“Responsibility Fatigue: Why Being Mature is a Lonely Lifestyle” is a post by freelance writer and TimelessFinance contributor Adina J.
You have probably heard of “debt fatigue”; it’s an affliction of the perpetually-in-debt, which is generally believed to result in more debt. I have the opposite problem. From time to time, I come down with a bad case of “responsibility fatigue”.
Being the only child of high-achieving parents who are completely unaccustomed to the notion of cutting someone slack, you might say that a strong sense of personal responsibility was my destiny. Hand-in-hand with that came, not surprisingly, financial responsibility. I can’t remember a time when I did anything except the responsible thing with my money. One of the mementos of my youth is an ATM receipt from the first day that my bank account hit the $1,000 mark; I was 19 at the time, and I never looked back. I don’t precisely recall how old I was when I first got my first credit card (20 or 21 would be my guess), but I do know that I have never carried a balance on it, or on any other of my cards. I’ve never bought anything I couldn’t afford, and I’ve always saved at least 10% of my net income. Now, you’re probably thinking that I’m an insufferable goody-two-shoes. You might have a point … but, in my defence, I really can’t help it. See above.
As you might expect, doing all (or most) of the right things has served me well. I’m on track to retire at a reasonable age, without the prospect of becoming a financial drain on my hapless child. I have a comfortable lifestyle and, importantly, peace of mind. Most of the time, I am pretty happy with my lot. And then, every so often, responsibility fatigue sets in. I get cranky; I get whiny. It’s all terribly undignified. And it all has to do with not keeping up with the Joneses.
Jones is not their real family name, but you already figured that. They could be anybody, but most recently, they were a lovely couple in our circle of acquaintances. They are the very picture of a middle-class success story: beautiful home in a good neighbourhood (gutted and renovated from top to bottom), new SUV, designer pets, big engagement rock, top-of-the-line home theater system, his-and-hers iPhones – name any “must-have” consumer good, and chances are they have it. I don’t know much about their financial situation, but I do know that together they make, at most, about as much as I do, and quite possibly less. Their financial wizardry in making their income appear to stretch about three times further than mine is what makes me turn to my husband in frustration and ask: “How do they do it?” And that’s not the green-eyed monster talking. I am entirely indifferent when it comes to the majority of our society’s most covetable “toys” – whether they are cars or iGadgets. I’ll covet your European vacation before I covet your granite countertops. I also don’t believe in comparing apples to oranges; I don’t get enraged over the spending habits of millionaires because, well, I personally don’t have millions to spend.
What it comes down to is this: the Joneses (who are seemingly legion in number these days) violate the most fundamental tenets of the philosophy handed down to me from my forbearers – all actions have consequences, and hard work is the key to success. In the Joneses’ universe, consequences have been put on indefinite deferral, and the trappings of success come at the cost of minimal effort. This is fantastic for the Joneses, but you can see why it makes me feel like a total sucker. The longer the era of unlimited credit goes on, the more I start to question whether personal responsibility is a remotely useful trait or, like a vestigial limb, a redundant relic of another age. The unfairness of it is galling; all my life I’ve played by the rules I was told governed the complex operations of society, not least of all the distribution of wealth, only to have those rules scrapped mid-point in the game. What, then, is my – or anyone’s – incentive to be responsible? The hypothetical reward of a comfortable retirement twenty or thirty years down the line? Who knows what the economic and social landscape will look like then, and whether any of us will be a part of it – there are so many intangibles to be factored in. (And what if aliens land on earth in the meantime? How’s that for throwing one’s retirement planning for a loop?)
And the question of incentive is important. I don’t wish ill of the Joneses. Should they suffer a reversal of fortune, I won’t be rejoicing; I will even abstain from an “I told you so”. But the point is that things have to change – and not only because, at some point, even the government won’t be able to create enough money out of thin air to satiate the demand for frangible *crap* [Editor Joe's note: I just learned the word "frangible"]. Things have to change because a society premised on a complete disconnection between actions and consequences is doomed to fail in spectacular ways. Irresponsibility, like cancer, is difficult to isolate to only one area; it may start with a financial decision, but it likely won’t end there.
So, in my humble opinion, things have to change. But will they? Let’s not pretend the Joneses have any incentive to get the ball rolling. Does the government? Are the rest of us willing to put on our “bad guy” hats, and pull the plug on our neighbours’ decade-long credit extravaganza? Are we in a designer hand-basket headed straight for debtor hell?