Being bad at math is often used as an excuse to be bad with money. Never mind that one still needs to learn about and manage one’s own finances. Still, no matter how badly one’s math grades were – money is not about math; it’s about emotions and expectations. This is how expectations destroy finances.
How to Be Good at Math and Bad with Money
We equate being good with money with being good with math because there are numbers involved. But with online calculators, banking and Excel, it’s no longer necessary to do one’s own addition or subtraction.
Even if you don’t do the calculations, your bank will tell you if you’ve spent more money than you have. And if you spent too much, you don’t need math to keep you from spending more.
The problem is not knowing when the math doesn’t work out – it’s continuing to spend more than you can afford to. This is not a problem that can be solved with basic algebra.
How to Be Bad at Math and Good with Money
In high school, I was very good at calculus but I tended to (and still tend to) make egregious errors in arithmetic. Self-awareness goes a long way though. I knew that the only reason I would need to use math in my finances is if I spent more than what was in my account. It didn’t matter if I got the end number right or not – it only mattered that the account had money still left in it.
I could have learned to be great at math and always spend just shy of what was in my account. Instead, my secret was that I spent far less than what I had in the bank. That way, I wouldn’t have to use any math at all. Lots of money minus not a lot of money equals no problem.
What Really Destroys Your Finances- Expectations
A law partner once told me that people can tolerate nearly any situation so long as they have notice of it. That is to say, if you match or exceed the expectations, people will be fairly satisfied. But once you drop even a little bit from one’s expectations, tempers flare.
If you think about it, everyone view life through the prism of their expectations. Some reviews of Pixar movies are lower those of trashy movies because the reviewers expected more. The FIRE Festival was mostly a scandal because it (fraudulently) failed to live up to the lofty expectations of its attendees.
Marketing deals exclusively in the realm of expectations, usually subconsciously. When we buy this makeup, we are thinking of being as beautiful as the model in the ad. Visiting a staged house helps us envision what it would be like to live there. Vacation brochures make us feel like we will finally find inner peace in Tahiti. And then we buy, buy, buy, and we never get the perfect feeling shown in the advertising. And yet we continue to buy, chasing the next advertising promise.
How Expectations Ruin Our Finances
When I graduated from college, I expected the life my parents had when I was growing up. Never mind that they had worked for decades together in order to create that life. They were the adults I knew best and that was the adult life I understood. I’m not saying it made logical sense – it’s just what I subconsciously expected my adult life to be like.
These days, it’s easy to look at Instagram, Pinterest, or any lifestyle magazine and see the life one “should” be living. These are where we get our expectations. And it’s not rooted in logic or math. It’s rooted in marketing and emotion. So long as we can identify what expectations are realistic, we should be ok, right?
A Case Study in Expectations
In an earlier blog post about dating and money, I talked about how my ex and I used to fight about who would pay for our meals. It was not a question about lack of money – either one of us could have covered all our meals without a problem.
Like so many fights, what we were explicitly fighting about was not the real cause of our problems. You fight about chores with your spouse, but you’re really longing to feel appreciated. You fight about curfews with your kids, but you’re really projecting your own anxieties about them growing up.
Our fight wasn’t about money – it was about our expectations of what the other person should do, or should want to do. It was about how much he loved me or how much power I had over him.
How Expectations Can Ruin Our Relationship with Money (and with Others)
Where did my expectations come from? Well, in my household, my father paid for everything. When you hear me say that, it would seem like I expected everything to be paid for. But my parents made similar salaries and they had a joint account. So when I say my father paid, my mother earned half the money. The main sacrifice was that my dad carried his wallet around and my mom didn’t have to. They were both responsible for funding everything, but in this arrangement power and love were balanced.
My parents hated the idea of splitting the check, but their way of paying wasn’t meaningfully different than going dutch. It’s all exactly the same math-wise because all the money came from their joint account. Their payment arrangement had nothing to do with the math and everything to do with emotions and expectations.
My mom liked feeling taken care of even if she was paying for half. I knew the whole thing was a ruse but it was a cute ruse. The money part worked because everyone’s feelings were attended to.
When Math Won’t Solve Your Money Problems
It was pretty stupid for me to want my parents’ situation in my relationship with my boyfriend. We weren’t married. I made more than him and we didn’t have a joint account. When he was treating me, there was less money for him. I wanted the same emotions but it wasn’t the same math.
Of course, if we had made it perfectly equal, I still wouldn’t have been happy. I needed to adjust my expectations. I made more than enough to pay an equal share. I made more than enough to pay for everything. But I was equating money with affection, and that’s a dangerous misconception.
How Expectations Were Ruining Our Finances
My ex’s mother stayed at home and his father had the career. His previous and later girlfriends all made less money than I did, and far less money than he did. He had no problem treating them.
For him, I think our fights about money were really about power. If I was going to have a fancy job and make a lot of money, he should get a nice dinner.
In the end, we could have made it work. If we had just handled our emotions, the finances would have fixed themselves nicely. But the emotions were out of order, and that ruined our financial relationship.
How to Adjust Your Expectations
When you realize that you equate money with love, power, value, identity, etc. the way to get out of it is not to blame the finances. You have to learn to get your love, power, value, identity from something that is not money and not something that can be bought.
For instance, a few years ago, while I was still working at a law firm, I dated a guy and on our first few dates, we went dutch. In terms of the math it made sense. He was a graduate student and I made 6x what he did. Still, I took the action as a sign that he wasn’t interested. But he kept asking me out on dates. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. So what did I do?
*Mind blown* What? Honesty has no place in dating, I can hear you all say. But I asked him, and he answered that he did. And that was the basis for our relationship. He liked me, I liked him and we communicated it via words instead of implied it with actions involving money. I’m not sure if this is how adults have relationships, but I’m going to try it more often.
We might say that we “need” the guy to pay for dates to show that he cares. The other way he can show he cares? By using his words. It was a very cheap solution to the problem, and ultimately much more satisfying than anything money could buy.
Conclusion – Expectations Destroy Your Finances
I read two books directed at women on money and relationships – and they both invoked fairy tales. It felt a little silly to talk to grown women about children’s stories but it makes sense that little girls internalize these tales and use them as blueprints when they become women.
The problem with fairy tales is that the lovers rarely communicate at all with each other – let alone unpack their psychological and emotional baggage. Lack of communication is usually the “romantic” part of it. Prince Charming can’t even find Cinderella after the ball. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are asleep. Ariel has no voice. And yet they all live happily ever after.
So much of their actions are steeped in symbols and meaning. The stories make it seem as if couples can instinctively know without communication. But fairy tales are not reality. Instead of using glass slippers or little blue birds, or even money, introspection and honest communication is how you get the things you want.