Thursday, 3 January 2013

How Compulsive Saving Works

(This is the first of a series of posts recording some very convoluted thinking about my circumstances.)

...or why money hoarders are always talking about how they spend too much on food.

There's nothing wrong with saving. £100 a month into an instant access savings account so you can pay large bills without going into overdraft is good money management. As long as you actually use that money to pay the bills. Paying in a monthly amount to a Cash ISA is a good move, though not very rewarding at current interest rates. That's the sort of saving you do. 

But when I put money into a Designated Savings Account, it vanishes. It ceases to be money. I can see the balance, but I can't spend it. No more than I can cross my legs at my knees (long story), spit into the wind or take a drink. These things are possible, of course, but none are actually going to happen. I could say that I have had too many long periods of looking for work: I live in fear of being made redundant, or passing retirement age and not being able to work a reasonably-well paid job. That fear makes me save, and while sad, it is slightly rational. It is not the whole truth.

My measurement of the successful management of my life is and always has been how much I have left over at the end of the month. It tells me how much out of control I have been, how many unforeseen things have happened to me, how wasteful I have been. If I have money over, none of those things are true, and my life is in control. I don't aim to have money left over, I use it as an indicator.

However, I can't achieve that control by being a miser. That would not look good. So Deception Tactic One is to spend a carefully-controlled-by-sheer-force-of-habit amount of money on "me". I spend it on books, music, movies and dance - when I'm allowed to eat out as well. I'm "allowed" a binge at the Sadlers Wells Falmenco season, and one dance event a month - if there is one. I can buy four or so £20 books a month, see a movie a week... you get the idea. It looks like I'm being nice to me, but it's all careful habit guaranteed not to cost much more than £1,200 a year.

(Yes. I know you would love to have £1,200 a year to spend on consumable culture. Bear in mind I don't drink, and you do; I don't smoke, and some of you do. I don't have terrestrial television, let alone a £65/month subscription to Sky, so you're probably racking up £1,200 one way or another. Also, you have children and you are not supposed to be spending your time consuming culture, you are supposed to be spending time with your children.)

So that just proves I'm not a miser. Now I have to prove that I'm not a control-freak. So Deception Tactic Two is very carefully controlled overspending on something cheap. Like food. I have a mid-morning sandwich from City Corner on Bishopsgate and lunch in a one or other of the many caffs in Hoxton, possibly with a chocolate in the mid-afternoon. I could, of course, make my own sandwiches and have lunch in the break-out area (Jesus! 'Break-out areas' Shakes head in despair.) So that caff lunch is just un-necessary out-of-control spending. Especially if I throw in the odd fish-and-chips in Jamies or a burger up at The Diner. Hey, look, rock-and-roll excess! I'm not a control freak either.

Which is why money-hoarders talk about how they spend too much on food. They do not mean they are having breakfast at the Criterion every morning: they mean they are buying an extra bar of chocolate, or maybe having a nice burger when egg-and-chips would do the trick. 

That's the disguise. Here's the disease.  First, notice that the measurement of a well-managed life is not how much money you have left over at the end of the month - however much that may sound like a good proxy. Second notice that putting money into a savings account and then not being able to spend it is downright weird behaviour. If I was saving it for my old age, that would be okay, but I'm not. Didn't I mention I already do that? This is just money I'm getting rid of into a hole so I don't have to... what?

Take the responsibility of spending it wisely. Actually doing something with what I bought with it. Instead of leaving it on the shelf as I did a perfectly good DLSR all this year. (I bought that to take sharper pictures on holiday. So I didn't take any holidays this year.) Actually I don't really know where the hell I would begin to spend the money. There's a gazillion things I want, or none. None is by far the lower-energy option.

You may at this stage think that there's nothing wrong: all I'm doing is being "sensible" with my money. I'm not wasting it on extravagances and pointless toys, such as iPads, fancy cars, designer suits and fancy espresso makers. In the same way, people who find out that I haven't had a drink for eighteen-plus years say "that's really good" as if they too would like to do that. We've had this discussion: you would not be able to go a year without a drink and you wouldn't want to either. Why do you say it's a good thing that I do? 

Compulsive saving means I don't make an effort to earn more. Why should I when I barely spend what I do earn? And of course, I could always cut back on that reckless food spending I do. What I tell myself is that the extra I could earn would not make that much of a difference to my life, and I would probably just wind up saving most of it. 

Compulsive saving means I have habits that are all about avoiding: avoiding spending, avoiding bad stuff, avoiding risks. This is not virtuous self-control, but non-virtuous risk minimisation. My habits aren't about doing, meeting, going, joining, taking part, exploring, or generally living. All those verbs expose me to the risk of serious temptation and loss, the regret of spending and wondering what, exactly, I got out of it.

Compulsive saving means I overstate the the price, and underestimate the value, of everything. I invent reasons why this and that and everything you love is actually only a hype, or not as great as you think it is. I reduce my expectation of the enjoyment of anything and increase my expectation it will be disappointing. That way I minimise the regret of never buying and enjoying it. I drain the value and fun from the world - or I would if I didn't think that was a load of psycho-babble bullshit brought to you by the same bunch of liars who brought you fulfilling intimate relationshipsTM

Compulsive saving means I can take pleasure in the simple things. I bet you think that's a Good Thing. Very Spiritual. Horseshit. Taking pleasure in the simple things means I don't have to spend money. It's a financial management strategy, not a spiritual practice. And like long-term sobriety and living in the day, it's not something you would want to do for a whole year. Or could.

Now the bit you can't guess at. To stop myself spending money (notice the description.... spending money. not buying things), I need to establish a bunch of habits that keep me away from the temptation of, oh, you know, taking holidays, buying a nice coat, throwing a decent birthday party, having a nice car (as opposed to a functional supermini), splashing out on a MacBook Air (instead of the workhorse Asus I'm writing this on), buying a nice comfortable armchair to read in, paying a cleaner to come once a fortnight, and so on and so forth. Before we even get to the whole affording-a-girlfriend bit. I need a bunch of thoughts and attitudes that makes all that denial feel right and worthwhile and justified. And all that justification and saying NO and coming up with reasons for doing so is a huge strain. It needs to be maintained. It means my buying decisions are incredibly lengthy, as I find reasons for not buying the nice stuff and finding something cheap, functional and not too horrible to look at. It means that whenever I look at anything I have, I'm always reminded that it isn't what I really wanted, but a compromise. Often a perfectly good compromise, but nonetheless that. I have to tell myself that the experiences money provides are not actually good value.

Here's the thing: it doesn't matter what the reasons are. I could get all spiritual on my ass, about living a simple life and not needing toys and material things to prove I lead a good life, or I could convince myself that many of the things just aren't worth the cost, and sometimes this is true (women, saloon cars, short haul business class, lunch at Browns, Royal Ballet Christmas shows) and sometimes it's false (Macbook Air, long-haul First Class, supper at Cibrio in Florence, Pina Bausch  performances).  I choose to go the value-comparison route. Either take a lot of energy. It's a hamster-wheel that has to spin fast. I've lost count of the number of times I've reminded myself of how draining and un-relaxing those holidays I took in 2011 were, which is why I am never going to take holidays anywhere ever again. (I just pay a bunch of money on airfare and hotels and meals and get stuck with the last person I want to spend time with - me - all frigging day.) Catch is, we all still need to get away: even if it isn't much fun or relaxation at the time, it has long-term beneficial effects.

Anyway, compulsive saving isn't the problem. In may case, it's a symptom. Next time, we'll get to the problem.

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