Don’t Live a Financial Fantasy: Manage Money Based On Reality

financial reality v fantasy - a man's reflection on a puddle, reversed so that his reflection appears to be standing upright


That’s what I consistently spend on monthly groceries for our family of four.But I’m not always happy with that number.

Other finance bloggers spend far, far less — sometimes as little as $100 per person, per month.

I compare my budget that’s double that and wonder, why can’t I do that too? I get sucked into googling how to save on groceries, looking for an easy answer or a simple way to spend less on food. I obsess over my meal plans and grocery mailers and coupons until my eyes cross.

Other times I tell myself: It’s fine! I’m trying! Feeding a family is no easy thing, and our spending is below the average for a family of four. I already keep costs low while feeding everyone, and my spending is consistent. I’m doing great, really, and there’s just no room or need for improvement.

In both cases, I’ve noticed something happens: I idealize a financial situation — either someone else’s or my own.

When I idealize other people’s finances

In the first case, I look at someone else’s situation and automatically view that as the ideal. In this example, it’s other people’s grocery budgets. But it also happens with their debt-free lifestyles, higher savings rates, or more-impressive freelance incomes.

I see someone doing better than me and get starry-eyed and a little jealous. There’s a compulsion to try to accomplish the same. To show I can put in the hard work to earn the same outcomes. 

But why do I idealize others’ finances? Why do I look at their money situation from the outside and see only easy success? 

Because I want it to be as easy as it looks — easy enough that I can do it, too. I want that idealized version of money management that promises results and always delivers. I want to know that if I only follow this financial advice, I’ll always get amazing results. 

When I idealize other’s finances, however, I’m missing the steep costs that are paid to reach that success. While cutting groceries costs looks easy when it’s packaged into a slick list of 10 tips, that doesn’t mean it is. It doesn’t reflect the author’s effort coming up with these tips. Or how hard it was to apply them to build a consistently frugal system for buying groceries.

When I idealize others’ money, I buy into the fantasy that money is easy, the myth that these one-size-fits-all solutions will work for me.

When I idealize my own money

I don’t just idealize other’s finances, however. I’ve noticed another pattern that crops up: I idealize my own finances.

I minimize money issues, smooth over financial bumps, and tell myself I’m already doing my absolute best. My grocery budget or money simply is what it is — and it can’t really be changed, I say to myself.

Or I justify my car loan and why I’m not yet focused on paying it off. I tell myself that my retirement savings rate is already okay, that saving at all puts me ahead of the average person, anyway.

This mindset might be comforting, but it’s not exactly helpful. Because like the first mindset, it also means living in an idealized version of financial management rather than face harsh realities. It encourages me to be complacent and comfortable, while ignoring areas where improvement might be possible. 

I get to tell myself white lies like, I’m doing the best I can and can’t do any better, or that change and improvement isn’t possible or is too hard. 

In reality, I do have the ability to lower my grocery costs or improve most areas of my finances.

I can’t control everything, but I do have a huge influence over what I spend, earn, owe, or invest. By idealizing my current financial efforts and situation as the best possible outcome, I’m actually downplaying and diluting my power to change and improve.

Idealizing my money to avoid financial reality

These two patterns have something important in common: they both get me stuck in some idealized version of my money, a story that tells me I either:

  • I can’t or don’t need to improve how I manage my money
  • Fixing my finances will be easy and simple if I can just be like somebody else

Both of these financial fantasies protect me from what I sometimes would prefer to avoid: the discomfort, scariness, effort, or pain of change and self-improvement.

Whether I’m idealizing my own finances or others, in both cases I’m creating comforting glamours of how I believe my money is or should be. And by focusing on these financial fantasies, I can avoid the uncomfortable truths of my money and financial behaviors.

This habit of idealizing financial matters creates the illusion that my finances are or can be better — without doing anything to actually improve them. It keeps me from accepting and dealing with the reality of my money.

The real opportunities for growth, however, are in my financial reality — located somewhere between the two extremes represented by these fantasies. 

Look at your financial realities — and work within them

Working within the reality of my finances means I’m seeing my money as it really is.

I look past my wishes for my finances and see the reality. I get honest about what I want and what’s a priority right now and manage money in line with those priorities.

If I take an honest look at my grocery spending and budget, for example, I can see there are real obstacles that keep our spending higher than I’d prefer. My 6- and 3-year-old have opposite tastes and dietary needs. She loves veggies, he’ll only eat fruit. He’s allergic to dairy, she refuses to even taste soy milk.

