When driving a car, the car’s dashboard comes in pretty handy. With just a quick glance, you can see how fast you’re traveling, how much fuel is in the gas tank, and how hot the engine is running. Absent a dashboard, driving a car would become a lot more challenging.
Believe it or not, your financial life comes with a dashboard as well. And it contains four critical gauges that you need to monitor. Here they are.
The I’m-Being-Screwed Gauge
You may not be aware of this, but larceny (and worse) resides in the heart of man. I learned this bitter truth in the sixth grade when fat Tommy Mullen stole my bike. He painted it—rather shabbily, I may add—and sold it to a kid a few blocks over. I couldn’t prove it, of course. And because Tommy was older, bigger, and stronger, I had to live with that infamy.
And, sadly, there were many more infamies to come. A fair number of thieves, vandals, mechanics, and salespeople took advantage of my ignorance, naivety, and carelessness to visit ruin upon my wallet. Government, too, was not above such malice. A few years ago, I got a $145 fine in Irving, Texas, for not wearing a seat belt in the car—and I was sitting in the back seat. Really? A hundred and forty-five dollar fine? I guess the Eighth Amendment doesn’t apply to traffic tickets.
And then there’s big business and big labor. Why do they pay so much to hear our politicians speak? Why do they pay so much to help our politicians campaign? Are our politicians the greatest orators the world has ever seen? Are our politicians the most reliable safeguard against abject tyranny? The answer is depressingly obvious. Big business and big labor shower our politicians with money because they want favors. And our politicians are happy to provide them with such favors at my—and your—expense.
Fortunately for you, though, your financial dashboard comes with an exquisitely sensitive I’m-Being-Screwed gauge. If it didn’t, life for you would be very difficult.
The Self-Sabotage Gauge
Did you apply yourself in school? Did you learn a skill or a trade that your fellow man values? Do you live below your means? Are your credit cards maxed out? Do you smoke? Do you routinely drink until you’re blotto? How many hours do you watch TV and play video games? What was the last book you read? What was the last book you read about personal finance? How about retirement savings? Have you bothered to open a Roth IRA or sign up for your 401(k) at work?
And what about your social capital? Do you play well with coworkers? Are you kind to the waitstaff? Do you go out of your way to help family, friends, and neighbors?
Yes, there are a fair amount of external evil-doers in our financial lives (see the preceding section). But the damage they do to our finances is minor compared to the damage we inflict upon ourselves. That’s why your financial dashboard comes with a Self-Sabotage gauge.
The I’m-Screwing-Others Gauge
Do you slack off at work? Do you gossip about your coworkers with other coworkers? Have you ever screwed over a client or a customer in order to meet a sales quota? Do you cheat on your taxes? Do you steal?
You’re no angel. There’s larceny (or worse) in your heart as well. To combat this shortcoming, your financial dashboard comes equipped with an I’m-Screwing-Others gauge.
The Good-Fortune Gauge
In 2010, Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey, public school system. Now, apparently, nothing very much came of this gift. Newark students are still doing pretty poorly on standardized tests. But that’s not the point. The point is that this country is far from a Hobbsian “war of all against all.” Every day, millions of Americans wake up and do something to help their fellow Americans. Sometimes this help is newsworthy, as in the case of Mr. Zuckerberg’s gift to Newark. But most of the time it’s not. In fact, Americans are so good at helping other Americans, we take for granted things that are truly remarkable. Every day, 24-7, electricity is there to light your home, run your refrigerator, and charge your cell phone. Every day, 24-7, water is there to shower, cook, and remove waste from your home. Every day, 24-7, roads and traffic lights are there to make sure your commute is possible and your malls, gas stations, and grocery stores are chock-full of product.
It’s easy to get discouraged, to see only the dark side of the human condition, and to firmly believe that your hard work and honest living will never be rewarded. You therefore need faith to soldier on. And in order to have faith, you need to be cognizant of your blessings; you need to understand that decency has not been extinguished from this land. That’s why your financial dashboard comes with a Good-Fortune gauge.
If You’re Only Paying Attention to Your I’m-Being-Screwed Gauge, You’re Screwed
In order to do well financially, you have to closely monitor all four gauges on your financial dashboard and make sure they’re not in the danger zone.
If you don’t monitor your I’m-Being-Screwed gauge, you’ll become easy prey for all the scoundrels out there who want to separate you from your money.
If you don’t monitor your Self-Sabotage gauge, you’ll become overwhelmed by the habits that bring immediate pleasure but ensure future misery.
If you don’t monitor your I’m-Screwing-Others gauge, you’ll become a callous fool who brings either unemployment or incarceration into your life.
And if you don’t monitor your Good-Fortune gauge, you’ll become blind to all the help and opportunity that exists in your town, state, and country.
Now here’s the rub. Many people don’t want you to monitor all four gauges on your financial dashboard. They want you to monitor the I’m-Being-Screwed gauge and ignore the others. Who are these people? Unfortunately, these people are very often family and friends. But the media also gets involved. Harping on who’s screwing you is a great way to get your attention. And the worst culprits by far are politicians. They’ll never tell you that your worst enemy is you. They’ll never tell you that help and opportunity are all around you, and all you have to do is get off your ass and take advantage of it. No, as far as our politicians are concerned, you have no culpability at all for your financial condition. You’re being screwed! By Wall Street. By predatory lenders. By the evil ONE PERCENT. Heck, you’re even being screwed by other politicians. According to the Republicans, the Democrats have invited every able-bodied Mexican to come here and steal every possible employment opportunity. According to the Democrats, the Republicans have cut spending so much, our public schools are crippled.
Okay, groovy freedomists, here’s a question for you. What happens when you intensely monitor your I’m-Being-Screwed gauge but ignore the others?
You become the ultimate victim. You’re hyper-sensitive to all the financial villains in your life, but you lack the discipline, humility, and gratitude to understand that your financial well-being is largely within your control. In other words, you’ve hobbled yourself mentally, and you’re therefore incapable of helping yourself.
And who benefits the most from you becoming the ultimate victim? Politicians, of course. They love angry voters who loathe personal responsibility. Such voters are easily manipulated and will gladly vote to become dependent on the state.
Up until fifteen or so years ago, I was pretty good at monitoring three of the gauges on my financial dashboard. The I’m-Being-Screwed gauge, the I’m-Screwing-Others gauge, and the Good-Fortune gauge. For some reason, though, I completely ignored the Self-Sabotage gauge. And the results of this failure are not surprising. Financial mediocrity. But happily, largely due to Mrs. Groovy, I became acutely aware of my Self-Sabotage gauge, and everything changed. The trajectory of my financial condition was no longer stuck in neutral. I drastically reduced the number of financial mistakes I made in my life, and the long, glorious trek toward financial independence was underway.
So what say you? Are you ignoring any gauges on your financial dashboard? Or do you have everything covered and your financial engine is motoring along smoothly?