How We Got into This Financial Crisis – and How to Get Out

A major factor of how so many of us got into a financial crisis, I believe, is our tendency to compare ourselves to those around us. I recently read an article in the New York Times showing that  our perception of reward and danger is shaped by what we expect of ourselves and the world.

We tend to measure our social and personal standing in the community by what the people around us are doing, saying or thinking. When everyone was spending money on new cars, new houses, and other trappings of success, that raised the bar for those of us who measured ourselves against others. It did not matter that those people were running up mortgage or credit card debt to spend beyond their means. We had to do as well….

This of course creates a self-fulfilling feedback loop. We spend and buy because others are doing so. More money goes around, and the expanding money flow creates jobs and apparent well-being. But if the spending is fueled by increasing debt, as it was until 2008, the appearance is an illusion that sooner or later has to come to an end.

The problem was (and still is in my view) that so few people learned to manage their expectations. So few individuals know how to do simple financial planning or care to keep a basic budget, to see what they could afford. Even today, so few people I see and so few business owners I counsel can really tell me what they have to spend to survive. We suffer from a studied blindness to simple personal finance. That has gotten many into trouble and until that changes, the root problem remains.

The key to managing expectations is found in the article I read — hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Maintain a positive outlook, but one tempered by and grounded in objective facts. Make decisions based on an objective non-emotional assessment of the present, but with a positive outlook. Be grounded in the real numbers that a budget, or cash flow projection shows. Actively market and sell to new customers. Look for new opportunities. Remember that the past is not prologue to the future and every day is a new day. Above all, remember that things go in cycles.

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