But I can also clearly see that I haven’t put a lot of time or effort into cutting costs. I can be honest about the less-frugal habits that have slipped in, whether it’s buying conveniently prepackaged snacks for the kids’ lunches or loading up on more Diet Coke than a human could possibly need.

Living in the reality of my finances in this way keeps me from getting wrapped up in fairy tale financial advice that promises results. Focusing on the reality of my money, rather than the stories I tell myself about it, provides a more balanced and honest picture of how things truly are:

  • See what is and can weigh competing priorities intentionally and decisively
  • Commit to doing the work when it makes sense, and know what work needs to wait or isn’t worth it
  • Give credit for what’s going right, but be honest about what’s going wrong and keep an eye on issues
  • Acknowledge there’s always room to grow and do better, but also remember the often-high costs of time, energy, and effort that comes with personal growth

We can take a look at all sides of our money, the good and the ugly, without giving in to the temptation to filter it through some financial fantasy. 

In doing so, we gain power — the power to see clearly, to decide clearly, to mor consciously and intentionally shape money management in the present and our financial security in the future.

Photo by Randy Jacob on Unsplash

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  • Reply
    Abigail @ipickuppennies
    August 9, 2019 at 6:00 pm

    It’s so easy to idealize other people’s finances as a hybrid of your two outlooks: It’s easy for them but I’m doing everything I can so I’ll just envy them and do little or nothing to effect change on my own finances. At least that’s the trap I can fall into. Especially because I have had so much on my plate for so many years with my ex-husband (who took a lot of my limited energy) that I told myself I simply couldn’t try some frugal hacks. Now I don’t have that excuse but I find myself thinking that I’m doing well enough that I should just be content. But I don’t want to be content with my spending just enter. There are still areas for improvement so I need to spur myself on. And that means not idealizing anyone’s finances: mine or others’.

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      August 9, 2019 at 11:00 pm

      This is so true! I think there are a lot of “flavors” this can come in, but at the end of the days it all comes down to distorted thoughts. I.e. those thoughts we have that don’t match up with reality. It can be really hard to balance out self-improvement with realistic expectations of that improvement. It seems you’re doing the work of weighing those things and being honest with yourself about what’s going on!

  • Reply
    August 9, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    I think frugal blogging can be a kind of lifestyle “porn” in the more generalized instagram meaning of that word. Really, though… I do this all the time. It’s hard not to explain all your “buts” when you put something out there about your finances. However, doing the work of really looking at your finances is still required! Thanks for making me think.

    And I feel the exact same way about groceries. This might be the year we average closer to $800 than to $1000 per month… but maybe not. And that’s ok. We’ll get better as we keep working on it.

    • Reply
      Elyssa Kirkham
      August 9, 2019 at 11:02 pm

      Thank you for commenting, I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      I agree that finance content can get a little too close to “inspiration porn” for my comfort. As a follower/reader, I try to choose accounts I feel are more honest and transparent. And also do the work mentioned in this post, of reminding myself that what’s presented in a post isn’t always the full picture.

  • Reply
    Savvy History
    August 11, 2019 at 10:04 pm

    This post speaks to me so much! It’s definitely one of my favorites of yours and speaks to a topic I think a lot of financial bloggers deal with. (I’m in a family of three and we regularly spend over $500 on our groceries). I want to look good to my audience and at the same time I never want to brag – we are balancing so many psychological tight ropes!

    This quote really resonates with me:

    “I minimize money issues, smooth over financial bumps, and tell myself I’m already doing my absolute best. My grocery budget or money simply is what it is — and it can’t really be changed.”

    I think this about our house being counted in our net-worth. If we count our house, we look pretty great. If not, we have so far to go, it’s an absolute joke for me to be a FI blogger:) I guess that’s what you get when 70% of your net worth is tied up in your home. I live in two realities, but want to play it safe. My husband definitely leans toward not counting our house in our net worth… brutal honesty doesn’t look flashy.

  • Reply
    August 16, 2019 at 7:53 pm

    Has it ever occurred to you that most people on the internet are liars? Especially when it comes to their finances? What makes you think that the bloggers you read are actually telling you their truths? I hate to break this news to you, but they are not.
    Are you paying your bills on time?
    Are you behind on any payments?
    is your family healthy? Are they eating any junk foods?
    Are you saving any money towards your retirement? Goals?
    Your initial thought of ‘it is what it is’ is probably on target.
    If you truly feel you are doing the best that you can, regardless of knowing other peoples financial situation, then guess what? You’re doing AOK.
    Now, snap out of it!

  • Reply
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    Financial Nordic
    August 17, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    Fantastic content!

    – Financial Nordic

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