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When You Assume…


You know how the saying about when you assume goes.

I think assumptions are funny things.  We make them everyday.  Maybe I shouldn’t generalize and say we.  I’ll narrow that down to only myself.  I do it all the time.  Not only do I make assumptions but I then make judgments based on that assumption. Now, I’m sure ya’ll want to know in what way is this relevant to a blog about debt? Well, I’m afraid that this terrible habit of mine applies mostly to people and money.

Here’s just one example.  My husbands coworkers make about what he does.  They are part of a union so pay is kind of general knowledge.  These guys have huge, fancy houses.  They drive $50,000 vehicles and their wives drive new cars as well. I look at them and think “how is this possible?”  I mostly try and keep these kinds of things to myself and when I just can’t keep it in I’ll spout my indignations to my husband. Well, it turns out kids hear just about everything.  Well, that’s not true.  They never seem to hear me tell them to clean their room but that’s another conversation.

The other day my eleven year old said to me “Mom, I thought teachers didn’t make a lot of money.” I asked her why in the world was she concerned about the pay of a teacher? And I’m sitting there all proud thinking that she thinks teachers should make more because of their value to our youth and society. What she said to me makes me very ashamed of myself.  She said “The librarian at our school gets her nails done, you know with the white tips? And I don’t know why she would spend that much money when she doesn’t make very much. That stuff is expensive, right?”

Ya’ll. Words cannot describe how I feel about this.  I know I previously said ashamed but I don’t think that entirely encompasses it. I think this happens a lot. I think this is especially true about people we interact with on the internet.  It’s easy to assume you know all about their situation and to start harshly judging them. I’m mostly a positive person.  I’m good at seeing two sides of an issue and understanding that both sides usually have a point. But I’m terrible when it comes to judging someone when I think they are doing wrong.  Especially if I think what they’re doing is wrong but they seem to be prospering.

After I picked my self righteous chin up off the floor, I explained to her that it’s wrong of us to judge by outside appearances and even if you know some details you can never truly know all the details.  And even if I do know all the details it’s never my place to decide if what they’re doing is wrong or not. I know this a lot of blathering about something that may not interest ya’ll at all and it really shows how awful I can be, but my point is this,  I do not want our desire to get out of debt make my girls feel like others that are ok with debt are somehow beneath us.  Because then we’ll be out of debt, which will be wonderful, but I’ll have raised little jerks that think like me.  I’d rather have so much debt that I couldn’t breathe, than that.


  • Reply scarr |

    Certainly an eye-opening experience! I can totally be judgey when it comes to financial decisions of close friends and family. After paying off my debt I can be known to be a little self-righteous, thinking my financial outlook is better and more informed. I just need to get over myself, not everything is as it appears and I am certainly not the model for excellence in finance. Great post!

  • Reply Makky's Mom |

    I don’t think you or your daughter are too far off the mark. Really. Without being “judgey”, we can acknowledge that a certain salary accommodates a certain lifestyle. If someone is doing something that is clearly beyond that salary’s lifestyle, it is OKAY to discuss with our children (who are learning about finances) what we believe “XXX” might be doing that will not benefit them in the long run (ie: nails vs retirement savings). Is that judgey? Maybe, but it also re-inforces to the kids that YOU are not doing anything wrong by trying to avoid/get-out-of debt – just approaching your finances differently, with a different focus. Sometimes, when we see people around us doing all the things we know we can’t “afford” to do, we feel like we’re “losers” and must be doing it all wrong. I know I felt like that for years. Then we make bad decisions to “keep up” and we end up way over our heads in debt. If you don’t want your girls to be adults in debt some day, keep the conversations open, honest and use the examples set by others as a teaching opportunity so they realize that you simply can’t (or shouldn’t?) live beyond your means. I think the problem in teaching this is finding the fine line between using another’s purchase choices as a teaching tool vs being judgemental. If you are clearly telling them that we only have half the picture (ie: we don’t know if they’ve received an inheritance, or if they saved buckets in the past to accommodate their lifestyle, or received generous gifts from family, etc…) and can’t judge their choices, you’re doing just fine. 🙂

    • Reply Just a mom |

      I completely agree with you. We are debt free and live in a house that is much less than we can afford. We live pretty frugally so that we can splurge in certain areas of our lives, which means that from the outside we might not look like we’re doing very well financially. Our 13 year old is constantly talking about this kid who wears $200 shirts to school, or that kid who can’t understand why she doesn’t have an iphone. For a long time I’ve tried taking the polite route when discussing finances with her, but I think it’s time for her to learn that sometimes people do live beyond their means and that it can do damage to your life. It’s better that she learn from discussions with me before she has the chance to make disasterous financial mistakes of her own someday. I truly don’t see it as being judgey, I see it as a learning opportunity.

