Contentment vs Complacent in the World of Personal Finance

This post comes to you today courtesy of Kalie’s comment on Ruth’s last post about balancing the need to strive with contentment in athleticism. The line in Kalie’s comment that struck me was: Being content is different from being complacent. 

And I think Ruth was right when she pointed out that when it comes to improving one’s personal finances, the same struggle can be found. Let’s start by looking at a definition of the two words.

Complacent:

marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies

Contentment:

feeling or showing satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation

Complacent

We’ve all known people – and some of us have been “those people” (cough….me…cough) who are complacent in a bad financial situation. Like Rick and I did for many years, you might hear them saying those all-too-common lines for not taking control of their finances:

“I’m making the payments just fine”

“I’ll get out of debt ‘someday'”

“Everyone has debt these days”

“I don’t have nearly as much debt/spend nearly as much money as…….”

“My financial situation isn’t my fault because…….”

“I ‘need’ to buy A, B or C because……….”

“We just don’t make enough money to afford to buy things without debt.”

We used to use the excuses all the time. Our debt was never our fault, and we had convinced ourselves that the money situation would change once we made more money.

The problem was that with every income increase we found that we still didn’t make enough money. Why? Because we had developed a complacency about living beyond our means. We told ourselves that we “deserved” our purchases. We made all sorts of excuses for the purchases we made. We categorized wants as needs and excused our behavior via justification of expenses for this reason or that.

Backed into a Corner

It was only when our debt load got so unbearable and we felt backed into a corner we couldn’t get out of that we chose to face up to our prior financial mistakes. Once we took a step back and analyzed our previous purchases one-by-one, discovering the many leaks in our financial ship, we saw how careless we had been with our money.

Warning: This was not an easy step. I remember the day we analyzed those purchases. We started with December of the previous year and worked our way backward. By the time we got to November I started feeling queasy. By the time we got to the month of October I started having anxiety attacks.

We were only three months into our analysis of past spending habits and the truth punched us in the face as if we’d gotten hit by a world champion boxer:

We discovered the truth: that our financial mess and debt load was largely our own fault.

This was a tough realization to face. What followed was years of learning how to manage our money – both practically and emotionally. We had to learn how to budget, to spend-track, and to plan for the future.

Then we had to learn to confront the painful childhood experiences that we had each experienced and how they affected our handling of money. We also had to take the time to heal from those experiences and find healthy ways to deal with stress and hurt that didn’t include spending beyond our means.

After we learned those two things, we were able to come and look at our heap of financial mess with new eyes – and it wasn’t pretty. We had a LOT of work to do. Most people would’ve likely filed for bankruptcy had they been in our situation. We certainly thought about it. But we wanted to at least try and clean up the mess we made ourselves.

It’s been a slow, step-by-step journey for us. Starting with a 65% debt-to-income ratio, you can imagine how tight our money situation was. The strain of the heavy payments meant we had a lot of “one step forward, two steps back” scenarios as we worked to pay off our debt.

This is where contentment comes in, my friends.

Contentment

The difference between complacency and contentment is that where complacency involves a state of denial, contentment involves the need to learn to be okay with not-so-okay circumstances. Kalie brought up Paul’s words about contentment in the Bible:

Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. -Philippians 4:11-12

What Paul is saying here is that being content is about bucking up and dealing with the circumstances. In contrast, complacency has an air of denial to it.

The complacent person is sticking their head in the sand about their finances.

The content person is taking the steps needed to change things, while not letting the circumstances bring them to the point of complacency, no matter how long or slow the journey may be.

As you look at your financial situation, you may be tempted to stick your head in the sand. It might seem as if you will never, ever get out of debt, so why should you bother trying?

Don’t allow the magnitude of your situation to lull you into complacency.

Instead, choose to take those forward steps, no matter how many may be ahead of you. As the old saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Being content instead of complacent about your money situation will allow you to take those single steps forward. It may not seem like much of an improvement at first, but as time goes by, you’ll find that you are indeed making progress.  And then, one day, if you keep taking those small steps, you’ll find yourself at the door of “debt free”.

Don’t give into the fear that this battle of the debt bulge is too big for you to conquer. You’re stronger than you think. Just keep moving forward. 🙂

15 comments on “Contentment vs Complacent in the World of Personal Finance

  1. Thanks for elaborating on this, Laurie! I agree that ignoring dangerous financial circumstances is unwise, while trying to improve from a place of gratitude and contentment with the Lord is very powerful and motivating.

    1. Cool fact, Kalie: I try to set aside time first thing in the morning (though I often don’t) to read a chapter of the Bible. I pick up from where I left off the morning before. The chapter I happened to be at this morning was Philippians 4. I just read your comment yesterday, and you specified verses in this chapter. Do you think maybe somebody’s trying to tell me something? : )

  2. Great post to kick off the week! 🙂 We shifted from a state of complacency to one of contentment. It takes a bit of self-awareness, education, and a mind shift change to move from one place to the other, but it so worth it. It reduces stress and gives you a purpose to be working towards.

    1. Great insight here, Laurie! Complacency often comes across as serenity or peace – but it’s not. It is, as you say, a head-stuck-in-sand response to “deficiencies”. It’s a powerless coping mechanism that allows those deficiencies to increase. I can relate to all of the things you and Rick used to say to yourselves. So glad not to be saying them anymore! (I find I bristle when I hear others saying them – not sure that’s such a good thing though.) Contentment doesn’t mean things are perfect. It means the imperfections are being faced with open eyes, confidence, and hope.

  3. Complacency can cause you to throw up your hands in despair and give up. Contentment is a mindset of acceptance, growth, and gratefulness. Though I’m far from perfect, contentment is what I strive for each day.

  4. It’s all about mindset and situation. Throwing your hands up and ignoring a bad situation will only make it worse. On the opposite side once you fix things there is a definite need to have gratitude and be happy with what you have. Life is all about balance.

  5. How do you recognize complacency for what it is? We have relatives who are so deep into debt but they think they’re content. Every time it gets worse we think “OK they’ll do something now!” Then things get slightly better and they roll along as if life is wonderful. They joke at their predicament. Then they spend more money. They’ll be working into their 70s or 80s. Seriously.

  6. Sleepwalking through life causes so much chaos. It’s when we wake up that we can finally clean up the mess. I like your sticktoitiveness Laurie. You guys woke up and are doing the hard work and showing others who are ready how to do the same.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *