I’m not sure if you noticed but I made a pretty big claim in my last post:
This brings us to one of the great taboos of personal finance which is that most people are self-sabotaging.
This inconvenient truth gets swept under the carpet in the earnest tone adopted in most personal finance content.
This is a view that you don’t often see expressed in mainstream media coverage of personal finance.
Quite the opposite…the implicit assumption is that we’re all hard-pressed working families, everyone is a sensible saver and no one is wasting their money on ridiculous spending.
That’s a nice assumption (nice as in polite) but one which bears no relationship to the real world. That’s because self-sabotage is a thing and I put it to you, dear reader, that most people are self-sabotaging (although not you, obviously).
Let’s start with some small examples. When I see someone sitting in a parked car with the engine idling, burning money as they go nowhere, I see self-sabotage. When I read that about a third of food is thrown away uneaten, I see self-sabotage. When I see an obese person with knee problems, I see self-sabotage. And whenever I see people complaining (but not taking action) I see self-sabotage.
Are those examples too small for you? Well, stuff like that matters because of the incredible power of The Aggregation of Marginal Gains. In forward gear, this propels you into The Sunlit Uplands of Wealth Creation. But in reverse gear, you end up dodging turds in The Septic Tank of Mediocrity.
If you’d like a bigger example of self-sabotage, how does burning down your own house sound to you?
I was once shown around a housing estate in Manchester. The estate was said to be one of the most deprived in Britain. Before we got there, we’d heard horror stories about drug addicts, shootings, arson attacks etc. I’d imagined some sort of urban hell with brutally alienating 1960s concrete tower blocks.
When we arrived, I was surprised by what I saw. The 2 storey houses were newish (less than 10 years old), they looked well built, attractive with plenty of green space. They were roomier than the 2 up, 2 down terraced house I was living in at the time.
Yet all was not well on that estate. Several of the houses were burnt out. The managers who showed us around explained that this had been done by the tenants themselves. The tenants would take drugs, get high, burn some furniture etc etc and things would get out of hand.
The issue here was not public sector funding. The buildings and the infrastructure was actually very good. The state (or local authority) had provided high quality accommodation for the people.
The problem was the people living there. Sometimes they sabotaged themselves, sometimes they sabotaged each other. But the biggest problems faced by the tenants came from their own behaviour. Most problems on the estate arose from the thought-processes of the people living there.
I don’t claim to have easy answers to social problems that have run for generations and have multiple causes. Magic wands only exist in fairy stories and socialist manifestos. My point is that people can be self-destructive and this happens in a variety of ways.
I’m not saying that self-sabotage is always conscious and deliberate: its more often sub-conscious. Often the causes are deep rooted and go back to childhood upbringing. But I am saying that self-sabotage is everywhere once you know what you’re looking for.
We all do it to one extent or another. I’m currently struggling to get this article written as I have a hangover. Yesterday I was floundering around trying to find my house keys, wondering at my own idiocy for not having a set place to keep them. I could list other ways that I’ve self-sabotaged but I only have ~1,500 words to play with here.
Back in the old days we had religion to teach us about self-sabotage. Every Sunday, religion reminded us that we all fuck up on a regular basis. Christianity was built around the idea of humans as sinners, trying to help each other to get better. The church provided a support structure (e.g. get togethers, regular confessions) to help us try to improve our sins and flaws and to overcome our self-destructive tendencies.
Over time, religion faded in The West and it left a hole in society. We lost a way to be honest about our flaws.
Then we got the internet and now we have a bunch of monkeys on social media trying to outdo each other on the virtue-signalling…who can share the cutest puppy photos and the trendiest political causes. Everyone is a saint on the internet.
Why am I telling you this? It’s not to make anyone feel bad. It’s actually pretty re-assuring to know that everyone else messes up and that it’s not that hard to be better than average.
Awareness is the first step towards change. So let’s have a look at some forms of self-sabotage that impact people’s finances:
Sulking / Giving up
I know you don’t do this but hear me out.