    • Reply Lynn |

      I was going to respond to Stephanie’s post, but you said it all.

      I think it is human nature to make “judgements” about others when you see how different lifestyles can be. Hubs and I used to see young families with two new cars living in a half million dollar home with two new high end cars in the driveway and talk about what on the world they did for a living. We used to think we must be the worst money managers on earth, but as years and experience grew we came to realize those high end lifestyles were often financed with massive debt or parental subsidies.

      Don’t be too hard on yourself Stephanie.

  • Reply Kiki |

    Things are not always as they appear! Yes, the person with the snazzy lifestyle may be deep in debt, or he could be a person who is a fantastic money manager, pays cash for everything on the used market, and makes all his own auto and home repairs. He could have that lifestyle because he squeezed that nickel until it screams. This kind of reminds me of “the millionaire next door.” Who are we to really know? We don’t.

    • Reply mary m |

      I agree with you Kiki. I prefer not to judge. Maybe the librarian has a sister who does nails, and it’s free? Maybe she does them herself? Who knows.

      When people judge stuff like this, I start to wonder if it’s more out of jealousy than anything else…Why do they have what I want? etc.

  • Reply first step |

    I’m not sure if this is the case for the librarian, but some people have to pay for services/tasks that the rest of us are able to do ourselves. My cousin is a teacher, and she has MS. She gets her nails done because MS affects her vision (hard to see where her nail ends and her finger/toe begins) and her fine motor skills (hands are too shaky to paint or trim her nails). Many of her co-workers and students are unaware that she has MS, so some of them probably judge her.

    Because she only had one hand, my mother paid to have her hair washed and styled every week–she couldn’t do her own rollers or curling iron. She was a legal secretary, so she was supposed to be dressed professionally, and her hair would not have looked good if she had done it herself. It was amazing what she could do with only one hand, but styling her own hair wasn’t one of her talents.

    Neither of these women earn/earned big salaries, but they aren’t/weren’t able to do these tasks themselves. Yes, it would be great if they could have used the money differently, but we all have to play the hand we’re dealt. We don’t always know the whole story of anyone’s life.

  • Reply Catherine |

    By that same token, some of us can do services/tasks that others might pay for – I taught myself how to do a french-tipped manicure when I was young and broke. It made me feel sophisticated despite my empty bank balance, plus it was a low-cost form of entertainment. So you never can tell!

  • Reply OC Budget |

    I’ve been guilty of living outside of my means in the last couple years for sure. Even i hate it when my ex-co-workers who make more than me make comments such as “Is that coach bag fake or real? How do you afford that?” (i actually got it as a gift from my mom), I get offended but then, I should really be looking at myself and trimming down on materialistic spending instead of getting mad. Even if my friends/ex-co-workers may not have meant it in a helpful way, it’s still a nudge telling me that I really can’t afford splurging with my salary

  • Reply Sara |

    Agreed. A few weeks ago I fell down some stairs and badly hurt my foot. Because of this, I had to start paying for things that I normally would never do – having groceries delivered to my front door, taking cabs to and from the doctor’s office, etc. In my normal, non-injured life I would never in a million years pay for those things. But in the course of life, stuff happens and you have to adjust. If someone who didn’t know me or my situation was making judgements, it would look as if I was living the high life when in reality these are basics that I can’t do myself right now. You never know what’s happening behind the scenes, and playing Judgy McJudgerson doesn’t help anyone.

  • Reply Meghan |

    What a great opportunity to talk with your children about financial choices! While the initial thought in a child’s head may be that someone shouldn’t be able to afford something, instead we can talk about how they decided to get their nails done instead of doing or buying something else in exchange.

    The same can be said for adults, when you see someone driving a fancy car or carrying an expensive purse, although they may be accruing lots of debt to afford it, also consider what they may have sacrificed to get that item. I love my Coach purse and to me it is completely worth every meal of ramen and extra shift at work that I picked up in order to afford it. 🙂



  • Reply adam |

    Hey, Adam the old blogger here. 🙂 first real comment since retiring.

    When we started the Dave Ramsey program this was a huge issue for us. We live in Austin and everyone has a new car here. Many people also have ridiculous expensive houses, etc.

