Ozark and The Meaning of Money

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It’s rare for a pop culture show to get to the heart of a financial issue better than the vast majority of so-called financial experts. And at the beginning of the first episode of the Netflix show, Ozark, which revolves around a financial planner caught up in a money-laundering scheme gone bad, that’s exactly what happened.

Now, I’m not here to tout the show (full disclosure: I’ve watched only one episode and I’m hooked) but you may want to watch at least the first three minutes of the opening episode. This is when the lead character, Marty, played by Jason Bateman, launches into a narrative that goes something like this:

“50% of all American adults have more credit card debt than savings.

25% have no savings at all.

15% are on track to fund only one year of retirement.

Is the American Dream dead?”

If these statistics are not entirely accurate, I’d say they’re definitely in the ballpark. For most Americans (and increasingly, Canadians), I’d say the dream of material wealth, of being comfortably middle class, is on life support, if not dead.

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Marty’s Take On The Meaning Of Money

Marty goes on to say that most people have a fundamentally flawed view of money. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Marty says that money does not represent security, happiness or peace of mind. Nor is it a unit of exchange whereby we exchange money for a good or service.

I listen to this and I’m thinking, where is this going? What is money if not a unit of exchange or source of security? Marty continues:

“At its essence, money is the measure of your choices.

Meaning, how much we accumulate, whether in debt or savings, is a direct function of our work ethic. And work ethic refers to our willingness to invest in our future, our family’s future, by employing patience, frugality and sacrifice.”

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Responsible Choices Leads To Freedom

Whether Marty’s discourse rings true for you or not, I’m completely on board with the idea that we may be measured by our choices. And in the money management universe, if our course of action is irresponsible, if we let impulse, emotion, envy and greed steer decision-making, then we pay a price.

Maybe that price is a life of financial struggle and attendant stress. Maybe the price involves never feeling fully independent owing to debt. Maybe the price is delaying retirement indefinitely because our savings are inadequate or non-existent, and we just won’t be able to get by if we stop working. Maybe the price is not being able to give our kids as much help as we would like when it comes to higher education. Whatever the price may be, it’s a cost to our self and/or our loved ones.

I’m not trying to go all doom and gloom here. Rather, I’m pointing out what you could say is the in-your-face-obvious: our choices matter. And too many people choose to charge it, to run up credit card bills because ‘hey, this is a free country, I’m entitled to buy what I want, I’m entitled to have the same stuff as my neighbor’.

Well sure, you can make that choice, you can load up as many credit cards as financial institutions are willing to offer. And if you do so, know the consequences of spending beyond your means: financial holes resulting in stress, relationship damage, impaired self-esteem, to name a few. These are the result of irresponsible choices. Choices that do not lead to any sort of freedom.

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Cut The Card

I was in my early twenties when I was approved for my first credit card. And wow, was I excited. I had achieved another adult marker. Pay for stuff with a plastic card. How cool is that?! Oh, and a few years later, when I got myself a Gold card, well, look at me and my newfound status! Oh, oh, oh, right … and when I received a statement showing the interest I was obligated to pay because I had not paid off the balance in full … um, uh, that’s what it took to get me to stop and think that I’d been hoodwinked, or maybe I just didn’t bother to fully inform myself about the pros and cons of the uses of plastic.

Look, a credit card is a convenient way to pay for stuff. Nothing more. Forget about the airline miles, the cash back, and any other perk peddled by financial institutions. Ignore the gold, silver and platinum marketing pitches appealing to status, ego, and an illusory sense of belonging.

Most people can’t handle the temptation to spend more than they have. And financial institutions know this. They know that plastic doesn’t really feel like money so you’re more apt to use a card than to spend the $20 in cash in your pocket. And they really don’t care. They make money from you; that’s their sole purpose. Your debt is your problem.

So here’s what you do: you choose to change your spending habits. You choose to pay via debit card, cash or PayPal (online) whenever possible. This will minimize, with the goal being to eliminate, all credit card interest. Know how else you’ll benefit? Impulse buys will go way down, you’ll spend less and save more.

To give your self a hand, cut all your cards but one. That’s right, hold only one card, a Visa or Mastercard. You don’t need anything more. And get one of the cards that doesn’t charge an annual fee. Sure, no fee cards don’t offer rewards but so what? Rewards exist to charm you into unnecessary spending. Life will go on just fine without counting any kind of credit card rewards.

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What’s The Problem?

To effectively tackle the credit card problem, to permanently relegate overspending and interest payments to the proverbial dust bin, take a look in the mirror. Review your total spending during the past six months and review credit card charges. In other words, look at where your money is being spent.

What can you cut? What was frivolous? Did you spend too much on one or more items and, if so, why? Was the purchase worth it? If so, why? What’s the cost other than financial? How does your spending impact short term paying the bills each month and long term planning for a life of financial freedom? What charges could you pay with via cash or debit card?

Look at these issues. Wrestle with them. Find answers. Don’t ignore, don’t minimize the importance, don’t stick your head in the sand and complain. This is simply not the BuddhaMoney way. Instead, recognize overspending, recognize mistakes, take responsibility, and make it different going forward. Make the choice to manage your money more effectively, in a way that bolsters your current assets and your long term plan to have your money work for you one day (through investments) rather than you working for the money.

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Make The Right Choice

The right choice means using credit cards only when absolutely necessary. And it means paying off credit card debt. It means figuring out a realistic plan for eliminating debt, whether you owe $500 or $5,000 or more.

Usually, the most effective, most realistic way to pay off debt is little by little, step by step. Of course, in doing so, debt won’t disappear overnight. And that’s just fine. That’s reflective of this little thing called patience. Together with frugality and sacrifice, this is what it takes to forge a winning path forward, one that does NOT include you among the 50% who have more credit card debt than savings; one that does NOT include you among the 25% who have no savings at all.

Instead, it’s a responsible plan, one that takes into account todays needs, and sacrifices some of todays wants, all so you can live with a little more freedom today (i.e., less spending = less debt = less stress), and a lot more freedom for the future you.

 

 

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