Among the many discords raging in Washington right now, the one that makes us want to pull out our hair the most is the proposal to drastically lower the cap on annual 401(k) contributions, from $18,000 annually for people under 50 years old to $2,400. Even Donald Trump himself has come out against the plan.
It also highlights, once again, America’s dysfunctional relationship with personal finance, which is hard for even for people who are paid well. In a survey of more than 7,000 high earners from last year, almost half of respondents making between $100,000 and $149,999 had under $1,000 in their savings accounts. That’s because, as Megan Ford, the current president of the Financial Therapy Association, once explained to me, saving isn’t just about earning. If you want to squirrel away funds, you need to know the psychological reasons people often have with making it happen.
Look out for your own status anxiety.
Signaling status is a great way to make sure you don’t save anything. In the U.S., Ford said, it’s expected that if you start earning more, your lifestyle should swell right along with it. “It’s a broader overladen exception of the challenge of keeping up with those around us and having this projection of ‘Look at how great I’m doing,’” she said. If you’re doing it for the ‘gram, you’re probably not doing it for your bank account. (Protip: Alain De Botton’s Status Anxiety is a super accessible inquiry into how status came to run so much of our lives, and does wonders for that feeling of “am I keeping up?”)
Start avoiding avoidance.
Money is still such a taboo that lots of people feel uncomfortable talking about it, even in the most intimate of relationships. Ford sees it in her therapy practice. “I’m always surprised by how little couples know, even right before entering into marriage, Ford said. “”they don’t even know how much the other makes as their annual salary just a couple months before their wedding date.” If you don’t talk about money with your partner, it’s going to be hard to figure it out together.
That reluctance isn’t just a disruptor between people, but within people. Psychologists call the all-too-human tendency to resist thinking about things that make you uncomfortable “avoidance coping”. As with other life skills that school tends to gloss over, we might avoid the money side of life because it’s embarrassing to not know what to do about it, especially if you’re successful at work. “Our society doesn’t do a good job of educating us about finances and financial management,” Ford said, so unless you learn from a friend or family, it’s hard to get the chance to acquire that skill. Some people “don’t know where they should start or where to get started, and when you lack that financial literacy, psychologically you tend to avoid it,” she added. “If you don’t have a solid plan or someone helping out, you just end up letting it pass you you by.”
Naming these problems also helps with finding their solutions. if you’re lucky enough to have a friend who’s passionate or knowledgeable about personal finance, ask them to talk through money questions with you, since it can defang the shame. Also, by setting up an automatic recurring deposit, you don’t even have to actively think about making a decision in order to make the right financial decision. That’s the brilliance of the retirement program that Republicans are so confoundingly trying to cap: 401(k) funds are automatically shepherded out of our paycheck, before you have the chance to spend them.