The unexamined (financial) life

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by KEN AND KAREN GONYER

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

Woman Shopping for New Car

A car bought on a sudden whim—or any thing that helps to lift our spirits—can set us off track of financial goals. © Thinkstock

We didn’t know who had pulled into our driveway until they stepped out of the flawlessly shiny and stylish silver car. It was a couple of our close friends who had just that weekend traveled out of state to drop their daughter off for her first year in college. As we welcomed them in, Ken pointed at the car’s temporary tags. “New?” he asked the husband. With a shrug and a sheepish grin, our friend nodded. “Therapy,” explained the wife.

That was a few years ago, and we were reminded of the experience this past summer as we got ready for the emotional impact of taking our oldest child to a college many hours away. We now have a new understanding of what might have motivated our friends to make that five-figure impulse buy. It happens to all of us. As we’re enduring difficult situations, our hearts search for something that will make us feel better. In those moments, we sometimes make decisions without engaging our brains or consulting our budgets.

Although we didn’t stop at an auto dealership on our way home, we could certainly have used some sort of “therapy” to help ease the transition. For Karen, shopping for fabric in some Amish country quilt shops would be good medicine. Ken thought relief could be found in the flavors of a gourmet fondue restaurant. In either case, it would take money to improve our moods.

Emotions have great power to impact the way we spend money. It’s amazing how many financial decisions are based on passionate feelings instead of cool logic. We have an acquaintance in his 50s who calls his two-seater Mazda Miata his “mid-life crisis” car. Somehow, the sporty convertible eases some of his dread about aging. We remember another couple whose deep insecurity led them to spend much, much more on their child’s wedding than they could afford. They didn’t want anyone to “look down” on them, so they went into debt for years to pay for an event most of the guests have completely forgotten. And then there is the divorced father we met who tries to relieve his guilt about the failed marriage by loading his children up with expensive gifts during their summer visit.

Emotions have great power to impact the way we spend money. It’s amazing how many financial decisions are based on passionate feelings instead of cool logic.

Sometimes living by our feelings is just silly. When we moved into our new subdivision, the deep green color of our neighbors’ lawn made our grass look yellowish. For some reason, this left Ken feeling “less than” and a little bit ashamed. It was tempting to join our neighbors and chemically enhance our own little lawn. Tempting until we learned that the price tag could reach a thousand dollars a year! At this stage of life, that’s definitely not how we want to spend our money. If we’d responded with our pride instead of our financial plan, we would have had more green in our yard but a lot less green in our wallet.

Without taking time to think and pray about our spending and examine our financial priorities, we’re all susceptible to the snare of emotional spending. It’s not a healthy place to be. Our list of financially-poisonous emotions includes jealousy, guilt, loneliness, shame, unhealthy pride, fear, worthlessness, fatigue, boredom, heartbreak, paranoia, and anxiety. There are probably many more that we haven’t yet felt or seen ourselves. They’re all feelings that motivate unwise money decisions. We learned in a counseling class that addicts are at their weakest when they are feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired. That’s the signal that they need to HALT, examine their state of mind, and make healthy choices. In the same way, when we recognize negative emotions welling up, we need to be on guard against thoughtless spending.

Not all emotions are bad for your finances. In fact, some feelings motivate us to handle money in a very positive way. For example, emotions such as love, commitment, generosity and liberality inspire us to care for our families and provide for our children. Honor and gratitude lead us to help parents and grandparents in need. Faith encourages us to feed those who hunger and to bless those in need. Responsibility and conscientiousness provoke us to communicate about money with our spouse and create a spending plan together. This is good for us. All of these positive emotions have beneficial outcomes that make us feel better.

We don’t want to live an “unexamined” life this year, especially in the area of finances. Instead, we want to bravely face our own flawed attitudes and negative emotions. We want to make conscious, prayerful and positive decisions about the ways we spend and save money. In faith, with God’s help, we know we will.

Ken Gonyer is Director of Member Care at Park View Federal Credit Union (www.pvfcu.org) in Harrisonburg, Va. KAREN GONYER is a real estate agent with KlineMay Realty in Harrisonburg, Va. Email questions to .

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