We’ve all met those people who are model-thin without effort. They eat whatever they want, they rarely exercise, they drink and smoke, they seem to live on a diet consisting mostly of fancy whippy coffee beverages, and still everything they wear looks good on them. Some of them even struggle to keep weight on when life gets stressful. But a deeper look into their medical charts might reveal hidden health problems such as heart disease, liver dysfunction, or diabetes. While many people work hard to maintain their healthy weight and fitness levels, there is a portion of the population who look healthier than they are: the “skinny-fat.
Financial health is no different than physical health, in that what can be seen from the outside doesn’t always represent what’s happening behind closed doors. And in exactly the same way that Western society places a higher value on being thin than it does on being healthy, we are all also encouraged to look rich, rather than to be financially stable.
Both Mr. Vega and I were raised in skinny-fat financial households. Our Baby Boomer parents were the first generation of Americans with access to the easy credit we have all become so accustomed to. “Low monthly payments” must have felt like a godsend to our young parents, who wanted so much for their children to have the best of everything. They would have had no way of predicting that their resulting financial stress would affect us much more deeply than going without some luxuries might have.
We don’t remember what we got for Christmas or our birthdays every year, but we remember clearly the bills that came in pink envelopes. We remember the way our parents tried to ignore the telephone’s incessant dinnertime ringing, and the occasional times we had to bathe in cold water or to get ready for school in the dark because the utilities had been shut off for lack of payment. I, for one, will never forget coming home from school one day in my teens to an IRS lien notice stuck to my front door, and spending the afternoon at a friend’s house, because I felt certain I would go to jail if I went into my house (everything got sorted out, and we got to keep our house, but that was a terrifying day for me).
As we approach the gift-giving holidays, we are bombarded with TV commercials showing children’s faces lighting up as they open their”perfect” presents on Christmas morning. Images abound of delighted spouses peeking into tiny jewelry boxes, or leaping around brand-new beribboned vehicles in the driveways of their lovely suburban homes. Who wouldn’t want to inspire that sort of joy in the people we love?
What those commercials don’t show is those same parents fighting over money in January (and February, and March…) when the bills arrive. We aren’t seeing those same children being told to “Tell them I’m not here” when the debt collection agencies start calling. The visions of happy families road-tripping to visit Grandma never reveal the expired insurance policies hidden in the glove box.
Here’s the thing: if you can afford a house with a yard for your kids, and a nice Compact Utility Vehicle to drive them around in, good for you. If designer clothes, annual vacations, and weekly mani-pedis are within your means, then party on. Nice things are… well, nice! We want to have them, and we want you to have them.
BUT (there’s always a “but):
If you are buying holiday gifts on a credit card that you will not be able to pay in full when the bill comes, you might be suffering from skinny-fat finances.
If you are considering a large purchase and your main concern is the amount of the monthly payment, rather than the total cost of the item, you might be suffering from skinny-fat finances.
If you bought and strung a million twinkly lights outside your house last weekend, but couldn’t make your rent or mortgage payment Tuesday, you might be suffering from skinny-fat finances.
We are here to tell you from personal experience that a little less stuff, a little less sparkle, a little less bling isn’t going to hurt anyone, but that getting it when you really can’t afford it could actually cause lasting harm. Living in a smaller home, driving an old-but-paid-for car, opening fewer gifts on holidays… none of that is so bad if you get to eat your holiday meal with loved ones who aren’t fighting, if your heart doesn’t pound every time the phone rings, if you aren’t afraid of the mailbox.
Anyone who has been there can tell you that being healthy is so much better than simply being skinny. And financial stability– freedom from debt, carrying enough insurance, and having enough money on hand to weather emergencies– feels so much better than looking wealthy, but worrying constantly about when it’s all going to fall apart.
If your finances are skinny-fat, just like with your body, you can’t heal them overnight. But you can begin to shift how you navigate life. You can refuse to put even one more non-essential purchase on a credit card. You can begin to record your expenses and get a clearer idea of where your money is going. You can begin to cultivate contentment and seek happiness in experiences instead of things.
And if you keep at it, before you know it, you will find that you have everything you need, and maybe more of the things you want. Before you know it, you’ll be looking back and thinking about how much better you feel than when you were over-extended and stressed about money all the time. Who knows? You may even be able to afford that shiny new thing you’ve always wanted… with cash!