If only in an extraordinary moment of candor, most people would admit to having a minor phobia of one sort or another. Mine, which is not so minor, happens to be an extreme dislike of dealing with money matters, I'm not merely speaking of your common checkbook balance avoidance syndrome, mind you,
but of an aversion to all things financial.
[quoteright]Buying an automobile, to me, is not unlike falling off a stepladder and breaking my clavicle. Why? I enjoy new cars as much as anyone. The problem is that I must eventually finance the transaction. That is where I fall short of the mark. I have been known, in fact, to shop tenaciously for the best deal within the neighboring three states on an auto and then summarily arrange the financing with the first concern that would loan me the money — most likely at a usurious rate.
I am a staunch supporter of tax reform. My motivation for this position is entirely without studied intellectual foundation. I like it because it promises to simplify my financial record-keeping and paperwork chores. In the end, I may be horrified to discover that this government initiative will have cost me, but I doubt that I'll complain. Especially when I consider the alternative and what I was obliged to be concerned with in order to remain competitive under the old tax structure. Business deductions — on-the-job expenses? Unthinkable. I had to deal with the disagreeable matter on a daily basis all year long. Capital gains exclusions, depreciation of real property? I'd rather eat a worm.
Over the years, I've attempted to analyze the reason for the existence of my irregular behavior. Perhaps I suffered an early traumatic experience concerning money. The only one I can recall, however, is after graduation when I suddenly realized I had to go to work to earn the stuff.
But the phobia is rooted more deeply than all that. I suspect I may have actually inherited a distaste for the likes of mutual funds, certificates of deposit, rollover IRAs, and long range individual financial plans. (Amazingly enough, I was born before many of these fiscal shenanigans were invented.)
At times, the situation is quite distressing. I'm sure, with just a small effort, I could dramatically improve my financial station in life, but I cannot bear the thought of such an intimate level of involvement.
It is my wife, not I who owns an IRA. "It's a great deal," she says, "Uncle Sam virtually pays you to save money." But I should never participate in a program of such personal importance. It is commonly known, for example, that switching an IRA to an investment with only a minutely higher interest rate will earn you an additional princely fortune over the years. In full knowledge of that fact, I would be willing to forfeit the extra twenty million dollars, or whatever, in order to avoid spending the half hour it would take to transfer the account. Clearly, such matters should be in the hands of someone far more responsible than I.
My moods run in monthly cycles. They correlate, not to any particular phase of the moon, but to the appearance of my bank statements in the mail. Their presence makes me feel uncomfortable, so I promptly file them away where they cannot be seen. As a result, I'm never quite sure of the current status of my checking or savings accounts. I am continuously at the mercy of incomprehensible computer printouts and indifferent tellers.
Unfortunately, I m occasionally obliged to have knowledge of the details of an account, so I must deal with the situation. As an engineer, and not a professional accountant, however, I am thoroughly convinced that it is easier to compute the trajectory of a spacecraft so that it will fly closely by Neptune than it is to balance a checkbook to the penny. In recognition of this fact, I set arbitrary error limits within which I may call the balance successfully completed. What concerns me is that the limits, like the national debt, grow larger with time.
Perhaps one day, I will find the growing error to be to my benefit, the bank owing me a huge windfall fortune. Yet I am not willing to continue to risk the chance that the opposite may be true. Soon I will reconcile every account to the penny. But not this month.
I deeply envy my neighbors for refinancing their homes when mortgage interest rates dropped. Considering the modest investment in time, their venture was more profitable than bank robbery and infinitely less risky. I ask myself; where else can you earn outrageous sums of money for your efforts without suffering the risk of being imprisoned, shot at, or obliged to become a laser neurosurgeon? But it doesn't seem to work. I still hold my original mortgage.
Despite my proven shortcomings, I make my living by managing finances on a fairly large scale. Surprisingly enough, a strange quirk of nature also sees to it that I am appointed financial chairman of every community activity of which I am a member. I usually accept these positions out of a sense of commitment and, as a consequence, am continually involved with the finances of others. This doesn't help my situation at all — particularly when I arrange an profitable investment for an organization and then ignore it personally. The matter appears to be governed by a rule similar to the well-documented natural law that causes the plumber's faucets to leak and the mechanic's cars to balk and stall.
Am I alone? Or are there others who share this malady? I suspect there may be an entire hidden nation of people out there with closet financial phobias. Who else would patronize traditional financial institutions that still charge for checking services and provide passbook savings account rates reminiscent of the 1940's? Who else would support major credit card companies that levy substantial fees when free, interest paying cards are available? Who else would support the legions of financial consultants, CPAs, and lawyers most assuredly earning a handsome living as a result of our fiscal anxieties?
Perhaps we the afflicted should step forth and be counted. We might form a lobby that could, at a minimum, persuade banks and credit unions to provide us with understandable statements devoid of mysterious symbols and intimidating computerese. That would certainly be a step in the right direction. Eventually, the medical profession might officially recognize the disorder and seek research grants to investigate its cause and possible cure.
Meanwhile, we can only hope that programs such as tax reform and the government paperwork simplification act are successful. Our finances, to be sure, will never be in perfect order, but at least we wouldn't feel so vaguely uneasy about the whole matter.
Moneyphobe KENNETH BALLIET tells us that "I still write, and in my spare time, manage large sums of money for engineering research." He has also been published in the Mother Earth News.
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