The Hannibal Lecter Guide to Personal Finance

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Forget Ramsey. Forget Edelman. Forget Mr. Money Mustache. The greatest personal finance guru of our generation is Hannibal Lecter.

A rather bold claim, no doubt. But humor me for a moment and watch the following clip from Silence of the Lambs. Pay particular attention to Hannibal’s insights from the 0:44 second mark on.

“We begin by coveting what we see every day.”

That’s it! Hannibal nailed it. We covet what we see. And on this front, we’re no different than the vile Buffalo Bill.

So how does this apply to personal finance?

Many, if not most Americans, live paycheck to paycheck. For some, this is because America’s cost-of-living is too dear. Their incomes can’t possibly pay for their immediate needs (food, shelter, health care, transportation, etc), AND their contingency needs (emergency fund, life insurance, etc.), AND their future needs (retirement). But for others, income isn’t the problem. They have the money to cover their immediate, contingency, and future needs. The only reason they live paycheck to paycheck is because they repeatedly make dumb spending decisions.

Why? Why do they spend their money so foolishly?

They covet what they see. Every day they are bombarded with images that tell them their happiness and status are entirely dependent on what they consume. If they consume too little their happiness will suffer. “What do you mean you don’t have the latest iPhone? How do you manage?” And if their consumption is too pedestrian, they will invite the sneers of the cool people. “You shop at Walmart, live in a three-bedroom ranch, drive a 10-year-old Ford, and send your kids to public school? Eww!”

Intellectually, of course, they know materialism is not the path to true happiness and self-esteem. They also know it’s better to live modestly, establish an emergency fund, and save for retirement than get sucked into the hedonic treadmill. But they succumb nonetheless. Their self-discipline muscles can only tolerate so much pressure.

So let’s suppose for a moment that you’re one of these unfortunate souls. Your income is fine. You have enough money to set up an emergency fund and save for retirement. But up until now, you haven’t been able to escape the slog of living paycheck to paycheck. How, then, do you give your self-discipline muscles—and your future self—a chance?

Simple. Look to Hannibal. You can’t covet what you can’t see. Here are three surefire ways to protect your eyes from the blistering glare of the glamorous life.

Get Rid of Cable

Television is one colossal inducement to spend. Advertisements are as subtle as a sledge hammer. Buy this or you’re a loser! Buy this and your life won’t suck! But TV shows are just as bad. When I had cable, two of my vices were the Housewives (yes, the entire franchise) and HGTV. And because of this, I often felt very small, very inadequate. “Why can’t I party in the Hamptons?” I would harangue myself. “And why can’t my kitchen have concrete countertops?” But a funny thing happened once Mrs. Groovy and I cut the cord. Suddenly, my crappy cell phone and clothes weren’t so crappy. And, suddenly, I stopped daydreaming about the Hamptons and concrete countertops. Weekend drives to Home Depot and the Dairy Queen became fun again. And my “need” to have spectacular countertops disappeared.

Learn About the Developing World

Your eyes need to see that American “poverty” is high-end living for much of the world. Half the people in India, for example, don’t have access to a toilet. They defecate in the open. So start learning how the other half truly lives. One great way to do this is to go to YouTube and do a search on “BBC documentaries.” You’ll find plenty of documentaries that will put your level of wealth into perspective and will help you become less covetous. Think of these documentaries as a workout for your discipline muscles.

Netflix is another great way to hone your discipline muscles. If you happen to have a Netflix subscription, check out the following shows.

  • Living on One Dollar
  • An Idiot Abroad
  • India’s Daughter
  • On the Way to School

Choose Your Social Circle Wisely

Finally, try to associate with more grounded people. If your social circle values fashion, or cars, or dining out, or having the “right” zip code, you will find it very difficult to live within your means. The pressure to have what your friends have will be unrelenting. And you will succumb.

