Psych Services: Christmas ‘stuff’ and other causes of troublesome debt

Lisa Garmezy

Financial guru Dave Ramsey identifies debt as the biggest killer of marriages. I’d say it’s complacency, which is just as dangerous to officers’ marriages as it is to officers.

But debt is also toxic. As we enter the Christmas spending season, let’s look at how money problems grow.

Everyone has bills. We spend on basic necessities, and we spend because it’s a bad habit—those trips to Starbucks add up.

Why We Spend

    When spending gets out of control, however, feelings are probably guiding decisions instead of rational thought. Do any of these emotional concerns make you reach for your wallet?

  1. Keeping Up. We care about how others see us, and we want to look successful. If everyone else is buying boats and taking trips, we don’t want to be left out.
  2. Living the Dream. Our hopes and expectations about our futures lead us to the larger home and the newer car, as we have to prove to ourselves that we’ve “made it.”
  3. Managing a Mood. Some folks need to learn from experience that money can’t buy happiness. Shopping is a favorite form of stress management. We repeatedly seek the very temporary boost in mood that comes from having something new.
  4. Poor Self-Control. A 2013 S. News and World Reports article points out that, hey, we’re just not good at resisting temptation. If we were, casinos would close because everyone was saving for a rainy day, and the world would see a lot fewer hangovers. We are drawn to “dark rewards,” according to Dr. Robert Epstein, that offer immediate pleasure but future heartache.
  5. Power Tripping. A lot of marital problems stem from conflict over who’s in charge of the finances—and as a rule, the person who earns the money expects to have more control of it. That lengthy credit card statement may say, “You’re not the boss of me.”
  6. Revenge Spending. This issue also involves sending a message to a spouse. In this case, the bills mean, “If you don’t meet my needs, I’ll get back at you,” by spending too much. The police wife’s version of this is, “If I can’t have my husband at home, at least I can enjoy his income.”
  7. Playing Mr. Nice Guy. Many officers choose police work because they want to help others. That same need can cause officers to blow their budgets with misplaced generosity that elicits appreciation and admiration.
  8. Feeding the Ducks. Jim Kalinowski’s “Circle of Life” class pushes employees to plan for retirement financially and emotionally. During the class, he asks “Why shouldn’t we feed the ducks at the Academy?” Because they’ll never go away, the class answers. Plus, after a while, they won’t know how to find food for themselves. Your grown kids? They’re the ducks.

The Downward Tug of Debt

    In many happy marriages, spenders partner with savers. The spender values the saver’s thriftiness and good judgment, and the saver appreciates that the spender will make sure they enjoy the fruits of their labor. Together, they’re a good team.

For couples in counseling, the system has broken down. The saver is brown-bagging it and trying to pay off the couple’s growing debt, while the spender feels deprived, harassed and unreasonably judged. Although most marital arguments have no right or wrong answers, this one does. Debt-free living must become a shared goal.

Ramsey, author of the “Financial Peace” seminars taught at local churches, points out that debt is a heavily marketed product. If you embrace it, you have succumbed to slick advertising. Credit card minimum payment amounts, usually about two percent of totals, are deliberately set low to discourage paying off the balance. When only minimum payments are made, interest usually doubles the cost of purchases—something to remember at the mall.

While living on borrowed money is an American way of life, cops may be particularly susceptible to getting in over their heads. Many of our officers are first-generation something. You may be the first person in your family to have secure employment, go to college, reach the middle class or even start peeking above it.

Naturally, you want the rewards that follow from your success. You intend to spend extra money sensibly, but growing up, there wasn’t any, and no one showed you how. There may be people in your life who need help: elderly parents can’t be dismissed as “ducks.”

 The Busy Season

Above all, as suggested earlier, the temptation of readily available extra jobs makes it hard to say no. Ironically, officers get into trouble with money because it’s too available. There is danger in thinking, “I can always work an extra job to pay for it.” Your week cannot expand indefinitely to fit in more and still more shifts.

Your spouse and kids don’t want you working 24-7, and you shouldn’t bring that stress on yourself, either. Your teenagers would gladly trade time with you for new electronics, but never mind.

In police families, it’s no secret: the more you spend on Christmas gifts, the more you’re away from home. The togetherness that should mark this time of year gets lost instead of found.

Keep in mind that every family is in a sense a small business. When the “business” spirals downward, we feel anger, sadness and failure, no matter how many shiny toys surround us.

I am sometimes asked if my job has a busy season. It certainly does, beginning in about late January. When days are short and dark, when disappointment about family gatherings kicks in, and when payment is due on the no longer new purchases, depression goes up.

Please avoid being part of our annual rush. Think about whether the reasons above are shaping your spending decisions. As Christmas approaches, and year-round, make a budget and stick to it. Mint.com and daveranmesey.com can help; see also mymoney.gov and click “tools.” Lt. Kalinowski offers simple advice: “Cash is king.”

Turn your back on the dark rewards. “Stuff” need not be the center of your celebration.