    We had to get over it quick. You never know the whole story. Maybe somebody got an inheritance or maybe they are maxed on their credit cards. Maybe they get paid well or maybe they work 3 jobs. Maybe they canceled their cable tv so they could afford to have their nails done. Maybe they aren’t going to make their next mortgage payment. You just never know.

    No sense to be embarrassed in it. Dave Ramsey says you have to live like no one else now, so that when you are debt free, you can LIVE like no one else. good luck.

    • Reply Walnut |

      Hey Adam! We’re always interested in an update on how you’re doing on your debt payoff mission.

      • Reply adam |

        Thanks Walnut. I’m hopefuly Jeffrey and the bloggers will let us post an update in the future. Probably we will have significant progress to share by the end of the year, but for the next while it’s just slow and steady debt payoff.

        We ARE, however, up to 3 goats and 5 chickens 🙂

  • Reply Bluezette |

    I think it would be useful to explain to a young person that it is possible to have one or two indulgences in your budget, as long as you are meeting your responsibilities and not going into debt. For the librarian, that might be a fancy manicure. The important thing to learn is that you can’t have everything you want when you want it. But if you are taught that you can never have anything you want, it may lead you to think, “What the heck! Living this way isn’t living at all. I’ll just max out all the credit cards and enjoy life.” It’s a matter of learning to meet your obligations, set your priorities and make sure you get at least a dollar’s worth of enjoyment for your dollar spent on extras. That’s been the secret for me, being able to anticipate whether I’ll get my money’s worth of enjoyment or usefulness from a purchase.

    • Reply Stephannie |

      You hit the nail on the head. You can’t always have what you want when you want it. That’s exactly what I hope my girls learn out if all this. It’s not about living on bread and water forever. It’s putting yourself in a position to enjoy life responsibly.

  • Reply Homes |

    I’ll share a story from my own formative years – aside from a brief stint in a VERY high cost-of-living area, my parents have always owned the house we lived in. When I was around 10, my mom and I were driving through a neighborhood with tiny, run-down houses. Every single house had a shiny new sports car or SUV out front. Now, we always drove second-hand clunkers. I asked my mom why, if we could afford relatively nicer housing than these folks, couldn’t we have a nice car too? Her answer – we spend money on what we value and think is important. For my parents, that was having a nice(r) house in a good school district for us kids. For the people in that neighborhood, they enjoyed nice cars. All of this was said without any implied judgement – I never got the sense from her that they were wrong for making that decision – just that it wasn’t the decision my parents had made.

    As an adult, I now realize that there are probably other factors that played into the disparity, but my mom’s simple statement that we spend money on what we value – and it’s OK to value different things – has stuck with me. Just like the people in my story gave up nicer homes for nicer cars (again, I realize now there were other socioeconomic issues at play, but I was only 10), perhaps the teacher values nicely manicured nails and foregoes dinner out to accommodate that. I think that is a discussion very worth having, because it is important to learn what YOU value and not waste your money on what other people THINK you should value. I bet a lot of us, looking back at our financial mistakes, could point to several that were made because we succumbed to a societal or peer pressure construct of what we should do with our money, instead of what we actually believed ourselves.

  • Reply DC - Kate |

    You never know what goes on in others lives or pocketbooks. Use your own choices as your examples to teach your children. Like other readers have said, you don’t know if the car, house, nails, etc are financed, a gift, a DIY or something they’ve saved up for.

    I hate that I’ve seen my neighbors house in the paper for a trustee sale, and also seen them pull up to that same house in new cars. I don’t want to judge, because truly I don’t know their situation.

  • Reply Stephannie |

    I want to comment this way instead of replying to each poster because I think I’ll get redundant. Thank you all so much for the positive words. This was an instance that made me feel so terrible but I think it’s an excellent experience to learn from for both my daughter and myself. I think everyone that has commented has really good points and I am so happy that I’m a part of this community. What I hope I’m able to do is let my daughters learn from the mistakes my husband and I have made and not look to others to feel better or worse about themselves. I really hope that these types of things that come up will help me grow as well. I do not want to be a jerk!
    Oh, and hey Adam!! Hope ya’ll are doing well!

  • Reply Joe |

    I really like this post. We’ve given a lot of thought on how to try to convey these ideas to our own young children. No solution yet, but trying different things.

