Having already established that I don’t deal well with unexpected expenses, I tried to figure out what it was, exactly, that made me react in the way I do — namely, fear/panic and then fury.

Whenever I picture finding out about these costs that crop up, I inevitably feel like I’m staring down a car headed straight for me. (That kind of explains the panic, I suppose.)

The more I thought about it, the more that image really summed it up well. I see unexpected expenses as a speeding vehicle bearing down on me. I’m confused — Where in the hell did this come from, and how did I not see it on the horizon? — and frightened — It’s going to do some damage, after all — and, mostly, paralyzed.

I can’t avert the car. I can’t make it go away. All I can do is try to pull myself out of its path so that I only get grazed.

I guess that really is the crux of the matter, isn’t it? When unexpected expenses crop up, it endangers our budget and, therefore, our debt reduction efforts. I equate freedom from debt with security. So, by the transitive property, unexpected expenses threaten my security and sense of well-being.

Plus they’re just really annoying.

The point is, though, that in that visualization of the oncoming car, I hear the high-pitched whine of the approaching vehicle. And, since my brain is really that nerdy/random, that got me onto the subject of the Doppler shift.

For those of you who don’t remember your science, the most common example of the Doppler shift is an oncoming car. If you’re standing on the side of the road, you will hear a higher frequency from an approaching vehicle. The speed of the car causes sound waves to bunch up — thus, higher frequency — and then, once the car passes, the sound waves can stretch back out, causing a lower sound.

During all this fun science-class reminiscing, I realized that it’s a very apt metaphor for expenses. When I’m watching them come at me, the costs always seem bunched up together as a solid mass of impending doom. Just like the frequency of the sound waves, oncoming costs do actually sound a lot higher. Or, arguably, the high-pitch whine is coming from me.

At some point, though, the expenses zoom on by me. Once I see that our budget has survived to fight another day, I’m better able to separate the individual expenses.

That’s the real problem, though, isn’t it? It’s all a matter of perspective.

Whether you’re talking about sound waves or expenses, the facts don’t change: the car doesn’t actually change frequency, the expenses don’t really go up or down — only the onlooker’s perception changes.

Of course, sometimes the Doppler effect runs in reverse. A few costs here and there are scattered throughout the week and, before you know it, the money is all gone. What seemed like small expenditures coalesce into one menacing mass of money. It may be behind you, but it still seems an awful lot bigger than you recall.

In the end, I suppose this is all a sign that I need to work on my stress levels when it comes to expenses. If I didn’t get so hyper about having everything in control/budgeted for, my version of reality probably wouldn’t be quite so dependent on point of view.

It’s something to work on. In the meantime, I’m considering making myself a sign like the ones on car mirrors: “Oncoming expenses may appear larger than they are.”

Do your expenses seem different coming than they do going? What does it say about how we cope?

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Weekend Reading: U.S. News & World Report’s My Money Blog - Consumerism Commentary
June 13, 2010 at 3:49 pm

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1 Deedee June 7, 2010 at 1:29 pm

That was a great piece! I hadn’t thought about it quite that way before, but I am definitely a “doppler effect in reverse” person. I think that’s a little less stressful? Or maybe not. I am forever feeling like I should have more money left at the end of the month…not realizing how many little expenses I dealt with. I guess I only stress on big expenses, so the little ones can “coalesce” without my being aware of it.

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