Ah, December … the most wonderful time of the year! At least that’s what we are led to believe. Sounds great, but the truth is that for many people this is the worst time of the year. And there’s nothing like the pressure of tight finances to compound the situation.
I think the Holidays—and by that I refer to all of the winter holidays right through New Years—are a lot like a big magnifying glass. They exaggerate what already exists.
If you are unemployed, the season makes unemployment even more unbearable. If you are so stretched financially that you’re having trouble making ends meet, this time of year only widens the gap because of what seem like unavoidable holiday expenses.
But that magnifying glass can also enlarge what’s good in your life provided you are willing to change your focus.
I want to encourage you to position the magnifying glass of the season over what you do have.
More than half of Americans, reportedly, make New Year’s resolutions. And 88 percent of those resolutions end in failure, according to a study by British psychologist Richard Wiseman.
There is a scientific reason for this fail rate that once we understand, we’ll be able to keep our resolutions long enough to make them stick.
The bottom line is that our brains cannot handle New Year’s resolutions. No seriously. It has to do with willpower and our brains’ cells that operate that particular mental function.
The human brain is divided up into sections—each one handling different aspects of brain function. The pre-frontal cortex (the part located at the front behind your forehead) is assigned the tasks of 1) staying focused 2) handling short-term memory 3) solving abstract tasks and 4) willpower.
Here’s the problem: That part of your brain cannot handle all of those things at the same time. It requires a huge amount of focus and willpower to change a learned behavior overnight, which is what a New Year’s resolution demands.
Bad habits are hard to break—and they’re impossible to break if we try to break them all at once. The focus and willpower required are just too much for the human brain. It simply cannot deliver.
The human pre-frontal cortex is like a muscle. It has to be trained. If you joined a local gym, you would never dream of starting out lifting a 300-pound barbell on your first session. You’d start with a 2-pound weight for a 2-minute session, working up slowly to heavier weights and longer periods of endurance.
What would you do this holiday season if you had absolutely no money to spend and no available credit, either?
That’s the question I ask this time of year, and the responses have been all over the map from all-out panic to excitement at the thought of taking on such a challenge.
I’m not suggesting this should be the case for anyone. I’m simply posing the question in the same way I might ask what you would do if you noticed your kitchen on fire or your child choking on a chicken bone. Knowing to call 911 is good, but so is having a fully-charged fire extinguisher handy and a working knowledge of the Heimlich Maneuver.
So, let me ask you, could you do it? Could you find ways to celebrate Christmas that would fill your heart with joy and create warm and lasting memories, even if you had no money and no credit?
You know, when you come right down to it, isn’t that what we really want for Christmas? Isn’t that why we work so hard and often spend so much, to find joy and make memories that will last for a lifetime?
Encouragement. For me it is a basic need or perhaps a character flaw, I’m not quite sure. All I know is that I need encouragement, and I need it often. I have a feeling that you do, too. This matter of getting out of debt, living below our means and learning how to manage our money can be a very discouraging proposition at times.
I want to become one of the encouragers in your life—someone you can count on to cheer you on in the good times and help dust you off so you can get up and back on track during the bad times.
I want to be the one you can always count on to help you see the big picture, to point out the glimmers of joy in seasons of sorrow. I want to be there to help pull you up to the top of the mountain so you can see all the beauty below.
Over the years I have built up my own collection of “encouragers.” Some are people, but some are books, websites and activities like exercise and prayer. I know the people, places and things that are a source of encouragement for me. I count on them. They help me to focus and give me the confidence I need to keep going. I try to concentrate more on them than on those people and situations that tend to be discouragers.
The way a company deals with its customers after the sale is as important as what happens to get that sale in the first place. I am quick to criticize companies who give poor customer service and have done so right here, in the past. And when a company gives excellent customer service, I believe they should get equal billing.
Last March, I stopped by Babies R Us to purchase a Gift Card for a very special baby shower. Our second grandson would be due in only a few weeks; I was in a frenzy packing and preparing for our big move to Colorado. Our son and daughter-in-law had created a registry at Babies R Us. I knew they would appreciate a gift card to get exactly what they needed, when they needed it and I would appreciate saving a little time by not having to figure out exactly what that might be.
The store manager helped me with this purchase, which I recall specifically in that we had a nice chat about store managing stuff. Drawing from my best advice when purchasing anything that holds a promise (such as a deposit or tickets for something in the future), I paid for the $100 Gift Card with a credit card—on my way to the shower. I quickly signed the card and tucked the cute Baby Boy Gift Card inside.
It’s not easy being a consumer these days. In fact, it can be downright confusing because of all the payment choices. First, you have your cash, your checkbook, credit and debit cards. And then you have deferred billing, skip-a-payment, nothing down, no payments and/or zero interest till the next decade. See? Confusion, pure and simple.
Prehistoric consumers had it easy. Just one choice: chickens. They traded poultry for things they needed. The rules were simple: No fowl? No food, fuel, fun or futons for that matter.
Then along came the invention of currency and that gave consumers a second choice—one that caught on quickly since folding a chicken to fit neatly into ones wallet was rather messy.
A third option was both the day some unknown retailer came up with a payment plan, surely named in memory of the good ol’ chicken days: Layaway. You may be wondering what happened to layaway, anyway!
Not that long ago, every major retail store in the country allowed customers to buy merchandise on layaway. The item was placed in the back room and customers could take all the time they needed to pay it off. Interest free. And when they made the last payment, they took the item home.
It’s that time of year again—everyone wants your money. Brace yourself for more dinnertime phone calls and mailbox solicitations.
Those kinds of things used to bother me. So did the collection plate at church. I felt guilty because no matter how much money we made, there was never enough to give away. And with all the debt my family had, how could I be expected to help others?
Then our financial house of cards came crashing down. It was ugly. Losing our business and our income, and getting notice that our home was scheduled to go into foreclosure, were huge wakeup calls. At the darkest moment, I made a promise: If I ever see another dollar, I’m going to give some of it away. First. Then I will do the best I can with the rest. And I meant it.
I did see another dollar—in fact, many dollars—in the following years. “Give and save first, then spend” became my money management philosophy.
From time to time a financial planner will argue that it was foolish to contribute to charity, my church and others while paying exorbitant interest rates on credit card debt. I disagree. Yes, we probably could have paid down the debt faster—it took 13 years to pay off more than $100,000 in unsecured debt. But I know myself. Giving gave me a grateful heart and the stamina I needed to keep going until my last debt was paid.
You know the feeling when reach into the pocket of a coat or pants you haven’t worn for awhile and pull out a $20 bill? What would it feel like if you pulled out hundreds of dollars? And what if you found money like that month after month?
It’s not magic—it can be done. Pin holes in your financial life can turn into massive money-gushers. Patching these holes is the key to improving your income.
The problem is that it’s easy to ignore the tiny cracks. We’re busy—there’s the mortgage or rent, car payment, credit cards, insurance, college savings, carpools, vacation plans, retirement accounts, work benefits; kids, dog, guinea pig. So the little stuff happens without our noticing.
What’s the harm in picking up dinner from the drive-thru again? Our lives are so busy and we have to eat.