If on the other hand you hang with a group that is less showy, less inclined to judge the materially challenged, you will have a better shot of living within your means and being kind to your future self. Granted, a night of bowling isn’t as glamorous as a night of fine dining and theater tickets. But bowling is just as much fun, and it won’t ruin your ability to make this month’s IRA contribution.

Remember, as Jim Rohn once observed “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Final Thoughts

Okay, groovy freedomists, that’s all I got. Is it safe to put Hannibal Lecter in the pantheon of great financial gurus? Or am I biting off a little too much here (guffaw, guffaw). Let me know what you think when you get a chance. And let me know how you control your covetous nature.

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46 Comments

  1. Oh yeah – this is great. My fav takeaway line,

    “Your eyes need to see that American “poverty” is high-end living for much of the world.”

    A few days ago I was talking to the young man who was supervising all of our pool and backyard upgrades. I told him we were in no panic to get everything done – I said this so he an his team could take their time and get things done right.

    He said it makes it much easier for them when clients are reasonable like us, and then he went on to tell me how some of his clients scream obscenities at him on the phone because they want their pool open RIGHT NOW!

    Then he said, ‘Talk about first world problems – there’s thousands of kids dying every day in the world from violence and starvation, and these people are so unconscious they’re willing to verbally bully another person because they’re pool isn’t open.’

    • Mr. Groovy

      Wow! If this line doesn’t reflect the hubris and self-absorption that humans are liable to I don’t know what does.

      “Talk about first world problems – there’s thousands of kids dying every day in the world from violence and starvation, and these people are so unconscious they’re willing to verbally bully another person because they’re pool isn’t open.”

      Thanks for sharing, Brent. As always, you elevated the value of this blog with your comments. Bravo, my friend.

  2. OMG! This was genius! Proof positive that inspiration comes from everywhere. Even creepy fictional characters.

    I think younger people, in general, suffer the “covet” conundrum more than others. (I could be wrong.) I’m 47 and really don’t give a rat’s ass what other people have or think about me and my things. But yes, overstimulation and tunnel vision is dangerous.

    How do I control my covetous nature? I constantly chant “need or want” as a way to sort out spending priorities. I also keep a vision board up in my room to remind me of what it is I truly want out of life.

    Amazing article!!!

    • Mr. Groovy

      You’re much too kind, Erica. I think the “need or want” brain loop you came up with is genius too. If more people constantly had this loop running in their heads, there were a be a lot fewer bankruptcies and a lot fewer people approaching retirement with no savings. Thanks for stopping by, LIB. I consider my day a success just because I read your comment.

  3. don’t Lecter me!…
    absolutely, and if you still have a TV, don’t watch it, and if you spend time online use an ad-blocker. advertisement is a constant assault on your finances.
    good one!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Without a doubt, kindoflost. Because I don’t work, don’t have cable, don’t subscribe to any newspapers or magazines, and don’t have any social media accounts (save Twitter to complement my blogging efforts), my exposure to advertising is much less than the typical American’s. And in addition to this rather effective moat, I’m well aware of how advertising is designed to stoke my desires and make it easier to spend. And, yet, despite all of this, when I flyer came in the mail from Dominoes last week, I suddenly wanted pizza. Aaarrrggghhh! A pox on advertising.

  4. Ok, I love that youre a Housewives fan! I had to go back and make sure it wasn’t Mrs. Groovy typing. 🙂 I no longer have Bravo but I can often catch it on my overnights in the hotel. Those ladies (every city) are nuts! But you’re right, many can covet that lifestyle by watching. I just love the drama!

    I agree, Netflix is way better bet than random cable. You can at least choose what your viewing instead of just watching whatever is on. Living on $1 was awesome and I love An Idiot Abroad. That poor guy goes through the ringer! 🙂

    I would maybe add getting off your butt and volunteering. Often people talk about the developing world and our privilege but forget about the children starving (mentally and physically) in our own backyard. I watched a documentary filmed in Chicago and was shocked that these kids could not identify what a tomato was. A tomato! When I began volunteering it opened me up to a whole different world. Old people with no family to visit them, the druggies strung out just needing a meal, dogs that have been beaten and abused that just want to play. These are all things we shelter ourselves from everyday – it’s a different kind of poverty but it is very rampant in our society. If you want to change your world you have to change your surroundings.

