Debt Reduction: Keeping Smugness at Bay

DH = Dear Husband

Mortgage-free but smug and uninspiring

            I remember about twelve years ago, going to the home of a couple who had recently paid off their mortgage.  They were in their mid-thirties, so it was a rare and impressive thing.  A few people were gathered together for some reason or other, and many of us offered congratulations to our newly mortgage-free hosts.  It wasn’t a status to which I particularly aspired at the time, but I was happy for the pair because they were clearly pleased at having achieved a goal.  Then the husband, avoiding direct eye contact, shrugged his shoulders, raised his hands and said, “If we can do it, anyone can.” He didn’t say it as an encouraging, “You can do it too!”  His message was a judgemental  “There’s no excuse for you if you haven’t paid off your mortgage like we have.”  The good will I’d felt towards them faded to a blank.
            Smugness is such an unfortunate characteristic.  It takes the shine off accomplishment, and it obliterates the possibility of inspiration.  Judgement 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 know for myself, with regards to money management, that for many years I felt out of control and overwhelmed by the details.  Financial balance, the necessary starting point for any financial planning, eluded me.  Instead, there was a chaos of numbers and accounts and bills and unexpected expenses.  I was bewildered, and I felt the shame of incompetence.  But judgmental comments from people with money sense only entrenched me in my losing position.   Even purely sensible comments came off as nagging to me – something I’d block out.

Debtors & our resistance

Those of us with bad money management and big debt need to take the walls down if we’re going to change.  We have to open up to outside influence, but we’re not likely to invite arrogant know-it-alls to help us move forward.  DH and I became completely psyched by the possibility of debt freedom after reading Dave Ramsey’s book The Total Money Makeover.  Ramsey doesn’t nag or judge.  He presents a vision and offers a strategy.  Very wisely, he shares his own experience of financial failure.  In his mid-twenties, married and with two small children, he had to file for bankruptcy.  It was a devastating time, but from the ashes of his failure, he grew to enormous success.  And because he is transparent about this failure, I for one had no inclination to get defensive or put up barriers.  I was open to change.

Discovery of my inner-smug

So I have to watch myself now that I’m solidly on the road to debt reduction.  I was recently chatting with a young teacher who was excited about the house he had just bought.  He explained that it was a bit of a stretch because he was single.  And he was paying off student loans.  And he had big payments to make for the expensive car he’d bought two years ago.  I tried to stay pleasant and non-judgemental while everything in me screamed, Why did you take on a mortgage when you’ve already got so much debt?  I allowed myself to ask, “Would you consider selling your car and driving a junker?” but the look of incredulous horror on his face made his answer clear.  People are ready to change when they’re ready to change, and there’s no point in offering unwelcome advice.  I just have to learn how to deal with the new discernment I’ve developed for financial self-entrapment.  I don’t want it to lead me to nagging, judgemental arrogance.  I’ll aim for pleasant grace combined with honest but silent knowing.
            By the time DH and I pay off the mortgage, it won’t be quite so impressive a moment of accomplishment as it was for that younger couple of twelve years ago.  If we play it right though, it might be a moment of inspiration for someone else who sees debt-freedom as an elusive concept.  And to play it right, we’ll have to keep smugness at bay.

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  1. “If we can do it, anyone can.” He didn’t say it as an encouraging, “You can do it too!” – I would read that as an indication of his humility. He’s offering himself as a power of example rather than a guru or coach.

    1. I wish I could adequately convey the tone of voice, body language, and personality with which those words were said. I promise they weren’t said with humility. I like them a lot more when I impose a humble tone. The power of example is very positive when it’s offered with humility and without judgement.

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