Tuesday, October 21, 2014

We all make bad choices

We all make bad choices. We are impatient in the face of saving money. We buy items which we know will come down in price in a future sale, but that we must have now. We procrastinate as deadlines loom. We check Facebook and Twitter instead of getting on with the job at hand. We see tomorrow as the time for reform. After all, that's when our diet will begin.

We all have the ability to make worse choices. When we are stressed or anxious, chemicals are released into our brain that diminish our capacity to think. We react on impulse rather than with rationality, using the same techniques our ancestors used when decided to fight or take flight, but without the corresponding danger.

In making better choices, we often need the help of outside forces. To improve our incentive to save towards retirement, our employer matches any contribution that we make (up to a certain level). To help us make better food choices, we sign up to programs that provide menus, calorie counters and even ready-prepared meals to our doors.

Some people just don't have that kind of help. A lot of employers in low-wage industries do not offer benefits like pension plans. Working two jobs because one minimum wage job doesn't pay enough means not having the time to think beyond bills to health or well-being. Tax breaks on savings aren't worthwhile because wages are so low. The mental burden of being poor makes it harder to make good decisions (it is estimated to be the equivalent of losing 13 IQ points). So a bad financial choice for some might mean having to skip a dinner out. A bad financial choice for others might mean skipping dinner altogether.

But here's the punchline: tomorrow looks the same... for everyone. That's why it's hard to change. We don't expect our apartment to disappear overnight. We don't expect our employer to fold. We don't expect our family to disintegrate. And so it is with those living on the edge. If you don't expect to have any more time tomorrow than you did today, surviving on convenience foods makes sense. If you don't expect to come into money in order to afford to go back to school, sticking to the job(s) at hand seems like the only option. Our best guess of what will happen in the future is based on our experience now. And if today is not filled with hope, then there is no room for change tomorrow.

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