Saturday, March 3, 2012

Save Your Excuses

"If you don't want to do something, one excuse is as good as another." - Yiddish Proverb

When it comes to spending, saving, working, and rest, we find ourselves in a thicket of intents, inclinations, motivations, and opportunities. This post considers the role of excuses in our justifications to ourselves and other people for what we do—or don't do.

Defining Excuses
According to the American Heritage Dictionary excuse can mean ...

tr.v., -cused, -cus·ing, -cus·es.
    1. To explain (a fault or an offense) in the hope of being forgiven or understood: He arrived late and excused his tardiness in a flimsy manner.
    2. To apologize for (oneself) for an act that could cause offense: She excused herself for being late.
n. (ĭk-skyūs')
  1. An explanation offered to justify or obtain forgiveness.
  2. A reason or grounds for excusing: Ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law.
[Middle English excusen, from Old French excuser, from Latin excūsāre : ex-, ex- + causa, accusation; see cause.]


Chronic excuse making limits our ability to save and maintain solvency. Excuses only come into play when there is a promise or expectation either from oneself to oneself or from one person to another. It is a explanation for why the promise or expectation was not met. Thus, the explanation from the excuse maker (Ex) may have credence with the receiver (Re), or it may not. It pleads that Ex is a better person than their recent actions may imply.

Excuses form a type of punctuation for some people. They become their verbal transition between their promises, actions, and the present moment. Chronic excuse makers have attached excuses to their greeting, "Hi, sorry I'm late, I was stuck in traffic." What's especially dangerous for the person, and annoying and off-putting to their work associates, friends, family, spouses, and even parts of themselves, is when they don't wait for a reply. They become self-excuse makers, living their chaotic lives and randomly affecting people around them without much visible concern.

There are some questions that can help determine whether you can accept an excuse.

1. How severe was the harm? Typically, most excuses occur for what may seem to the Ex as a minor infraction. This may or may not jibe with the Re's views. Consider this dialog:

Re: Hi, Hon, where's the $100 we need to make this month's rent? It's due in 3 days.
Ex: Oh, Rent! I totally forgot and thought it was all taken care of.
Re: You mean you spent it.
Ex: Well, it was Pat's birthday, and we were all in a good mood. Look, it's no big deal, I'll pawn something. We'll be OK.
Re: Yeah, right, No Big Deal. I guess there's no money left for food, either. ...

Clearly, Ex and Re are on different scales as far as the significance of the spending. Now compare ...

Re: Hi, Hon, where's the $100 we need to make this month's rent? It's due in 3 days.
Ex: Oh, Rent! I totally forgot and thought it was all taken care of.
Re: You mean you spent it.
Ex: Yeah, I guess I spent it. It's a slip. I think I thought you said rent was taken care of.
Re: Well, I didn't, and neither is there money for food till we get our next checks.
Ex: Alright, I slipped. I blew the money at Pat's party trying to act like a Big Shot. Here's what I'll do, I have $40 in my pocket. Here, take it. I overheard someone say they had a couple of days of work. I'll see if I can do that. Maybe I'll stop hanging out as this has happened before.
Re: Well, this helps. Next time just leave your cash and credit cards with me before you go out.

2. Does the Ex admit harm? You see this in the second example where the Ex says "I slipped. ..."

3. Does the Ex do something immediately to patch the relationship? In this example, Ex offer $40 left in his or her pocket.

4. Does the Ex at least make noises that they will amend their ways? In this example, Ex says they will stop going out with friends. This is too extreme as Re recognizes but jokes about holding Ex's credit cards and cash. Beware Excuse makers: Re is taking note of what Ex does going forward. Ex may not have much time in Re's gut to change their ways. 

How to Stop Making Excuses
Step 1: Know when you are making a promise. This means what you say matters. What you sign matters. For the great majority of promises don't expect trumpets and fanfare. Many promises that are broken and thus trigger the need to offer an excuse are very brief and seemingly off-hand. For example:

Okay, we're on for lunch Friday at 12:30 at Comfort Foods. That's your promise to be at the restaurant @ 12:30 on Friday. It's not a promise to call or text with a message that you are "running late."

Then there are those substantial, long-term promises common in our culture:
Yes, I'll sign this [rent, credit card, loan, mortgage, etc.] agreement. This is your promise to provide regular payments as defined in the contract. This is not a ritual after which they allow you access to credit or a place to live and you pay when you please, or only pay "when you have the money." As people learn when they miss these payments, the people and companies on the receiving end take these promises extremely seriously.

The takeaway: your word binds you, your signature binds you. You may feel relieved if you think you have an excuse, don't believe for a moment that your tardiness or missed payment is not factoring into how the Re will interact with you going forward.

Step 2: Do all within your power to keep your promises. To meet a promise requires attention to both your time and your actions.
From the example if it take you 15 minutes to walk from your office to the restaurant, you alone have to protect that transition time. Thus, on you calendar show the appointment as filling the time from 12:10 to 2:00 to pad your time so you don't have to rush.

When it comes promises to make periodic payments (credit cards, loans, rent) the larger the payment, the more you have to accumulate a bit a time. For most people, the largest expense is housing so you may have to set aside half the rent from your first pay check and half from the second one.

As you spend money using credit cards or cash, keep a log of your spending with columns for the date, the item or service, and the amount, plus what category it was (food, clothing, fun, etc.) Just writing the amount down raises it to awareness, creates a moment for reflection, and makes each purchase just a bit more "costly" as you will need to take a moment to record what it was.

Step 3: Recognize that keeping promises is the balancing habit to chronic excuse making. All the tools for building habits apply, and this will be discussed in one of my next posts. That's a promise.