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Financial stress and ‘under-earning’

When people think about answers to financial stress a lot of energy and attention is paid to our spending. Where does all our money go, we are urged to ask of ourselves and our partners.

The implication is clear: if we suffer financial stress we share a flaw – impulsive and sometimes reckless spending. We can easily go straight to the conclusion that we are over-spenders, who use spending to numb out boredom and difficult emotions. We might even think we are greedy.

For some people, sadly, those are harsh truths. But just as many people try with all their willpower and attention to detail and live within their means, and cannot seem to make ends meet. For many people, a polar opposite problem to over-spending applies under-earning.

Earning less than your skills suggests it wouldn’t be a major problem if it wasn’t so damn expensive to live; so huge numbers of people are driven into debt.

It isn’t cheap to live in Australia, especially in a capital city like Sydney.

According to Numbeo (the world’s largest cost of living database), the cost of living in Australia is 17.6% higher than in the United States. In fact, it’s cheaper to live in countries such as France, United Kingdom, Germany and Canada.

US households on average carry US$145,000 (A$187,400) in debt, according to the personal finance website The Ascent. In Australia the figure is even higher, skyrocketing beyond A$250,000. Much of those debts are mortgage repayments, an essential cost and also an investment in our futures.

But what about credit card debt? In the US, the average credit card debt per household is US$7,000 according to nerdwallet.com, while the average American with a student loan owes $56,000 and the average car loan is $27,000. Card debt is lower in Australia, around A$2500 per cardholder, while car loans are slightly higher here.

It’s not yet known what the average debts owed to credit services like Afterpay and ZipMoney are as they are too new, but the national bill in Australia is thought to be over $1 billion.

“Many people believe that card and personal loan debts come from heedless spending, and to get out of debt you have to stop buying luxuries and living a lifestyle beyond your means,” says Andrew Fleming, Founder and CEO of Financial Mindfulness.

These assumptions are often wrong he says. “Often people use cards, credit services and loans because their incomes don’t match their expenses, especially when an unexpected expense comes along,” he says.

In most western economies it is well known that the cost of living – let alone the price of major life expenses like property – has outpaced inflation and wages for many years.

One answer to how we cope with going back even when we have the best of intentions is to confront the issue raised near the start of this article: under-earning.

But beyond a state, most of us find difficult, even shameful to talk about, what is under-earning, exactly?

First, it’s useful to identify what under-earning is not.

Barbara Stanny, author of Overcoming Underearning: A Five Step Plan for a Richer Life wrote in Forbes in 2011 that an under-earner is not someone who chooses a low income or a simpler life without much work. “It is always a CONDITION OF DEPRIVATION[sic] not just of money, but of time, joy, freedom, choices and self-esteem,” Stanny wrote.

Under-earners are often drowning in debt and vague about money, she wrote. They might even have an “anti-money attitude”, unwittingly sabotage their own career prospects and underestimate their value at work. Often they are also co-dependent (meaning they put others’ needs ahead of their own).

Under-earning is a chronic condition that’s not going to be fixed in a day, let alone by reading an article, but awareness of it can start to break decades-long negative cycles. People work through deep-seated issues like using anything from various forms of therapy to mindfulness practice.

The latter approach can help alleviate financial stresses and strains at two levels. “Mindfulness practice won’t necessarily change your earnings,” says Andrew Fleming.

“But it will give you a new awareness of what you are doing and help change your approach to what and how you spend and what you earn.”

He says regular mindfulness practice will help people clearly see the reality of their situation, “instead of being stuck … with your mind racing 100 miles an hour” – and will give you the calm to deal with it. And you’ll need that calmness because negative, even painful feelings are likely to come out of seeing the realities behind your financial stress.

“Frustration and discomfort can be a sign of a breakthrough, a new awareness,” Fleming says.

“It might help you take action, perhaps asking for a pay rise and being confident when doing so, having an authentic conversation with the boss or it might put you into gear to pursue a better-paid vocation, either within the same company, the same industry or by doing something totally new.”

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