Why You’re In Debt, and Why It Might Not Be Your Fault!

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Mixed Easter Feelings

I hope you had a lovely Easter weekend whatever it looked like for you – I had quite a mixed one. On the one hand, I had time to spend with my boyfriend Tom which was well needed given how busy we both are!

On the other, I had to deal with a tenant who was moving out. She was leaving earlier than planned because she could no longer afford to stay in my flat. Her boyfriend had broken up with her, and now she was having to find rent and bill money on her own as well as tackle credit card debts that she had built up.

Seeing the situation for what it was, and thinking long term, rather than chance months of no rent coming in, I offered her to “get out” early so she wouldn’t get into even more debt. It now puts me in a problematic financial situation, but thankfully I have an exit plan and I’m getting on with it to make it happen asap! (this is how I am getting out of debt).

No Way Out?

This whole situation got me thinking about her financial control, and how she was precisely the sort of person I aim to help. She is a nurse, and while nurses have been struggling with acceptable pay from the NHS at the moment, some basic money management skills may have helped her to stay on top of her finances – like having a f*** off fund for example. At least she has her mum nearby, so she has the option of moving home to get back on track again.

Its too simplistic to blame not “being frugal” or “managing your money better” as the only reasons why someone gets into financial difficulty.

Sometimes the root of why we get into debt is far more powerful than we even realise. Don’t worry, I’m not going to launch into a rhetoric about poverty, politics and government you’ll be pleased to know. But I am going to talk about the one thing that many of us can fall prey to, but which actually may not be fully in our own control, and that is overspending.

Old Brains and New Brains

I think to start with, we all have our “thing” we like to spend money on. Be it shoes, clothes, food, our kids, gambling or travel – there is something that is tempting to over-indulge on. Couple this with emotional triggers, and you have a recipe for debt.

One theory I’ve often seen thrown around (and one I think actually makes sense) comes from the idea of a struggle between our “old brain” and our “new brain”.

Our “old brain” deals with automatic thinking – the so-called “flight or fight” centre. This area is also responsible for instincts like survival, nurturing and sexual drive. It is called the old brain because it is has formed over many years from the animals we have evolved from. In fact, in some circles it is called the “lizard brain”. Professor Steve Peters calls it “The Chimp”.

You might want to read his book – “The Chimp Paradox”. Its very amusing and talks about how the chimp can literally take over our lives if we’re not careful! When you use statements like “I feel”, its coming from this part of your brain. Eating donuts instead of fruit, avoiding the gym and succumbing to road-rage are all linked to old-brain behaviours.

The “new brain” deals with cognitive reasoning – making decisions rationally. Calculations, imagination and problem-solving are all things the new brain can do. This is what makes us human, and the reason why societies have developed so rapidly over the past few thousand years. When you say “I think”, you are using your rational brain.

The problem comes when the old brain way of behaving overtakes the rational, new brain way of thinking.

Debt Psychology

What has old and new brains got to do with debt and overspending?

The answer is – when your old brain is triggered, you go into “automatic pilot” – in other words, you have a set response to that trigger. For some people its food. Feeling unhappy = trigger = eat food for comfort. Rationally, this makes no sense, and as one lady put it in my consultation room – she knows she’s doing it, but just can’t stop herself.

Marketing experts know this. They use all sorts of tactics to push our “triggers”:

  • If you don’t feel good enough about yourself, social media adverts could trigger your feelings of “not enough-ness” and you go out and buy stuff to help you feel better.
  • You could be triggered into feeling “guilty” when you see something on TV about Mother’s day for example. You might then go out and buy things for your family because you feel guilty for not spending time with them.
  • Being in London on a grey morning when its lashing down with rain could get you thinking about running away to a sunny destination. Why do you think advertisers put on “sales” during the winter months?

Of course these are only a few examples. I’m sure you can think of times when you’ve felt triggered and then wanted to spend. An addict of apple products can certainly understand this (myself included).

I read a book once by the author Robert Cialdini called “Influence” where he talks about this exact concept. Like it or not, we are having our buttons pushed every day.

Now you may like to think you are above this, and you may be right. But I bet you there are times where you can’t resist doing something?

Like last week, I went to Costa 3 times for drinks and snacks, and bought lunch out on two occasions. I also purchased a birthday present I couldn’t really afford. I haven’t done these things IN YEARS because I am concentrating on getting out of debt.

In this situation, I had a compulsion to spend irrationally, knowing full well I couldn’t afford to do it.

So why now? What was I triggered by?

Looking at it now, I think it was stress. I’m working in a job where my income has drastically reduced, so I now need to work two jobs to stay afloat. At the same time I’m being taxed more for an underpayment of tax last year, plus I now have the added burden of paying two mortgages and a flat which is stubbornly difficult to sell (hence the reason why I put a tenant in it in the first place). It is hard work keeping all that stress in one place, and it feels like I’m being trapped and controlled by lack of money.

These are my triggers to spending – feeling trapped, and feeling controlled. I get urges to run away and travel, or to buy things I don’t need. All in a bid to help sooth my inner”chimp” and the feelings of anxiety it brings.

Spending when I can’t afford it makes no rational sense – hence why its my chimp running the show, and not me.

So What Next?

After a light-bulb moment this week, I spotted the pattern. Once I saw the pattern, I stopped the automatic mode in its tracks. I am using the free tea at work again, and brought lunches in from home. My debit card is staying put in my purse until I get on top of my finances. I’ll probably even restart cash-envelope spending again (more on this another day).

So you see, even people who write/blog about money still have issues with it. Just because I have a good understanding of how to manage my own finances, it doesn’t mean I’m not also triggered to spend when I shouldn’t. The difference now is, I can realise what I am doing, and stop myself before it gets out of hand.

Now over to you – where are you allowing “your chimp” to run the show and overspend? Comment below or pop-over to my Free and Private Facebook group

Until next time,

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