I was recently at a young lawyers’ event together with Suraya of Ringgit Oh Ringgit, when the audience threw us a tough question:
“How do you be responsible with money, when there’s lots of social pressure?”
Now of course, the standard answer is it’s about “balance.” You don’t wanna be so stingy until you lose all your family and friends. Neither do you wanna say “Yes!” to everything until you’re broke.
But I had this nagging feeling that my answer wasn’t good enough. And looking at the resigned faces of the participants, I think it’s a real challenge that most of us go through, yet can’t figure out. Worst case scenario? We give up trying to be responsible with money since it’s just too damn hard.
But don’t lose hope. Now that I’ve had some time to research and think, I’m here today with my follow-up answer:
With so much pressure from society to spend, and with the cost of living constantly going up — how do you be responsible with money without losing all your loved ones?
The Inertia Problem
Let’s be honest. The average level of financial literacy among people is horribly low. And when I say financial literacy, I mean people who not only know about personal finance, but actually use it to make their lives better.
For people like us who actively try to get better with money, this presents a big problem. It’s difficult enough to try escape the twin demons of debt and cost of living by yourself, but when your sister expects you to max out your credit card to “contribute” to her bridal shower — it feels like the universe is conspiring against you.
I sometimes like to imagine our personal journeys to financial freedom like rockets blasting off into space. If you’re already at the advanced stage, all you need to do is continue cruising, avoid the occasional dangerous obstacle (e.g. a hot office affair which ends up in a pregnancy), and eventually you’ll get there. But if you’re just starting out — that’s where it’s most challenging.
At the beginning, it’s actually much easier for you to fall back to earth in a financial mess, than it is for you to gain enough momentum and break through to financial freedom. Because you’re probably not earning that much, and there’s a lot more holding you back — for example student loans. But what gets less mentioned is that family and friends can pull you back too — huge chains tying your struggling rocket to the ground.
Gaining Momentum and Inertia
Here, you have choices. Yes, you could cut off every single thing that holds your rocket back, and it’d be easier for you to fly away. But perhaps a better way is for your rocket to gain enough power, so it helps pull everything tied to it to a better place too.
Or more simply: I don’t want to leave all my loved ones behind so I can get rich. I want to be rich, and bring them up along with me.
The rest of this article examines some practical ways to make this happen. I’m not gonna lie to you and say it’s easy — especially since you’re probably a young person. Money and relationships often don’t mix well — did you know that money is often quoted as the Number 1 reason for fights in marriages?
But we have to try. Otherwise we’ll be stuck in this sad cycle where we’re always struggling with money. And where our loved ones struggle too.
How to Say No
Being responsible with money is gonna require you to say “No” a lot. As I like to say, eating overhyped avocado toast is not gonna make you poor. But a combination of avocado toast, shopping sprees, big party nights, and expensive vacations probably will.
So no, you don’t have to give everything up. But you will have to choose what’s important to you, and decide what’s not. And when you’ve figured out what you’re gonna say no to, here’s how to say it.
Frame it In Positive Terms
Your family and friends love you — they wanna spend quality time with you. But what if their idea of weekly RM 100 Red Box Plus karaoke is burning your wallet?
“Sorry, I can’t afford it” is brutally honest. But to the receiver of your message, it sounds more like “You’re not important enough to me.” Take into account that you’ve probably had a long history, are very emotionally invested in each other, and we have a big problem.
The key here is to never just reject. It’s to reject, explain why, and then explain your future money plans instead. For example:
“I would love to join, but I’m struggling right now with money. I’m actually saving to do my Masters next year.” Now, the focus shifts away from rejection, to saving for your Masters. And since it’s socially unacceptable to ask someone to give up responsible things for their future — hopefully your loved ones will understand.
But not only do you want them to understand your limitations, you also want them to know they’re still important…
Come Up With a Better Alternative
Which is why you’ll come up with better, cost-efficient alternatives:
“Hey, I know I’ve missed karaoke for the past two weeks. How bout we go for some live music today? The tickets are cheap, and we can all sing along too.”
Just an example. Feel free to propose whatever activity you think your loved ones would like. The crucial thing is you show that they’re still important to you, and you really wanna spend time with them.
Yes, blowing money always makes things easier. But who ever said that people can’t have a good time without spending lots of cash?
