I often marvel at how people can be so irresponsible financially.

I used to have a friend who couldn’t pay for her lot rent to keep her mobile home in the trailer court.  She couldn’t afford her utility bills nor could she afford to make her trailer payment.  Yet, she had money for clothes and road trips down south to see her son.  She really didn’t make all that much money (she made minimum wage and her husband didn’t do a whole lot better) but how much she made wasn’t the issue, really.

An ex-lover of mine made big bugs with her (now ex-)husband.  Money and status were very important to her and they had all the best things money could buy.  They were both statisticians — demographers, basically, she with a PhD, he with a Masters.  These “numbers junkies” bought a house they couldn’t afford and, because they couldn’t come up with a mortgage for the entire purchase amount of the house, took out a loan with Household Finance (or one of those ripoff loan companies) for the remaining 10% that they couldn’t get financed — at an interest rate of a whopping 20%.  Then he got fired from his job and they had to cut back and a short time later she filed for divorce.  Because he was mentally ill, she was saddled with paying all the bills.  The house sold for less than they owed on it, he had a new Volvo that had to be paid for, and that Household Finance bill (for something like 20K) was still hanging over her head.  She lamented her fiscal position, confiding the very real probability that she was going to have to file bankruptcy.  So, what does she do? She buys a $500 dollar ring for herself and puts it on one of the credit cards that she intends to get relief from in the bankruptcy — no matter how you slice that, it’s fraud.

A guy I worked with had all sorts of money problems.  Lack of health insurance was a huge concern for him because of some health issues he had.  He could barely scrape together enough money to put gas in his car and, when something went wrong with the car, it would stay out of commission for quite a length of time until he could scrape together enough cash to get it running again. His car sat for weeks unfixed, while he borrowed his girlfriend’s car to get back and forth to work.  And, while he made half of what I did yet he was able to manage to buy a nice, big flatscreen television — something even *I* can’t afford.

Each month, at the first of the month, I pay all my bills.  Whatever is left is what I have to spend on luxury items.  What are luxury items?  For me they’re things like a Raspberry Iced Coffee at Tim Hortons, a 12-pack of annuals for some color in the garden, maybe a new CD or DVD — you get the idea.

We have become a self-entitled society — we have taken our rights of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to the extreme.  We expect to be rewarded with material prizes for having worked all week and feel that our financial responsibilities should be met only after your material wants, needs and desires and met.  Perhaps this is why we’re having to bail out companies like Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae and AIG to the tune of billions of dollars.

But it doesn’t stop with individuals — our employers and our government are guilty of the same financial irresponsibilities as well.

Having served in the US military for more than 2 decades, I saw a lot of fraud, waste, and abuse.  As an example, a friend of mine had his child in a local hospital for a simple tonsilectomy (there was no pediatric wing to the local military hospital).  He got an itemized bill to submit to C.H.A.M.P.U.S. (the military’s now-defunct dependent care program) so that the hospital bill could get paid.  He pointed out to the CHAMPUS folks that they were being billed for use of the labor and delivery room, materials for cast-making (for tonsils?) and a period of time that equaled more than double the time his son was actually in the hospital.  He was told that they don’t quibble about the bills, they just pay them.

When was the last time you questioned anything on a bill you got?  As an example, Waste Management (trash company) was billing us for more than $20 every three months for a “fuel surcharge.”  Our monthly bill was just shy of $100 for that three month period so that’s quite a huge chunk-o-change for fuel, even if fuel pries have risen as much as they have.  A small, locally owned company came around our neighborhood in early August, trying to get us to make the switch.  They offered us a rate (not introductory) that, INCLUDING fuel surcharges, came to twelve dollars a month less than Waste Management BEFORE fuel surcharges.  When we called to cancel Waste Management, they practically begged us to not cancel our account, offering to meet the small company’s rate for a year.  If they can afford to meet that rate for a year, they can afford to meet it all the time, right?  But because they’re entitled and because they know that consumers will bitch and moan to each other but not do anything to rebel against their ripoff charges, they get away with it.

The local utility company estimates our gas and electric use every other month.  I got an estimated bill one month that was ridiculously high and I called them and insisted on a reading rather than an estimate, because I refused to pay an outrageously high bill that was based on merely an estimate.  They didn’t come out to read the meters and so I sent them $150 for that bill (about $45 short of what they estimated).  When I got my next bill, I saw that the $150 actually OVERPAID the actual usage but, in fact, they assessed a LATE CHARGE for not having paid the entire amount in full.  I called them and asked them how they could charge a late fee for what amounted to a bad guess on their part.  They waived the fee but I wonder how many people just let them get away with it?

Victims of domestic violence, rape, or abuse are taught that, by not filing criminal charges against their abuser, they are in effect giving that abuser permission to hurt them.  By not questioning the fiscal responsibilities of our governments and even our creditors, and standing up for ourselves, we are granting them permission to continue to dip into our pockets and nickel/dime us to death.  They take money from us because they CAN, and they get away with it.

Start reading your bills and bank statements in their entirety.  Learn to understand what they say.  And hold creditors to task when something doesn’t make sense or when it doesn’t seem right.  It’s the only way we can effect the kind of change we need in order to keep what’s left of our meager paychecks.