iym articles
other helpful links
October 25, 2003


In fact, most people life what I call "The Niagara Syndrome." I believe that life is like a river, and that most people jump on the river of life without ever really deciding where they want to end up. So, in a short period of time, they get caught up in the current:   current events, current fears, current challenges. When they come to forks in the river, they don't consciously decide where they want to go, or which is the right direction for them. They merely "go with the flow." They become a part of the mass of people who are directed by the environment instead of by their own values. As a result, they feel out of control. They remain in this unconscious state until one day the sound of the raging water awakens them, and they discover that they're five feet from Niagara Falls in a boat with no oars. At this point, they say, "Oh shoot!" But by then it's too late. They're going to take a fall. Sometimes it's an emotional fall. Sometimes it's a physical fall. Sometimes it's a financial fall. It's likely that whatever challenges you have in you life currently could have been avoided by some better decisions upstream.
      − Anthony Robbins,   Awaken the Giant Within

It never ceases to amaze me:   People often make some astonishingly horrible decisions when it comes to money.

Early this week, my wife videotaped an episode of Dr. Phil for me. (Laugh all you want, but I'll watch just about any show that discusses personal finance — even if it's hosted by a persona who happens to be the "Help me help you" flavor of the month.)

This particular episode, entitled "Going for Broke," center-staged a trio of youngish couples whose daily lives seemed to be filled with the dubious goal of imploding their respective financial positions. (And they were doing top-notch jobs of it, too.) I was particularly interested here because Dr. Phil's "guest experts" happened to be the authors of the recently-released book The Two-Income Trap, which I'd read and reviewed not too long ago. But the drop-your-jaw focus of the show, with its ever-present daytime-drama style, was the couples themselves. Read a bit about them and decide for yourself:   Can these couples really be this stupid? Can anyone?

Focus Couple #1:   Jessica & Nate
Holy cow. It's stories like this make me really wonder whether these people and their situations are for real. Jessica and Nate appear to be in their mid- to late twenties. They're a whopping four months removed from bankruptcy proceedings. Even with that, though, Jessica is still out there doing her part to stimulate her local economy, recently forking over $250 for a designer purse and $420 for three pairs of designer jeans. Fringe expenses like this would be tough to handle for many families. But add on the fact that Nate's occupation as a mechanic is likely not bringing in piles of money, and you have a recipe for financial disaster on a grand scale. But the kicker here? Jessica attributes their financial precariousness not to her spending habits, but to her husband's lack of earning power.

"Nate is a mechanic," says Jessica. "I find myself looking at him and wondering why he can't find a better job and make more money. I like to look nice and be able to have nice clothes, nice purses and a nice car. I like to wear designer clothes because it makes me feel better about myself."

Focus Couple #2:   Jeff & Amy
Another late-twenties couple. In this case, though, we have four kids to throw into the mix, too. Jeff is a software engineer/programmer who's the proud owner of two Masters degrees, CPA certification, a Mensa membership and, apparently, stubbornness and ego to match. He was laid off 15 months ago and has been unemployed ever since. He and his wife Amy and their children have been living with Amy's sister's family most recently, as Jeff's lack of income forced them to sell their home and most all of their possessions (down to and including their beds, the sheets from their beds, and their childrens' toys). The twist on this one? In the time since his layoff, Jeff has taken to essentially handing out his resume on street corners. He has been offered at least one job (mowing yards), but did not accept it, as apparently it didn't meet his self-imposed standards. Rather than face bankruptcy, the couple has taken on $40,000 in debt. They no longer have access to further available lines of credit.

Focus Couple #3:   Matt & Windy
We've all probably known someone like Matt:   He gets his paycheck; he spends his paycheck. In his world, if the money is in hand, there is no discretion. Video games and consoles. Big-screen television. DVDs. High-end car stereo system. "My true weakness is my children," he says. "I repeatedly spend money I shouldn't on them. I want them to have everything they want to the point that I'll put off paying a bill."

Which, we learn, is what leads to the family's electric and/or phone service being cut off every couple of months or so. At the time of the show, Windy says, the couple has approximately $5 left in their bank accounts and can't pay their outstanding bills. Matt's reply to this? "There's that saying, 'He who dies with the most toys, wins,'" he explains. "I want to win the game. I don't think what I'm doing is all that bad."

So What Do We Glean From All This?
Basically, this is what happens when you have 20-plus-year-old children operating heavy financial machinery in an adult world. One does not even need to see the file footage of these couples' lives to understand that their actions and situations revolve around emotion, self-gratification, and deflection of responsibility.

Like so many others, the couples above will continue to find themselves in troubled times until they stop dealing in emotions and assumptions, and start dealing in facts. Amazing as it sounds, in each of the couples, harsh reality has either already set in, or is about to do so on a large(r) scale — and still these people are mired in their poor decisions of the past and, even worse, in their continuance of poor decisions today. Though their cases are extreme (boy, do I hope they're extreme!), you could probably find at least a few similarities in the attitudes and situations of people you know.

And the river they're on is not one you want to travel.

Michael | October 25, 2003

  Home     The Rules     Quotes     Play Great Defense  
  Reading List