    We’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by friends and family that seem very much in sync with us in terms of lack of judgement regarding materialistic spending (or lack thereof). For instance, if my wife carried a Coach bag (she doesn’t), I can’t think of any of our close acquaintances that would ask whether it was fake or real, as in OC Budget’s comment above.
    I attribute this in part to the fact that many of our friends followed a similar path with respect to long career training paths (e.g. grad school) during which it seems “normal” to be living with roommates, dressing casual, having potlucks instead of going out, etc.

    We’ve continued to live well below our means long after finishing school, even as we’ve reached a comfortable financial situation ourself. There is always some inevitable “lifestyle inflation”: mainly, that we live in our own house and I eat lunch out every day. But with respect to cars, clothing, furniture, having potlucks, we are remarkably similar to the old days. Jonathan Ping over at mymoneyblog.com has talked a lot about this type of frugality (and he practices a much more extreme form than I do).

    Like anybody else, I certainly do envy some of the things that some of my wealthier friends have. But at the end of the day, it’s “just” all about treating people with respect, making responsible decisions for yourself, and not wasting time worrying about what others have or what others think. (Not easy, I know!)

      • Reply Joe |

        That blog is (in my opinion) a shell of its former self, but there was a 3-4 year stretch about 5-6 years ago where it was pretty compelling and inspiring. Hopefully not too difficult to dig up some of his old posts about visualizing goals, making sacrifices, etc.
        Although his economic situation is much more ‘enviable’ (to fit the theme of this thread) than debt blogs, he freely acknowledges this and I think his posts are largely not slanted towards that context.

  • Reply Mary |

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. I think it’s pretty normal to compare ourselves to others and I don’t think that’s a big deal. As for me, that kind of stuff doesn’t really bother me at all. If someone has something nicer, that’s cool. If it’s really high end, I want to look at it up close and admire it, because I like that kind of thing, lol. I like high end stuff! When I do indulge, I make my purchases carefully. I select carefully, having saved up for the purchase. I have a designer bag that cost hundreds but not thousands although I do admit to wanting a Chanel bag in my future. I try to think of the long term. I can look really high end at times but it’s all about careful selection and editing.

    When I was buying a home, I saved my money and looked around. The seller was a real estate broker and knew that I was frugal. When I came to the closing, I was dressed elegantly and well but not overdone. I had casual jewelry and a designer watch that cost around $250 but looked like $20k. At the end of the mortgage transaction, we were making small talk when she asked me where I got my jewelry. Perplexed, because my jewelry was mostly casual except for the watch, I told her that I got it when my sister died, which was true. Everything except the watch that is. I always laugh to myself because when I wear this watch, people assume it’s the real thing. I can look really high end at times and this always makes me smile.

    As for the nails…I care for my son who has severe medical issues. For many years, I was lucky if I had $5 left at the end of the month, since I couldn’t work much caring for him. At that time, I still had my hair touched up (I was prematurely gray and temporary color wouldn’t cover it plus was messy.) and I had my nails done regularly. I did not get highlights however because that was a “want” and not a “need” where the color was a “necessity”. Why? My son was close to terminal for years (He has a progressive neurological disease currently.) and I knew that if he died, I needed to go back to full time employment asap to make ends meet. I was in the corporate world when I worked full time and I needed to be ready to hit the ground running so I always got my hair cut and colored regularly. Plus it made me feel good. . As for my nails, I’ve always had naturally long beautiful nails. I’d get acrylic put over them because I had to wash my hands a lot with his medical issues and nail polish wouldn’t stay on. Yes, it was an indulgence but with his issues, I never had time to go out with friends, eat out, etc. He was in the hospital for months at a time and on a ventilator a lot. I couldn’t do them at home with his respiratory issues so I got them done. It was also the one thing that made me still feel like a lady and at that time with everything he had going on, it was worth every penny. I could look at my pretty nails and still feel that I was part of society. His health has improved some and so has my financial picture. I have more disposable income but now I do my own nails. I doubt anyone knows the difference.

    And finally, recently on the No More Harvard Debt blog, Joe shared a presentation he did for some kids at church. A friend of his had asked him to do a presentation for these young men. It was great and he posted it on his blog. He did a great job comparing someone who had an expensive home vs. someone with a modest home and talked about appearances of success in terms of things and also about the debt that each might have. He talked about how kids often view success in terms of material things and used great examples. Definitely a must read for kids and he included his presentation on the blog.

    • Reply Stephannie |

      I’m going to check that out, thanks for the tip! Thanks for your story too. Seeing everyone’s perspective on this has been so helpful!

So, what do you think ?