    Great post!!

    • Mrs. Groovy

      Mr. Groovy wrote the post and in fact he was the one who got me into some of the Housewives. Initially I only liked NY and NJ but then he turned me on to the OC. I’m answering for Mr. G because we’re traveling and he’s done all the driving. He’s conked out while I fired up the laptop.

      In NY I did quite a bit of volunteering. You’re right in that it exposes you to an entirely different world.

      My favorite part of Idiot Abroad is when Karl always says “Fowkin ‘ell”

  5. Love this post! Totally agree with the social circle. If you want to cut costs and save more, cutting down on social costs is a great start.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Michelle. Agreed. If you can set boundaries with your social circle, you have a better shot of hitting your financial goals. Establishing those boundaries won’t be easy. No one wants to disappoint family and friends. But those who truly love you and care about you will understanding. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Elle. Those are two tough ones. Mrs. Groovy and I are very lucky on both fronts. When we left New York we left our family and friends. Down here in Charlotte we have mainly acquaintances. So the pressure to spend socially isn’t nearly as fierce. We also both work from home. So we don’t eat out for lunch, we don’t get pestered by co-workers to buy cookies from their kids, and we don’t drop a c-note every Friday on happy hour. When we were back in New York I suggested to friends and family that we start a “poverty club” and take turns entertaining at home. Everyone thought it was a good idea, but it never took off. Perhaps you can try to form a poverty club with your social circle? At work, I would just tell everybody that you have credit card debt out the ying-yang and you got to start scaling back your spending. Most of your co-workers should understand and not pressure you to spend, spend, spend. Good luck, Elle. Let me know how things work out.

  6. Love it.

    The simplest messages are the most effective – everyone understands, and no one forgets Hannibal…

    We dropped pay TV and ads years ago. It’s amazing to me when I visit family for the holidays and see what they watch on TV, and how they are bombarded with commercials to the point where there are almost more commercials than there is content.

    Sad.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Indeed. No one forgets Hannibal. Thanks, Jack.

      This year, for the first time in a long while, I felt exceptionally peaceful over the holidays. As we were driving to see my family with the radio on, I realized it was all those freakin’ TV ads that used to drive me nuts. Since we cut the cord we were happily shielded from that nonsense. I mean really, doesn’t every man buy his wife a brand new car for Christmas, wrapped in a red bow?

  7. Perspective is key. It’s too damn easy to take for granted the everyday luxury that is our default. Thanks for the movie list. I look forward to diving in!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey Nelia. Let me know what you think of those movies. I’d really like to know your thoughts. I find they definitely put things in perspective. By the way, Mrs. Groovy and I checked out your website. Awesome. Love it!

  8. Love Silence of the Lambs, but I have to admit I never perceived personal finance guidance in it. Good one!

    Your suggestion to choose friends (and I’ll add partners) who have down-to-earth money values and understand having fun doesn’t require spending massive bucks is a great one. Right on!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Kurt, just because a guy eats human flesh doesn’t mean he can’t be a financial guru. After all, he does buy fava beans on sale. In all seriousness though, friends and partners can make or break your finances. Back in New York, Mrs. Groovy and I had “American Idol” nights with our friends and family. Pizza, cheap wine, and Simon. What a blast. So having a good time and improving your finances need not be mutually exclusive. You just gotta be creative. Thanks for stopping by, Kurt.

