Judgment in Personal Finance: It’s All Wrong

Irritated by someone’s poor financial management

This past weekend, as I was walking our dog, I found myself thinking of someone I know who has been struggling with her finances since long before I met her. She is a woman who worked with me for a few years, and the last time I happened to see her, money was still an issue. I found myself feeling a judgmental irritation. To me – and to others – it is obvious what she needs to do to improve her financial situation.

The impact of childhood sexual abuse

She was sexually abused as a child. The thought came to me out of nowhere. And it was true. It was something that she had confided in me and that we had discussed many times. An abuse that had lasted for years at the hands of someone in the family. And nothing had been done about it. When she had tried to bring it to light, she was the one who was rejected.

My feelings of irritation were washed away by a wave of compassion, and I realized that I sometimes forget the significance of what people have gone through. I started to think about others I know who suffered sexual abuse as children. Over the years there have been five – all women – who have confided in me. As I considered each one, I was stuck by something I have never thought of before: Each and every one of them deals with significant financial struggles.

As I thought about these women in terms of their individual attitudes towards finances, words like “denial”, “disconnect”, and “powerlessness” came to mind. And it was so clear to me that these are also words that capture the coping mechanisms of a child suffering sexual abuse.

Is there a connection between a history of sexual abuse and poor management of personal finances? I tried to research it, but I didn’t succeed in finding a study on the topic in the brief time I spent looking. It’s something I’d like to know more about, but for now, it’s a strong impression. I think there is a connection.

Why judgment doesn’t work for personal finance

If I know five women who have confided in me the sexual abuse they suffered as children, how many do I know who haven’t chosen to share their pain? How many men? There is no way I can know, and there is no way any of us can. We sometimes simply don’t know what significant history people carry with them. And even when we do know, we sometimes forget the lasting impact of that history.

So I encourage you not to engage in the kind of judgmental irritation I experienced during my walk with the dog last weekend. I sometimes see it in the personal finance bloggosphere – judgment about people who manage their finances in such obviously misguided ways. You can see the eye-roll of the writer as words like “Why do they . . . ?” and “Don’t they realize . . . .?” and “Do they think at all?” stream smugly off the page.

We are definitely in a time of gross overspending and out-of-control personal debt. And all kinds of people get into patterns of spending beyond their means without thinking about it. But we can’t know the root problem for every person. We can’t use broad brush strokes and say the solution is obvious.

When I get frustrated with someone’s persistent bad financial habits, it’s because I care about that person. But I know from my own experience that frustration is just not helpful. I remember, when I was still in my long-lasting chaotic money phase, I put up walls against those who “knew it all” when it came to finances. I didn’t give them the time of day. They could huff and sigh all they wanted.

The best any one of us can do is to acknowledge our own issues and to glean and share what wisdom we can from confronting them. When it comes to others, we can listen, question, challenge, research, discuss . . . And then we have to let them be. Without irritation. Without judgment. In the end, the most helpful attitude is one of humble compassion. Because we can never know the full story.


*Photo courtesy of Sunny

24 comments on “Judgment in Personal Finance: It’s All Wrong

  1. Wow, five women. That seems like an amazingly high number. I hope they have all found the help and peace they need. It’s true we can be very quick to judge, I’ve been guilty of it too. I catch my children doing it sometimes positively and sometime negatively and I remind them we don’t know the whole story. So unless we do we shouldn’t jump to conclusions.

    1. Thanks, Brian. It can be really challenging not to judge at times. If you saw a man banging his head against the wall, you would just want to grab him and say, “Stop it!” It can feel that way with the self-defeating behaviours we see in some people in range of different areas – including personal finance. There’s an art to balancing care, honesty, respect, and letting go. I’d like to be better at it.

  2. Amen Sister! I know that when, say, a cashier is being especially aloof or snarky, I try to remember that they may be having an issue, maybe psychological, maybe physical, I don’t know. And that’s your point, we just don’t know what anyone’s issues are. I know I’ve had mine and I can slap a great big smile on my face and you’d never know that I may have been crying an hour before or an hour afterwards. We’re commanded to love our neighbor, not to judge whether they deserve it or not. Don’t we all desire that same grace?

    1. Thanks, Kay. It can be tough to know what that grace looks like in some situations. In those cases, it takes a real discernment to know how to extend it.

