated and to travel? No! That would be lying! I don’t want anyone to work a job they hate, but I don’t think the answer is a line of credit and a plane ticket.
Should I have stated my honest concern once, gently – and then just left it? I truly don’t think she would have listened if I’d done that. (And I truly don’t think I could have done that.) But then when I allowed myself to voice my more animated protest, I shocked her.
I seemed to have it all figured out three years ago. “I just have to learn how to deal with the new discernment I’ve developed for financial self-entrapment,” I wrote after considering the young teacher with his growing collection of debts. “I don’t want it to lead me to nagging, judgmental arrogance. I’ll aim for pleasant grace combined with honest but silent knowing.”
I missed “pleasant”, “grace”, and “silent” – all three – in my conversation with the young woman last week. She might think I’m a smug know-it-all. She might think I’m one of those chronic-mom-types who thinks she can nag anyone. She might well have been put off. Defenses up.
There’s a good chance I’ll see her again next week, and if I do, I’ll apologize properly – without backsliding into blurting out my opinion about her plans. I’ll let her know that last week, I was speaking out of my own history of bad money-management and my own experience with debt.
One of the things I’ve gained as I’ve developed money-smarts is the compulsion to share what I’ve learned with others. There are good, constructive ways of doing this, as well as obnoxious, ineffective ways. “People are ready to change when they’re ready to change,” I wrote in that three-year-old post, “and there’s no point in offering unwelcome advice.”
Do you have an inner money-smart smug? How do you respond to people who share their not-so-money-smart ideas with you? Your comments are welcome. Bonus point if you can tell me which movie the line in the post image is from. 🙂
*Photo courtesy of Studio Tdes