Dealing With My Financial Achilles’ Heel: Metaphor of Pipe, Valve, and Filter

DH = Dear husband

Great progress overall

If you’ve been following our journey out of debt for any amount of time, you have read several posts about my dismal performance with discretionary money. Overall, DH and I are making great progress towards debt-freedom. In 5 years, we have paid off nearly 3/4 of our total debt. We’ve also saved an emergency fund to see us through 3-6 months without income, and we’ve started to invest significantly. Dave Ramsey says it takes the average household 7 years to become completely debt-free (including mortgage-free) following his strategy, and we’re on solid track to be that household in 2 years.

A+, right? Yes … until you look at my discretionary account … where I’ve been in debt for over a year.

Financial Achilles’ heel: My discretionary account

DH and I decided to give each other a significant “allowance” as part of our effort to get our financial act together. Most of our household spending, for both needs and wants, comes from our joint accounts – groceries, gas, utilities, car repairs, property taxes, vacations … But for some of our spending, for both needs and wants, we each use our discretionary accounts – clothing, shampoo, meals out, gym memberships, gifts … The amount of our allowance? $600 per month.

I can already see the eyes rolling. “$600 per month is a LOT!” Yes, it is. It’s enough to do all of the above comfortably. It’s more than enough for DH, who is able to take snow-boarding trips and even invest from his discretionary account. And it’s enough for me, but I haven’t succeeded in managing it well. It’s the place where all of my old bad, chaotic, thoughtless patterns with money continue to reside. I would really like to evict them all.

Water pipe

Imagine a pipe through which water from a big tank flows. For this metaphor, the pipe is a person’s cash flow – let’s say mine – and the tank is my account. The water itself represents my purchase desires. The tank gets replenished on schedule every month.

  • tank = account
  • pipe = cash flow
  • water = purchase desires

Unimpeded, all water from the tank goes through the pipe and flows out the end point. In the same way, with no restrictions, all purchase desires that enter  my consciousness result in cash flowing out to buy, buy buy.

When the tank is emptied, water stops flowing through the pipe – unless there is a reserve tank which will have to be replenished eventually along with the regular one. In the same way, when my account is “drained”, the cash flow stops – unless I use credit as a “reserve tank.”

Valve

If a valve is applied to the water pipe, it can stop the flow, and prevent the tank from emptying. The problem is that some water is actually needed. In the same way, I could impose a “NO SPENDING MONTH” and prevent my account from going to (or below) zero. The problem is that my discretionary money covers some needs, so some cash flow has to happen. If I run out of dental floss, I have to buy it. Tricky.

As a solution, the valve can be set to allow only a certain amount of water through, so that the tank won’t empty before it’s replenished. For my account, I can take out only a certain amount for cash flow so that it won’t empty out before the next month’s allowance. So take out $300 for instance, and leave $300 in the account.

The problem with that water valve is that it was set to wide-open for so long, it won’t stay in place at any other setting. It keeps slipping out of place and going back to the fully-open mode. Try forcing it to stay in place, and it strains so that water actually leaks out. The “valve” on its own doesn’t work for me either. It keeps slipping back to my auto-pilot of maxing out. Besides, I know that other $300 is in that account – and I know that the “reserve tank” of credit is there too. My willpower can work against open cash flow – but its effectiveness is limited. One strain – a tough day at work or a bad night’s sleep – and there’s a money leak.

Filter

Unlike  a valve, a water filter isn’t simply “set” at a certain level. The filter is constantly adjusting, monitoring every drop of water that flows through the pipe. If a bit of dirt comes along, the filter takes it out of the stream. If some pesticide makes its way into the pipe, the filter removes the harmful chemical. In the same way, I can monitor the purchase desires that enter my consciousness, maintaining a constant awareness of them, and adjusting. Yes, that purse would make a great birthday present, but it’s too expensive. I’ll ask someone if they’d like to chip in with me. Hungry again?! Grab and handful of bean crisps from the bag in your desk before leaving work, and head straight home without even looking at a Tim Horton’s. Bring a snack as well as a lunch tomorrow.

The yoga factor

My youngest daughter has been trying yoga classes for the past few weeks. “They’re so kind!” she says of the instructors. “They’ll just come up and gently adjust my arm or tell me to lean more to the right. There’s no judgment.” I tried a yoga class earlier this week, and the same philosophy was evident. “There is no judgment,” the instructor said – a very reassuring thing for me as a non-yogi. The more practiced people in the class had greater flexibility and balance than I could manage. But sometimes as I focused and adjusted, and gained an awareness of which muscle groups I needed to activate, I could maintain a pose.

How will it all apply?

I’m going to apply this same non-judgment to my efforts at “filtering” with my discretionary fund. It’s at $1,669.32 in the red. I’ve tried the willpower method involved in setting limits – the “valve” approach – without success. Now I’ll temper it with the constant “filter” of focus, awareness, adjustments – and hopefully strike that elusive balance in the black with my discretionary account.


Do you have any insight on changing this kind of stubborn negative pattern? Your comments are welcome.


*Image courtesy of flickr