Work is often stressful. It involves a mix of co-operating and competing with other people. Team members take duvet days. Customers want everything yesterday and they don’t want to pay for it. People can be difficult. And when I say people I obviously mean other people. 😉
When our egos get bruised it’s tempting to argue, feud or sulk at work. Seth Godin calls this the sour mindset. The mindset of we are not getting what we deserve. The mindset of the world is not fair. The mindset of why should I even bother? It’s probably not going to work.
Promotion comes when we get past sulking. The quicker we do that, the quicker we get promoted.
Where would I even start? Smoking, strip clubs, drugs, bottled water, pre-ripped jeans, designer toilet seats, SUV’s. Ridiculous spending is a form of self-sabotage.
Why would anyone trade decades of their life for a shiny metal object (e.g. a car)? Bad maths could be one reason. Consumerism is obviously another. The inability to defer gratification is another.
Here’s the strange thing: a lot of big spenders know on some level that they’re behaving irrationally but do it anyway. Perhaps they associate money with problems or with greed and so act in a way that removes the surplus money from their life?
Bad investment decisions
Good investing takes a little bit of knowledge and a lot of patience, discipline and self-awareness.
In The Behaviour Gap Carl Richards explores the gap between the returns that investors would get if they just bought and held a low-cost index tracker fund and the average return they get by poor stock-picking, churning, over-trading, paying high fees and buying glamour investments.
I almost blew my own foot off in 2003 when I capitulated and panic-sold in the depths of the massive 2000-2003 bearmarket.
Don’t make the mistake that I did. Speak to a pro before you sell in panic. It’s good to talk.
No one has all the answers by themselves.
Most jobs are team games. You get promoted by being good with people. You are better at sales, motivation and leadership when you are good with other people.
A lot of FIers are introverts (The Escape Artist is INTJ) but when taken to extremes, introversion can turn into self-sabotage. Hermits miss out on valuable opportunities which involve co-operating with other people.
You see a lot of bitterness in comments on the internet.
Bitterness can look worldly (even smart) at first glance. But bitterness comes from the denial of past failure. We all strike out from time to time but people who are bitter have never processed their failure and moved on. We all have a giant toddler inside us that wants to sulk when things don’t go their way. Don’t let the toddler win.
A lot of FIers pride themselves on their scepticism. That’s great, just don’t cross the line into cynicism. Remember: when it comes to personal finance, you create your own reality.
The Victim mentality
There are no rich victims.
Victims blame the government, they blame their employer, they blame society, they blame their partner, they blame their parents. It’s always someone else or something else that is to blame.
Victimhood is now being actively marketed with a huge political and media push behind it. Identity politics divides people into groups as victims and oppressors. Did I mention that its all horseshit? Yes, I think I did.
Procrastination is sometimes dressed up as perfectionism (if it isn’t 100% correct, I’ll do nothing) but its caused by fear…particularly fear of failure.
We prefer to say we haven’t yet tried than to try and fail. There is no failure there is only feedback. You have to get into the habit of making decisions and taking action even when you don’t have a guarantee.
Get rich slowly, get started quickly.
British people love grumbling and complaining. It’s one of our national pastimes.
Like all vices, it can feel fun in moderation but there’s a hidden cost to be paid. Complaining is like spraying yourself with money repellent.
By complaining but not taking action, we give energy and attention to the thing and make ourselves miserable. And, because people naturally tend to hang around other people like them, if you’re a complainer you’ll find yourself surrounded by other complainers. That’s not a winning formula.
To get to financial independence, your beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions must be aligned (congruent). If you have any guilt or shame about having money, you will find ways to remove it from your life. That’s self-sabotage.
My point is just that getting to financial independence is hard enough without aiming a gun at your own foot and pulling the trigger.
Now…where did I put my beer?
