Exercising Good Judgement: How Money Affects Our Behaviour

I’ve often heard that money only amplifies who we are. If we’re a giving person, money will only make us more giving. If we’re an a**hole, money will only make us a bigger a**hole. 

[W]hen we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it. The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. For the hungry, that need is food. For the busy it might be a project that needs to be finished. For the cash-strapped it might be this month’s rent payment; for the lonely, a lack of companionship. Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little. It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.
— Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity (2013), p. 7.

I don’t disagree with the above, but I think we’re ignoring the other end of the spectrum: believing we don’t have “enough” can have the same effect.

Being tight on money because we have too much debt or don’t feel we’re where we need to be in life (career, love, savings) also amplifies who we are and how we use money to affect others.

If you’re skeptical of the above, watching some old episodes of Judge Judy, a TV show that mimics a small claims court, will surely convince you.

Here's her appearance on Ellen that sums up why she's so effective and why she's an effective voice for the principles so many of us in the personal finance/FIRE community live by.

In Judge Judy's courtroom, you’ll find people who—apart from wanting their 15 minutes of fame no matter how they can get it—have chosen money over relationships:

Do you know when a gift becomes a loan? When the relationship is over. Have you ever heard that, sir? Well, neither have I. I just made it up. I’m going to put it on coffee mugs.
— Judge Judy (to a plaintiff), source: http://www.famousfix.com/topic/judge-judy/quotes?pageno=5
My own children have taken my cars and had accidents. Once, one of my sons went over an embankment into a ditch; then he told me that the earth opened up because of severe rain, that such was how the car slid down the roadside. Needless to say, that story didn’t work; but I didn’t SUE him, either.
— Judge Judy (to a plaintiff), source: http://www.famousfix.com/topic/judge-judy/quotes?pageno=2
  • Mother suing her daughter for a car loan she co-signed.
  • Wife/husband suing their estranged spouse for child support.
  • Girlfriend suing ex-boyfriend for rent.
  • Boyfriend suing ex-girlfriend for taking property that he lent her.
  • Neighbor suing another neighbor for an unruly dog.
  • Friend suing for an unpaid loan that the other party is calling a “gift”.
  • Parents suing each others’ children for medical bills associated with a scuffle.
  • Friend suing another friend for damage caused to the car while driving.
  • Employee suing for unpaid wages.
  • Woman suing roommate for theft of property.
...I’ve got a message for all you single people out there, in the audience, so listen to me very carefully - Aside from no joint bank accounts, no joint credit cards, no joint visas until you’re married, take this home with you: NEVER cosign on anybody’s behalf for anything, and I mean NOT EVER!
— Judge Judy (to plaintiff), source: http://www.famousfix.com/topic/judge-judy/quotes?pageno=6

It’s never really about the money. It’s merely a tool used to manipulate, punish, cajole, protect and to show love, hate, contempt, anger or resentment.

We’re really not talking about a lot of money here either. Every case is settled for $5,000 USD or less. In fact, from what I can see, most decisions are for less than $1,000!

When people don’t have very much, even small amounts can inflict wounds that last for years, even decades. Some never heal.

And it’s almost never worth it.

We had a recent incident in the F2P household that could have been a case for Judge Judy’s courtroom (not that we would ever show our faces on TV in that context!).

We took in what was to be our fourth foster greyhound this past weekend. Long story short, he had an accident while under our care: he managed to brake part of his jaw on his kennel when left unattended for less than a half hour. I know!!! 

The result? A $500 vet bill. OUCH!

We didn’t hesitate to get the dog emergency care at one o’clock in the morning at a 30% premium and to pay the resulting bill (pictured right) because it was the right thing to do, despite the rescue operation stating it was willing to foot the bill. We also assured the rescue that yes, we would be willing to foster again after this tough experience (we just need some time to emotionally recover from this doozey of a weekend).

I can’t help but wonder what my behaviour would have been had we not been able to come up with the $500, as is the case for so many people. I hope I would have done the right thing, such as set up a repayment plan with the rescue or the vet, or something of that nature. That said, I would also prefer never to be in a position to be able to definitively answer that question.

...[S]lack provides a hidden efficiency. It gives us room to maneuver, to reshuffle when we err. Slack gives us room to fail.
— Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity (2013), p. 82.

Most savers would agree that we don’t save money to be selfish and unkind to our fellow man. Saving money brings us peace of mind, makes us more patient, increases our confidence as we go about living our lives and enables us to take care of our responsibilities and just "do the right thing". In short, it thwarts the possibility of scarcity bringing out the worst in us.

BONUS: Here's a treat for making it to the end of this article. Enjoy!

Top Ten Lessons from Judge Judy

  1. No good deed goes unpunished.
  2. Get over it. It's just stuff.
  3. If it's not logical, it's usually not true.
  4. We usually know that we're making a bad decision but we choose to ignore it.
  5. Don't lend money you can't afford to lose (that includes co-signing a loan).
  6. Taking personal responsibility for our actions is the most important decision we can make.
  7. Keeping good records and getting agreements in writing is paramount.
  8. Owning a mistake is liberating. Any other behaviour is just useless drama.
  9. Crime does not pay. Criminal behaviour is expensive.
  10. Intention is often irrelevant. If a situation turns out poorly, we're still responsible for the outcome.

Want to hear more from this wise woman and have the chance to share your own stories? Check out her new site: What Would Judy Say?  You'll even find a free ebook!

Image credit/copyright: Kittisak/freedigitalphotos.net

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