  3. In the United States 1 out 3 women has been sexually abused, and around 1 in 4 men were sexually abused as children.

    The majority of people (both women and men) who grew up in poverty in the United States were sexually abused as children.

    Like you, I’ve had many women tell me that they were abused as children and that they’re struggling with their finances (usually at different times). Just yesterday, one of these women asked me to call the water company on her behalf due to a clearly erroneous bill ($2K of water use in one month). I agreed to sit with her and give her cues, but I’m hoping that she can learn some more self-advocacy through this. Most of all, it is important to be a friend. We can help where it seems right, but being a friend is the best of all.

    1. Wow, Hannah. I did not know those statistics. The majority of American who grew up in poverty were sexually abused? What a sick, sick world.
      It sounds to me like you are eager not to enable your friend. I like your strategy of giving her “cues”. You say that “being a friend is the best of all”, but I sometimes don’t know how to be a friend in the face of someone’s self-defeating behaviours. It sounds like you’ve got a handle on it.

  4. True, you never really know anyone’s full story, especially that of a stranger, yet we are so quick to judge. I just put up a blog post this week about a person who cut in line to see Santa, and of course, the initial reaction is that she’s a terrible person for it, but in the end, I was able to see that although the one and only encounter with me paints her in that light, there are many elements that make her who she is, and I just didn’t get to see them.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and perspective.

    1. That’s cool that you wrote on the same theme! I want to check out that post. Not judging strangers and not judging people whose issues we have some idea of – both are tendencies I want to avoid.

  5. We live in a judgmental world. All too often, we think we know more than others and know what is best for them. It’s sad that there is probably a connection between the two – a history of sexual abuse and poor management of personal finances. You are right. We just need to acknowledge our own issues and go from there.

    Excellent post!

    1. Thank you, Laura. I know that I sometimes feel I have all of the answers for someone else’s situation . . . just not my own. I think that for many people, focusing on “what’s wrong” with everyone else is a way to avoid dealing with what’s wrong closer to home.

  6. I agree that we don’t know someone’s whole story, and I occasionally find myself thinking those kinds of judgmental thoughts too. I think it’s always a fine line between sticking with someone until, if ever, they figure it out, or kind of moving on because sometimes people can be energy vampires when, for instance, they complain and complain and do nothing about their situation. See what I mean? I really don’t know the answer…I’m a big fan of personal responsibility no matter what has happened to you in the past, but with a major dose of empathy or compassion.

    1. Bingo, Tonya! You hit that nail on the head: “it’s always a fine line between sticking with someone until, if ever, they figure it out, or kind of moving on because sometimes people can be energy vampires when, for instance, they complain and complain and do nothing about their situation.” It’s possible to “move on” with compassion – for yourself as well as the other person.

  7. Yes I agree, judgement isn’t helpful. We can try to lead our own lives in the best way we know how and often people are inspired by that. I think being honest about your own opinions on various topics in a way that is not declaring a monopoly on truth, while truly listening to others’ insights, is a good way to both support and learn.

    Great article!

    1. That’s a great point, Shirley: “being honest about your own opinions on various topics in a way that is not declaring a monopoly on truth, while truly listening to others’ insights, is a good way to both support and learn.” I know that for me, when I’m determined to try something to address a problem area in my life – like Ramsey’s steps to debt-freedom to address our financial stress – I don’t even want to hear about other approaches – partly because I want to keep my focus and partly because I don’t want to be tempted “off the path.” Hmmm. . . This could become a whole other post. Thanks for you comment : )

    1. True, Amy. I think that those of us still working on our own finances can be the worst of all! We’re excited about adopting new and better habits, and we think everyone else should be too.

  8. It’s so true that we often don’t know the whole story. Even if we did, every individual is unique and responds to things differently. And even if someone is making objectively silly financial choices, we really can’t control others’ choices. In my experience, we can most effectively help people with financial tips (or in other areas) when they are ready and asking for help. Until then, even well-intentioned advice comes off as judgmental.

    1. Thanks, Kalie. I think a particular problem occurs in a situation like the one Tonya describes above. Someone is making unwise financial decisions; that person suffers from those decisions; that person complains about it . . . but does nothing to resolve it. I’ve been there, and I know that judgment doesn’t work, but now that I’m on the other side, I find it hard not to respond with frustration. Really, I think in those cases it’s best just to distance myself from the issue and still be a friend to the person. Tricky!

