I’m all for politicians, pundits and any number of financial experts trying to help the average American understand or process our country’s financial challenges by comparing them to the money issues of the average American family, but just once I’d like to hear the metaphor played out to its uncomfortable truth.
“While the issue may be complex, the solution, it’s not easy, but it may be simple,” Mike Huckabee told Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report recently. “For example, we’re dealing with an economic meltdown because of a simple violation of the principle ‘you can’t spend money you don’t have and you can’t borrow money that you can’t afford to pay back.’"
He continued to explain, “Now, individuals know that, businesses know that, why doesn’t the government know that? But they continue to spend money. If you’re in a hole, number one, stop digging. If you’re broke, number one, stop spending. That’s a simple principle applied to a complex problem.”
OK, on its face when Huckabee and others say that it makes sense. Except for the part where, despite knowing that, many American couples wind up in divorce court and many businesses fail because disagreements over money become irreconcilable. Knowing that simple principle doesn’t shed any light on how best to apply it or how to get out when there is a hole already dug.
Living within our means is a foreign concept to most Americans, even when we’re not in a recession. I’ll never forget a European co-worker in her 20s telling me how taken aback she was when she came to New York for an internship and realized people spend money here they don’t have. She couldn’t wrap her head around the concept.
So how effective is it to use that metaphor when talking about our country’s need to balance a budget and stimulate growth? How many people have actually grasped that concept? The ones living in mini-mansions they can’t afford? Or the ones driving vehicles that own them instead of the other way around?
Imagine that instead of two business partners or two spouses we’re adding millions of other very strong opinions into the equation on how income should be spent and how much should be socked away for the short- and long-term future. That is our country’s challenge and hence its great divide. To quote a delightful Nancy Meyers film, ‘It’s Complicated.’
It’s not enough to know that you have to tighten your belt. That’s almost the easy part. It’s the how and where that gets hairy and downright stressful in most households and businesses. Even assuming it’s not as dire as, say, the situations described on 60 Minutes last weekend where poor children talked about their parents fighting about money decisions (i.e., food vs. electricity), it’s dicey territory to figure out what’s on the cutting block in an average household -- her manicures or his golf? One partner’s Starbucks habit or the other’s penchant to load up the iPod every week?
“It’s this simple: Money can ruin your marriage,” says Dr. Phil on his Web site. “In fact, it’s the number one problem in marriages, and the number one cause of divorce.”
So, really, can we dispense with the mentality that only an idiot can’t balance the national budget? Or the notion that perhaps we’re just not trying hard enough?
We know what is minor or expendable to one makes life markedly better or even bearable to another. That is the crux of our country’s challenge moving forward – what stays and what goes? But there is nothing simple about that answer. Stop spending, you say? Hmmmm. Nearly a decade ago while trying to make a living after a layoff I got into financial trouble. I still had to decide whether to lay out money for flyers and business cards and networking events and clothes to wear to those events in order to rebuild my life. So much of what I invested back then continues to pay off now, but each was a wrenching decision then.
That is the nuance of budgeting and planning with not just frugality and fear but vision and faith. Within that framework, no two people are going to agree on how that is best executed. The idea of all the elected officials who represent millions of people getting on the same page on this is nothing short of daunting. The discussion of our nation’s economic recovery is rife with clashing egos and moral codes as we talk about unions and abortions and wars and education.
Let’s bring it back to the ‘average’ American couple metaphor for a moment. In one of many Web articles about how finances are one of the top reasons for divorce, it says, “If one partner spends freely and the other one is more cautious with his or her spending habits, this can cause conflict in the marriage.” According to another, “It’s a deeper problem than just money, as the person who brings home most of the money will often resent the other person for not wanting the same quality of life the other wants. They may feel the person isn’t trying hard enough.”
“Don’t let yourself get taken advantage of,” Dr. Phil tells couples. “Are you working 80 hours a week just so your spouse can live beyond your means? That’s not being a partner; that’s being a paycheck, and it won’t fix the problem.”
It’s that piece that colors so much of our national discussion on this. A lot of us fancy ourselves on one side of that scenario or the other and we often see it as black or white. Just look at the events around balancing budgets unfolding in Wisconsin and other states these past few weeks. Much of the discourse is centered on generalizations about employees who work for the state – how hard they work or not, what they deserve or not, if that is the best place to make cuts or not. Where’s the gray area? Where’s the allowance for seeing the person who’s just like us wondering why she is suddenly under such vicious scrutiny when concessions have already been made?
On last weekend’s episode of Undercover Boss, the mayor of Cincinnati, Mark Mallory, put on a disguise and had a chance to see some city employees doing their job on a daily basis. At the end of the show after he’d revealed himself, he made a point of saying that regardless of the perception of city employees slacking off, he saw a whole different reality.
We’re all guilty of wanting to look out for our own best interests when it comes to crafting a financial plan. It’s human nature. Maybe what Mallory experienced is the simple principle we should strive for -- putting a face to a job or a budget cut every once in a while instead of making sweeping generalizations about our fellow Americans. Perhaps it’s about actually asking, what will be the real impact of that cut? Maybe the Starbucks habit is not just about coffee but a feeling of being part of the social fabric.
Be it in the hands of the Smiths living on Mulberry Lane or the most brilliant economic minds in the world or the elected officials running our cities and states, there is nothing simple or easy about this. Not by a long shot.