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I appreciate this. I spit out a ton of blogs in December and then kind of froze in July. Who am I to contrast teaching abroad with how it is in the US? Fear and procrastination just blocked me for a month.
Then there’s the extensive lesson-planning I was going to do over this 5-week break over the Chinese New Year, stalled by fear that it won’t matter. What if I work hard to do something new and better for my kids than last semester, and it stinks anyway?
Thankfully, I still have four days of vacation. Let’s see what happens 🤗
*January. Not July!
great article. I am amazed at what you can write with a hangover!
Self-sabotage is one way of thinking about things – but another is that you make compromises and choices towards what you want in life.
It’s only as you become older (adults are just children with debts) that you realise how important money is and how temporal gadgets, fashion, fads and fizz pop can be.
Why would anyone trade decades of their life for a shiny metal object (sometimes known as a car)?
Maybe because no one has yet invented a better way of getting yourself and your gear from most place As to most place Bs?
Great post. I am however challenging the myth that financial freedom isnt possible for those who are sick and unable to work. I’m bloody minded! What illness has forced me to do is be more creative. Through frugal living (following loss of career and marriage breakdown) I’m building back through unconventional means. I don’t work any more, but what little money I saved over the last decade is sure being put to work in my place!
As for self sabotage, I see it daily in the UK and use it as a learning tool. I fully admit that I still do it too with some things. What can I say, I’m a work in progress!
Ha, great stuff as always. The victim-olympics jumped the shark a while ago here in America but they’re still getting more popular yet. And Bitcoin reminds me of the crazy crap you’d see on TV at 3 in the morning in the early days of infomercials. Yet that stuff works. People did indeed call those numbers back in the day and order what it was they saw. And Bitcoin shows that those human tendencies are not dead, they’re now just one click away.
on the ridiculous spending part, i just yesterday wrote about my love of a paid off ugly kitchen in a house we fully own vs. spend 30k USD’s on fancy floors and cupboards. oh, and virtue signalling is a signal for me to ignore the rest of that content. i’m perfectly happy to have a subscription service for investing that has pointed me to some great stable stocks and the cost is reasonable. 99% of the bad shit that’s “happened” to me is my own fault. i’m happy to tell anyone how it came about so they might learn how to avoid repeating those mistakes. i ran 3 wine hangover miles in 21 minutes yesterday and then wrote a substandard post. cheers!
I have paid for years £90 per kg/2lb for hacked pepper mint to put into my black or green tea, pepper mint bought at the local supermarket in small “lipton” packages. I then moved to bulk purchase to reduce the price to £50 per kg/2lb. I am now reaching the end stage, by finishing digging up a 5m by 0.5m by 0.5 m trench, before refilling it up with a compost/earth mixture that I will mix up myself in an old second hand wheelbarrow. Then I will plant pepper mint in that trench, so that I can harvest 3 times a year a big bag of well smelling pepper mint leaves, that I will let dry out for a few weeks in my home, before putting them into a kitchen mixer to hack them up ready for consumption, and then storing them in large airtight containers. I thus save £90 per kg/2lb forever, while enjoying the whole process (the leaves smell chase mosquitoes etc away from my home too). The used compost was collected for free at the local city recycling center where I dump all my recyclable living wastes (glass, stone, wood, iron, plastics, paper, etc, etc) using a second hand car that I bought at half price and with few kilometers on the telly when purchased, the car is now 17 years old, and can still go another 150 000 km. That is if the govmint allows me to keep it (diesel engine), given that they are now slowly enforcing rules that forbid city access to some cities once the car is too old (too much “emissions”, whatever). The plastic lining I put on the side walls of the trench hole (to avoid that the pepper mint roots start to conquer the rest of the garden), are from recycled large packaging that normally gets incinerated when being dumped at the city recycling center, but that I kept for such unforeseen purposes. My body got an extra exercise regimen too, my digestion tract will benefit from the home grown medicinal peppermint effects, while my money wallet got better in the process. Lets hope the pepper mint plants enjoy it too, I mean, the regular 3 times a year leaves culling process . . .