Be the Voice of Reason
You know how every group has that “one guy”? There’s the food guy — who knows exactly where to get the best nasi lemak. There’s the fashion diva — who knows exactly what colors and patterns to wear this season. And then there’s the party queen — who knows how to get invites to all the coolest events.
Well, you’re gonna take on a role too — and your role is gonna be Responsible Money Manager. And after maybe some awkward conversations in the beginning (refer to above point for tips), your friends are gonna love you more. You know why?
Because within your social circle, this is probably true:
- Your friends/family are also struggling with money
- They’re embarrassed to talk about it
But now, there’s a person in the group who’s openly trying to get better with money. And not only that, she’s gonna help her friends and family with money too.
“I’m not rich so I can’t give them money. And I’m just starting to learn. How could I possibly help!?”
Well I say you can. Here are just a few helpful things you could easily learn and share:
- New promos/discounts in the market
- Tips on how to save more money
- (Non-dodgy-MLM) ideas on how to make more money
- Good articles/websites where people can learn more
- Cool personal finance “influencers” to follow (p.s. you should absolutely follow this guy 😉 )
BTW, I’m not asking you to preach to them, or try to shove your newfound money beliefs down their throat. That’s just annoying. What I am saying is, once your circle gets comfortable with your interest in money, they’ll actually come to you for advice and help.
Remember, the average level of financial literacy among people is so bad, that it only takes very little effort to be ahead of everyone else. I’m telling you this not because I want you to be proud, or charge for your advice. (At the start, you shouldn’t.) I’m telling you this because I want you to help the people around you.
Be that voice of reason in your group. If they wanna do stupid things with money, call it out. Speak up for those who are struggling with money, but are too ashamed to admit it. To say the hard things that everyone kinda knows but don’t dare to bring up.
People need a trusted person — someone to lean on for emotional support — to inspire them to get better. So be that person and help them. And if you keep it up long enough…
Long Term: Build a Reputation
You’ll eventually develop a reputation for being money-savvy. And I say this from personal experience.
My pen name “mr-stingy” sometimes has hilarious effects: like people think I’m the cheapest motherf*cker on earth so they’ll quietly pull me aside with a concerned look: “Honestly, are you really stingy?”
But having that money-competent label on your head has some real social value. It takes time to develop, but once you get there your friends and family are gonna respect you a whole lot more, than if you were just an “okay, just go with the flow” person. I’ll put it bluntly here: in modern society, money (or the ability to be good with money) equals power.
Not to mention, it opens up more opportunities to gain influence and expand your social networks.
You’re now not just seen as the “cost controller” or “check with ms-stingy if the price is okay, otherwise she won’t join” person anymore.
Now you’re an influencer.
Win Some, Lose Some
I had to put this point in, even though it’s my least favorite one.
Because try all you want with the above methods, but there’ll still be a minority who won’t be happy with your responsible spending habits. You might even hear mean things:
“Why do you have to be so calculative?”
“So now, money is more important to you than friendship?”
“Remember, blood is thicker than water.”
“But this is just once in a lifetime!”
Yes, you could always try to earn more money, so you can throw around more cash. But understand that even billionaires have people who’re unhappy with how they spend their riches. Seems like no matter what — people will always wanna tell you what to do with your money.
And if you don’t agree, some relationships will get soured. Some people might drift away.
It’s not easy. Losing people never is.
But sometimes this is necessary and you have to let them go. Sometimes two people who aren’t aligned in certain things (in this case money) need to part ways, so they can be themselves and find their own paths in life. I can feel your pain as I type this. But growth comes through pain.
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Will you need to give up all your friends and family to be good with money? No, if you play it right, your newfound powers with money will always be good for your loved ones. The majority who want good things for you will understand.
But as we discussed earlier, growth is painful. Your struggles today are a result of you daring to challenge the status quo. To break free from decades of poor money habits that have become ingrained into society.
Change is scary, even for the bravest and brightest among us. So even those closest to you will struggle with your new direction for a while. They’ll need time.
But keep the faith and press on. And though it may seem this way at the moment, there’ll come a day when you realize you’re no longer alone. And that for so long you couldn’t see the people you were so afraid of losing — not because they had abandoned you, but because they were behind you all along.
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