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.”
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.