  9. I read your blog post last night, and this morning this article popped up on my facebook newsfeed, so I felt I had to share. It’s a hard article to read, but very interesting as well:

    Further evidence that life is complicated, and, as your post and the commenters have said, we should always try to limit our judgement of others, and choose humility, compassion, and kindness instead.

    Great post!

    1. Thank you, Bridget. What a coincidence to have found this article so soon after reading my post! It is a hard article to read, but I’m really glad you decided to share it. “Further evidence that life is complicated,” indeed. And more proof the judgment has no place in any constructive effort or any healthy relationship.

  10. I think it’s definitely good to keep someone’s history in mind. That said, past trauma only goes so far. You need to help make sure people who are/have suffered to get the help they need so that they can make better choices.

    I knew a girl who had been sexually abused as a kid. She was then raped twice while very drunk in her early 20s. But it was frustrating for me to watch her make consistent choices that mired her further in her situation.

    She took on a second, part-time job to help her afford going out and drinking 4-5 times a week. Which didn’t help her coping skills. And it meant that she was completely out of control of her finances. (If she couldn’t afford going out without extra work, I can’t imagine how she dealt with emergencies.)

    You can be sympathetic while also expecting/helping them to get working on the issues that keep them feeling powerless and out of control. It’s a very careful balancing act, though, I know.

    1. I would like to know the secret to that balancing act. Sympathy that leads to enabling becomes part of the problem. Helpfulness that leads to frustration can end up creating a distance that only reinforces the negative cycle. I would be very interested in knowing how your friend has responded to your efforts to help her get onto a new path. Thanks for sharing your experience, Abigail.

  11. There is the problem…

    I can understand poor consequences and situations. Health emergencies. Sudden disasters, things like that.
    And since God forgave me for all the stupid things I’ve done over the years, I certainly have no right to point fingers at those who’ve made bad choices…often doing better than I ever did.

    The hardest part for me is being asked to contribute to support or help those same people. I couldn’t afford to buy a new car…yet I’m being asked to contribute to the local food pantry, where I see people in nicer cars than mine, pulling up and loading up?
    My favorite was the “oh, we are so poor, please help us pay our heating bill” post by a mom with two children — seated in their luxury home on expensive furniture. Shoot, what was I thinking by buying thrift shop chairs, so we could stay within our budget?!

    So here’s how I deal with it:

    *Give a set percentage, without fail. In our case, it’s 10%. If you do this, you WILL have enough to pay your bills. I don’t know why or how — I think it’s God’s way of honoring your commitment.

    *Do most of my contributing to established projects in much poorer countries…like fishponds and water-drilling projects. I’d much rather see a community in Zimbabwe have fresh, clean water, than contribute to the person above. (Hey, there’s always Craigslist, lady.)

    *Make sure the organizations actually use my money for these projects — instead of paying for high-priced salaries, advertising and not doing what they solicited for. (Shame on you, Red Cross.) The Mennonite Central Committee and Salvation Army are two of my favorites — they help people around the world, are johnny-on-the-spot during disasters, and set aside very little for administrative costs.

    *And I pay attention. If I do give to someone who needs it (and I do it anonymously ALWAYS), did that person actually make progress…or are they back in the public eye the next month with their hand out?

    I don’t believe we’re judged as strongly for giving — and thus accidentally wasting — our money, so much as we are held accountable for not giving at all.

  12. Wow, Cindy! Thanks so much for your comment and all of the thought you put into it. The thing about the mom with the nice furniture who couldn’t pay her heating bill and the guy in the nice car pulling up to the food bank is that we don’t know the stories behind the scenes. Maybe the guy just lost his job and hadn’t yet sold his car? Maybe the woman’s husband left her, and she hadn’t moved out of the family home? I’ve been that financially stressed person in a big house. Our foolish financial practices collided with job loss, and there we were. Not a fun place to be – less so because we were the cause of it. I have compassion for people in that kind of situation, but like you, I don’t want to enable poor practices. I want to encourage people to recognize and embrace their power to change their circumstances.
    It sounds to me like you have a very firm foundation for your financial management – in particular in your giving. I suspect that there is little if any “accidental wasting” in what you give.
    Thanks again, Cindy.

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