My Future's So Bright, I Gotta Buy Shades

In The Secret Life of MoneyTad Crawford offers this revolutionary concept:

Keeping the symbolic value of money in mind...we can gain a new view of debt, seeing it not merely an obligation to be paid but also as a statement about how our inner richness will be expressed in the future (italics added).

That is actually completely brilliant. Until I read that I had not heard the phenomenon articulated so clearly.

When it comes to understanding how money doesn't work in a person's life, debt is often where the narrative begins. Debt is the manifestation of some sort of imbalance, either internal or external (or sometimes both).

An external imbalance may be quite difficult but it's usually pretty straightforward. Perhaps a major life crisis affected a person's finances, or their resources are simply not adequate for their needs.

An internal imbalance, on the other hand, can be many things. It may be around self-concept, such as when you buy things to try to feel like a new person or to correct for some felt deficit. It may be around impulse, when the desire to buy something rises up and cannot be deferred. There are a million ways we might be slightly skewed in perception, judgment, mood, etc. and all of these can affect how we use money.

What I love about the Crawford quote is how artfully it captures a distortion of both self and time. It shows how debt is a way of not fully living life in the present, but rather projecting oneself forward into some fantasy future where money is more abundant (along with approval, achievement, and sex, most likely).

This more affluent future-self is perceived as the truemanifestation, and the debt is simply the price we pay to express our confidence in that belief.

I see this again and again in my counseling practice. When people arrive at a point whereby they can no longer afford to sustain their debt, they experience an accompanying personal crisis. It is not that they are so attached to the things that they bought on credit. It is that their coveted future self -- who is much more real to them than the life they live in the day to day -- must be sacrificed to come to terms with the reality of their financial position.

The good news is that most people who get appropriate support through this crisis come out healthier on the other side. It's true one can amass huge amounts of debt but there is pretty much always a limit. Being forced to a financial reckoning brings many activities that are effective in re-aligning the temporal distortion and the imbalance in self-concept. Tracking spending, for example, reinforces connection to the present and helps a person to remain grounded in their life as they actually experience it.

Unless there is true mental illness, a derealized existence actually gets pretty uncomfortable after awhile. You only get one life. Spending all that "future richness" wastes so much more than just money.