Book review: “Pocket Your Dollars”

Saving & investing is supposed to be simple math. We’ve all read the advice: “Spend less than you earn.” “Track your spending.” “Make a budget.” “Save at least 15% of your income.” “Learn your investing risk tolerance.” “Figure out your asset allocation.” “Buy, hold, & rebalance.” “Put your investments on autopilot.”

How hard could this be?

Well, if it was easy then personal-finance bloggers would be out of business.

Why do people struggle so much with their spending? Or their saving? Or their investing? Why do we go into consumer debt and procrastinate on investing for our future?

Pocket Your Dollars book cover

Change your attitudes.

It turns out that financial math might be the easy part when compared to human behavioral psychology. We all have very good reasons for our behavior, but most of them are based on evolution. “Survival of the fittest” worked for our ancestors (that’s why we descendants are here today) but evolution does not help at figuring out how to set up your spending & investing plans. None of our ancestors were ever ambushed by impulse shopping or student loans, and we’re still learning how to cope.

For some people, their biggest money problem is their emotional behavior. Our brains may have the capacity for logic & reasoning, but we spend most of our brainpower on speed-thinking shortcuts and reflex responses. That worked great when our ancestors were dealing with saber-toothed predators, but it’s no match for modern American advertising and the financial services industry. We’re all victims of our own internal emotional dialogues and our highly evolved attraction to shiny objects.

Our emotions and attitudes contribute to our own internal dialogues about our behavior. No matter how many New Year’s resolutions we might make, our internal dialogue affects our daily motivation to really live up to those standards. If we have a good internal dialogue then it seems easy to do what’s best for our futures. However, our whiny little inner voices can also relentlessly sabotage our best efforts before we’ve seen any sign of success.

Instead of trying to silence our internal dialogues to live by willpower & logic alone, a better alternative would be to change the script and break the cycle of failure. That’s what Carrie Rocha describes in “Pocket Your Dollars: 5 attitude changes“.

Carrie started her Pocket Your Dollars website to share money-saving deals, coupons, and freebies. That’s working quite well– over a million visitors in 2011. However, she and her spouse struggled for years to figure out how to set a budget, stick to it, and pay off debt. Those are relatively straightforward steps to financial independence, but the two of them still failed over and over again.

Your money attitudes are rooted in your childhood. If you grow up with every want fulfilled by your parents (with the best of intentions), then you may not see the “need” to save money. If you grow up poor, then by the time you’re an adult you may be eager to catch up on two decades of pent-up consumerism. If money problems always surprised your family with angst and despair, then you’ll never develop the tools to handle the problems. If money (or the lack of it) caused hurt and confusion during your childhood, then it’s going to cause more problems when you’re an adult.

Carrie and her spouse brought their different childhood money attitudes into their adult life together and could never get ahead. There were no serious disagreements, but they couldn’t seem to figure out how to put together a system that they both felt happy with. Their downward spiral of debt wasn’t all caused by lifestyle enhancements, either. New problems seemed to keep cropping up and wiping out their plans. It was the typical set of challenges faced by most young married couples: some student debt, an engagement ring & honeymoon bought on credit, a car loan, family borrowing, credit cards, an assessment on their townhouse, a 100% mortgage on that home, and even some back taxes. After a decade of marriage, they realized that they’d earned over a half-million dollars of income, yet they were $60,000 in debt plus carrying another $170,000 of mortgage debt. The pressure of dealing with that debt was becoming unbearable.

When they decided to start a family, they finally realized that they didn’t want to live like this anymore. They were on the brink of raising their kids in the same money issues that they’d grown up with. Something had to change.

30 months later, they’d turned the situation around. They paid off the $60K of debt. They refinanced their mortgage. They began saving and investing. They also paid for her spouse’s graduate degree, a used minivan, and every other emergency or surprise that life threw at them. They did it all with the same income, no get-rich-quick schemes or extreme frugality, and with a growing family.

That’s a major attitude change.

Here are the five attitudes that Carrie and her spouse confronted:

  • “If only I had more money!”
  • “It’s been a rough day and I deserve a treat.”
  • “It won’t happen to us. We’ll cross that bridge if we come to it.”
  • “Fake it ’til you make it!”
  • “I can’t afford it.”

Carrie tells the stories that helped them change their attitudes. They didn’t just see the light, flip a switch on their inner dialogue, and blissfully tap-dance their way to happiness. They had to figure out how their attitudes were sabotaging their lives. They had to talk through the problems and decide how to create new attitudes for their personal behavior. Then they had to carry out their plans, support each other, and deal with the inevitable speed bumps.

Today their attitudes are:

  • “Financial success isn’t about how much you make, but what you do with it.”
  • “I work too hard for my money to waste it on fruitless things.”
  • “It’s our responsibility to plan today for tomorrow’s expenses.”
  • “Most of America’s wealthy people don’t show it off.”
  • “We make enough money to buy the things that are important to me and my family.”

No secrets. No magic formulas. No boot camps or radical lifestyle changes. Just a series of discussions, small decisions, and gradual progress. As their attitudes changed and their debt began to shrink, their life got a lot better.

We all pursue financial independence with our own tools and by taking our own paths. What worked for me might work for you, but you might have more success with a completely different system. I don’t think that everyone will succeed in the exact same way that I did, but I know that if I present enough tools and road signs then you’ll be able to choose the ones that suit your attitude.

Whether or not you’ve encountered the same problems as Carrie and her family, she takes you through the attitude-changing process. Instead of running into the same obstacles and failing every time, she’ll show you how to avoid those obstacles and where to search for success. Every page of their book tells a story about a problem that could have kept them in debt, and how they sorted out their attitudes to figure out a solution.

Let me be clear: every path to financial independence is still based on tracking your spending, creating a budget, and saving as much as you can. If you’ve never had any problems with these steps, then you’re ahead of nearly two-thirds of Americans. However, if you ARE struggling with these steps, and you never seem to be able to put your plan in action, then maybe it’s time for an attitude change. Once you have an attitude that you can live with, then the paths will make themselves clear.

By the way, I’m tremendously impressed with Carrie’s marketing. When 400 personal-finance bloggers attended FINCON12, our swag bags included a free pre-publication copy of Carrie’s book. For a few days, we were the world’s largest reading group discussing an author’s newest work. You’re going to see a lot of reviews, and it’s going to seem like the book is everywhere. That should make it easy to borrow it from a local library or read it with a cheaper Kindle app. But if this book helps you, then you’re going to want to have your own reference copy as you get a handle on your finances.

Related articles:
Book review: “You Are NOT So Smart.”
Book review: “All The Money In The World”
Book review: “Why We Buy”
Book review: “Stop Acting Rich”
Book Review: Liz Weston’s “The 10 Commandments of Money”
How many years does it take to become financially independent?

About Doug Nordman

Author of "The Military Guide to Financial Independence and Retirement" and co-author of "Raising Your Money-Savvy Family For Next Generation Financial Independence."
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