  9. Loved this article! I came to you via Rockstar Finance.

    Hannibal Lecter has many points but I also agree with the comment above. Facebook makes a lot of people envious because it’s everyone’s highlight reel and so is Instagram. While I love sharing everyone’s highlights, I also have to take a step back at times and wonder if I am seeing the truth, the good the bad and the ugly, chances are I am not.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Athena you are absolutely right! I blew it by omitting social media. Maybe I blocked it out because I dumped my FaceBook account a few years ago. And the funny thing is, Mrs. Groovy said “Don’t forget social media” when I described the article to her. The truth is, I just can’t take looking at FB and all that stuff. No one posts photos of the cops coming to their house at 2am, after their drunk son drove into a neighbor’s car. Actually, I’d rather see those photos than those stupid ones of them on vacation wearing bathing suits and sipping umbrella drinks.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Friends are key. Mrs. Groovy and I are very fortunate. When we left New York, we left all our friends and family. And we had a good 6-7 year run with no social pressures. Ahhhh the good ‘ole days. Thanks for joining our discussion.

  10. Thank you for this essay. I haven’t seen many commercials in the past three years as I don’t truck with TV. Amazon Prime and Netflix are enough for me. In Boston,MA, though where I’ve lived the past 36 years, ritzy neighborhoods such as the South End are like commercials. I pass more Doggy Day Cares than child care centers as I travel to it’s “flagship” Whole Foods. At 50k square feet, it’s New England’s largest. I always end up coveting $20 vegan carrot cakes that serve around four skinny people…or me twice. I feel badly sometimes when I admit and surrender that there can not be a pound of $30 cheese in my cart and a generous deposit in my “Re-open My Business Savings Account”.
    Truth be told, I have to make a decision in the next six months re: housing. Even when my revenue hits a high enough level, I don’t want to spend $3000-5000 a month for a 2-bedroom apartment. That’s the average in many neighborhoods here, no matter the social conditions and amenities,lol.
    As Mr. Grooves alluded, the Jefferson’s moved on up sans a million dollar kitchen.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Zakiya! I laughed out loud reading your comment. And I’m well aware of the high cost of Bean Town. I have relatives up there and it’s definitely too rich for my blood. By the way, if you’re going to covet, covet chocolate–not carrots. Thank you for stopping by and good luck with your housing adventure. Go Pats!

  11. Laurie Py

    First time reader via Rockstar Finance…you nailed it! Excellent point via Hannibal Lector and even better how we can stop the nonsense!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Welcome to FiG, Laurie! Yes, it is nonsense. I agree. See no stuff, want no stuff. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, ZJ. So true. Life is much easier when the people you’re closest with are on the same page financially. Mrs. Groovy and I really lucked out. We’re quite happy with a modest lifestyle. She’s not into clothes and jewelry. I’m not into cars and sports. In fact, we have to force ourselves to spend money.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Agreed. One big advantage Mrs. Groovy and I have had regarding saving is that we moved away from family and friends ten years ago. When we were back in New York, there was constant pressure to join family and friends for drinks and dinner. And like you pointed out, it’s very hard to say no to people you care about. Perhaps one day people will rediscover the joys of entertaining at home and having potluck dinners. Restaurants are a savings killer.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Jaime. Agreed. A gratitude list is a great way to combat the green eyed monster of jealousy. A hot shower is definitely on my gratitude list. With a simple turn of the wrist, I command hot water to come forth. How many people in the developing world can do that? How many kings from time past could do that? It’s remarkable if you think about it. And it helps me realize that having a crappy car isn’t so bad. Thanks for stopping by, Jaime. Always appreciate your perspective on things.

  12. You forgot to mention the bargain protein to be accompanied by some fava beans and a nice cheap chianti! Well, maybe not. But you do make a good point about all our wants. While we’re not ready to ditch TV (we watch on the DVR where my wife fast forward through all the commercials), we would welcome more documentaries about the rest of our world. The friends we have live in varying degrees of financial wealth, but they are not the type to sneer or judge. Social media definitely comes into play, but there are other ways the coveting infiltrates our home…sale e-mails and catalogs for instance.

