Recall the classic and terrifying opening scene of the movie “Jaws,” where the pretty blonde woman goes out for a night swim and we see her struggle and scream while she’s hurled from side to side. As you watch you think things like: That looks really painful. What is it doing to her? What the hell kind of “jaws” are capable of this? Does she live – I mean, the actress, because I’m pretty sure she’s not acting, she’s actually being eaten alive. Where’d this beast come from? Where’d it go? Will it come back? I’m never going into the ocean again.
Yes, it’s gruesome, but there are a lot of gruesome scenes in movies; why does this one strike such a chord with the audience? Why is it burned in our cultural memory? I think that it is because we can all relate to swimming and not seeing what’s beneath you and this is the worst (hopefully) manifestation of what else could be in the water. It’s the commonplace mixed with the unknown.
“Jaws” is one of the best horror movies ever made and you don’t even see the monster until 2/3rds of the way through the film. It’s so good because the viewer and the characters are in the same (insufficiently sized) boat, thinking through all the gory possibilities. We’re scared for over 80 minutes without ever having seen the monster. During this time we imagine the horrors this beast is capable of because we don’t know what we’re dealing with.
The product of an unknown monster is fear, and fear makes people act irrationally.
(If you haven’t seen the movie, go stream it. Right now. This post will be here when you come back.)
What does all this have to do with money? The unknown – what am I not doing with my money that I should/what am I doing that I shouldn’t – can swell until it turns into a full-grown monster in our head. Which retirement fund should I pick and how much should I put in? How much should I be saving for emergencies? Is renting okay or should I buy a house? Is the housing market inflated? Where did all of my money go – there never seems to be enough. All these unknowns create fear and anxiety, which when dealing with money often manifests itself as paralysis. You end up doing nothing because you’re too afraid to face this looming money monster.
In “Jaws,” the short-sighted mayor knew there were precautions the town *should* have been taking but decided to ignore the unknown killer instead and hope it went away; in life, we know there are things we *should* be doing with our money but decide to ignore the unknown world of our own finances, hoping everything turns out okay. In the back of our heads we know this is not the right thing to do and dread the day this method will bite us in the behind. (So many parallels!) This makes us stressed and anxious. Often both emotions spill over into other areas of our lives – our relationship with our partners, kids, coworkers; even our productivity at work.
There is an inverse relationship between the time we spend worrying about money and the time we spend doing something about it. More often than not, if you worry about money a lot, you will psyche yourself out and make the situation worse as you continue to ignore the problem hoping it goes away. The flip side of this is if you spend time planning, tracking, and educating yourself about money, it won’t overwhelm and stress you out. You’ll spend little time worrying because you’re spending your time actively managing your money. As you aren’t worried about money, you are better able to enjoy spending time with friends and family. You can be more focused at work as you aren’t anxious thinking about things like paying for braces. In “Jaws” terms, your boat will be sufficiently sized.
Once we see the beast in the movie, we know what we’re dealing with. It’s a big shark. It’s scary, but ultimately we have thumbs and weapons and it doesn’t. Yes, money can be scary because there’s so much we don’t know, but all of us can track our spending, check out some books from the library, and make a money plan. The hardest part is getting started. Once you see the money beast and not the one in your head, you can start spending according to a plan. You can buy your lattes and go on trips and not feel guilty about your purchases. Your stress rate will plummet. You are now acting rationally.
If this idea of the personal finance monster has resonated with you, you see there’s no good reason for feeling overwhelmed. Start doing something about your finances (see the above paragraph for tips). Starting is the hardest part, but once you do, you are much, much closer to financial security and reaching your goals.
I’ll be writing a follow up to this post for steps on how to get over the monster in your head. Subscribe below to have it sent to your inbox on the day it is posted!