Thank you once again for your straight talking, helpful, no bs post.
I appreciate you’re busy, but I’m just wondering where would be best to keep my 6 months worth of emergency stash?
Anywhere where you can access it in a hurry if you must – savings account, cash ISA, Premium Bonds, under the mattress…
Bear in mind, though, that there is a limit (£85K per UK-regulated financial institution) on how much money will be protected by the government per bank / building society – you may find that you have to split up your emergency fund if it and any other monies held in the same institution were to exceed this limit. This limit does not apply to any money held in NS&I accounts as all money is fully backed by the HM Government.
More info here: https://www.moneysavingexpert.com/savings/safe-savings/
I have finally begun to truly understand that FIRE is more about psychology rather than money. At some points in the past and more recently I have been guilty of many of your listed self-sabotage behaviours. I can now admit I was ignorant and completely unaware of what I was doing by living a “normal consumer life.”
Forgive me Escape Artist for I have sinned. My two cars cost £98k and are now worth £64k on a good day. Even I the owner of my money blueprint do not understand my craving to purchase these things, some form of validation maybe. I want to say they are more than transport but that sounds crazy. Its my dirty secret that I am confessing to the world, never again will I buy a car.
Written with a clear head 🙂
Boom! What a fantastic comment! Great point about seeking validation (maybe) through expensive cars…there are much better ways to get validation
When I was younger, a couple of my peer group got themselves flashy cars not so much for validation, rather I suspect more to get laid, but I reckon the dealer on all his commissions succeeded before them. One of them did land a wife off that car to be fair, but then she cleaned him out of it too in the divorce …..so if shark fishing, you should be careful not to get mauled must be the lesson to be learned by the willing in that type of scenario.
I’m starting to think that given it’s such a universal human flaw, the ‘winner’ in life is just who self-sabotages the least + a sh*tload of random luck.
Good point. What’s interesting is that money is really more about psychology and behavior rather than it is about money.
Another great post. For a good book on self-sabotage read “The Descent” by Thomas Dekker a pro-cyclist who was earning big money but blew it on drugs, vice and fast cars; even for those not into cycling it gives a massive insight into how self-sabotage can become normalised behaviour.
“Magic wands only exist in fairy stories and socialist manifestos.”
See also: Conservative claims in their 2017 (and, I think, 2015) manifesto on grammar schools and social mobility…
Thought provoking post as always! I do worry about self sabotage as we don’t always know we are actually doing it. People usually do what they always have so if you are sabotaging then its a difficult pattern to spot!
Great post, as usual! You can add to the self-sabotage list the opportunity cost of not pursuing more income (Guilty). As you say, “Awareness is the first step towards change.” Now, to take the rest of the steps…
Looks like the BBC has started adopting your blogging format – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-47327473
You must write hungover more often TEA. ‘you end up dodging turds in The Septic Tank of Mediocrity.’ That’s going to be used at work tomorrow, somewhere, somehow .. hopefully in a pointless meeting infront of some management types, delivered with a questioning look on my face as I question their latest ‘strategy’ 😉
This is one of the great summaries of all of the issues that cause us to self-sabotage. No doubt we all have to fight off at least one of these. What’s interesting in how you present this is that you speak to the fact that even intelligent and successful people have sabotage issues. Your point about keyboard warriors dovetails with the fact that so many people are fronting to be seen as smart or wealthy, which in and of itself is a form of sabotage.
Great article which resonated when I read this news item on the BBC News site yesterday: (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-your-money-48776454?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business/your_money&link_location=live-reporting-story). As an act of self-sabotage it certainly ticks the ‘ridiculous spending’, ‘victim mentality’ and ‘complaining boxes’. I thought the tone of the BBC was quite unbalanced then I re-read your first few paragraphs – the mainstream media (BBC included) really doesn’t like acknowledging that self-sabotage is often a factor in personal finance woes.