Gary Zukav
Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection
Lie #1: This is just how everyone lives now.

Where I live (as is the case, these days, with most of America), I am surrounded by people who can't quite afford their lives. A couple I know bought a place a few years ago when they were both working full time. They knew they could afford it (just barely...if they were really careful), but they also figured they were due for raises and bonuses.

I probably don't even need to report that they found they didn't love living on a shoestring, funneling everything into their mortgage, that neither one got the raise they expected, that as soon as they had a child, their situation became not just tenuous but also scary. This transition from spread-a-bit-thin to edge-of-poverty could happen to any of us: Many companies are forgoing automatic "cost-of-living" raises, while that pesky cost of living keeps rising. The inflation-adjusted median wage fell by 2 percent this year, reports CNN Money, which is to say, you're likely to make less money this year than you did last year, so instead of life getting less stressful, it's more so.

My friends ended up selling their place at a loss and renting, which felt like one giant step backward. But guess what? They are much happier renting a smaller place in a less-flashy neighborhood that they can comfortably afford.

My friends are now living the American dream. As Suze Orman explains in her book The Money Class, the goal should be "not merely to live within your means, but to live below your means. This is not meant to be a punitive strategy; it is a course in self-awareness, a return to values that our grandparents and their parents embraced. It is at the very core of the American dream of old."

Lie #2: Unexpected (aka not my fault) expenses come out of nowhere.

Hey, fellow 20th-century people, remember checkbooks? Remember balancing your checkbook? Something that involved pencils, math and knowing to the penny how much you had spent and had left to spend? Right, me too. In the world of online banking and paying for everything with plastic, it's easy to think you're on track, and then (surprise!) at the end of the month you realize that a couple of birthday presents and an emergency trip to the doctor/vet/mechanic have pushed you right over the edge—and somehow this happens every month.

So look alive and keep track of what your monthly "surprises" are to see if there is a pattern. For example, maybe you need to mentally devote more each month to anticipatable unanticipated healthcare costs. Suze Orman's Monthly Expense Calculator can help.

Lie #3: I'm the boss, so I need these boots. Also, a BMW.

"I love your outfit," a catty co-worker at my first real job told me. "It's so quirky-girl chic." I thanked her and headed immediately to the bathroom to blink at myself in the mirror, thinking, "What? But this is my super-duper-grown-up-lady-in-an-office outfit!" So I know that it's easy to feel outside pressure to present yourself in a certain way, to tell yourself, "I'm 40; I should have designer suits and a flawless manicure so my clients think I'm successful." While you may have a point—you can't wear jeans to argue in court—you also have now created an excuse to not only spend but also overspend. As in all matters of life, the trick is to worry less about what others around you seem to be doing and focus more on your life. Don't think in terms of what you ought to be able to afford, but in terms of what you actually can.

Next: Good snowballs and bad snowballs

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