    • Mr. Groovy

      LOL! Yes, I forgot all about bargain protein and fava beans. How could I be so careless? Great point about social media. I blew it by not including that in my post. Facebook’s role in stoking envy and materialism is surely huge. And thanks for pointing out emails and catalogs. I forgot about those as well. Damn, this blogging stuff is hard. Thanks for stopping by, Gary. I always appreciate your insights.

  13. LOL – I LOVE this post!

    One of the big problems is our beloved Facebook. Everyone tries so hard to portray a perfect life, complete with new cars, big houses, and exotic vacations – because that’s what we see everyone else doing. However, we don’t know how much of that is paid for or if it’s all debt. Pretty much anyone can take out mortgages and car loans. We see it, so we want it. Good point, Hannibal 🙂

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Harmony. Thanks for stopping by. Facebook is brutal. I joined it a couple of years ago when I was trying to organize a college reunion. But after a couple of months, I had to walk away. I couldn’t take it anymore. Like you said, Facebook is selective transparency. The fabulous stuff gets published and the ugly stuff gets spiked.

      • Social media is def a contributor to how much one covets. It’s easy to share and just as easy to consume and adopt the stories that others share about their lives–pretty soon, everyone wants that new car that some family member or friend just financed.

        • Mr. Groovy

          Hey, Claudia. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, when I was sharing my Hannibal idea with Mrs. Groovy, she mentioned social media as well. But for some reason, I just forgot to include it. (Mrs. Groovy is still mocking me over that omission.) I have a dear friend who is losing his mind over Facebook. He thinks everyone except him is having a fabulous life. Mrs. Groovy has to talk him off the ledge at least once every three months. It’s amazing how devilish the eyes can be.

  14. It amazes me that when you watch TV and see ads for normal everyday things like laundry detergent and cleaning products, the interior shots show houses way above most people’s means. And middle class families on TV don’t live in middle class houses (except maybe the Simpsons).

    I don’t remember that being an issue when I was growing up. The Bradys and Partridges all lived in nice houses, but not crazy nice houses. The Bunkers lived in a not so nice house, and then there was Fred Sandford with his junkyard. Bathrooms and Kitchens on commercials were spotless, but not fancy.

    Now every interior shot looks like something out of a million dollar house. The only times I see “regular” houses on TV is when I watch BBC shows. It’s hard to watch any TV without feeling like you’re missing out.

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Emily. You are so right! Even the Jefferson’s “deluxe apartment” wasn’t much different than the typical American’s dwelling. Weezy certainly didn’t have granite countertops and stainless steel appliances in her kitchen. When did it change? If I remember correctly, the characters on Seinfeld had pretty basic apartments as well. But something definitely changed by the end of the 90s. Now according to TV you’re a loser if you don’t have a chef’s kitchen with a Viking stove and a Subzero refrigerator. Meh!

  15. Well, I wouldn’t name Hannibal Lecter as my go-to financial guru, but be does make a point!

    You’re so right about the social circle – once I stopped hanging out with my materialistic friends I stopped feeling bad about myself and my lifestyle. I’d even add social media to the list as well! (Or, at *least* a drastic reduction in time spent online.)

    Thanks for the reminder!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Hey, Katasha. Excellent point about social media. In fact, when I was discussing the Hannibal angle with Mrs. Groovy, she also mentioned social media (Facebook, in particular). But because I was rushing to finish the post, I forgot all about it. Quick aside. I have a dear friend who becomes seriously distraught whenever he’s on Facebook. In his mind, all his friends have fabulous lives (on Facebook, anyway), and his life sucks (which is not true). And, yet, no matter how many times Mrs. Groovy and I implore him to drop Facebook, he won’t. He’s determined to torture himself. Sigh. Thanks for stopping by, Katasha. You never fail to share some worthwhile wisdom.

      • Mr. Groovy

        Hey, Ben. Katasha has a great mind. She always has excellent contributions to our conversations and has pointed out (in a kind way) the flaws of my reasoning. If you get a chance, check out her site. It’s definitely worth a regular visit.