Do you know a young person who has trouble spending money? Laugh at the idea, by all means. After all, the miser has been a figure of fun since classical Rome. But while financial education generally focuses on the perils of overspending and irresponsible shopping, there's a seldom-discussed problem at the other end of the spectrum. That's underspending and financial hoarding.
I was introduced to it many years ago when an adviser at a young people's debt project told me about a young man who'd put his life on hold after an early experience with debt. He'd lost any sense of proportion about what money was for. All he had was a determination to part with as little of it as possible.
The adviser was working with him to help him get his life back, re-engaging with friends, going out again. She was helping him see how he could enjoy, within reason, a proportion of the money he earned while maintaining his debt reduction plan. It's not an easy balance. And problems do not have to be triggered by personal experience of debt. Most of us know someone whose attitude of "every penny a prisoner" interferes with relationships and social interactions. It isn't always a problem. Sometimes it can be a severe one.
What is underspending – or miserliness, being tight-fisted or whatever you want to call it? Is it just a normal part of the rich range of human personalities without which life would be dull and predictable? Or is it an illness or disability, and if so, what sort? Is it a temporary phase that will pass? Or could it be a chronic emotional or personality disorder like social anxiety? Is it a symptom of a deeper psychological problem of fear and insecurity?
There's no consensus, since hardly anyone talks about it. And there won't be any time soon. The time lag as the medical profession catches up with what people experience is great. Only now are the medics who maintain the official list of psychiatric and behavioural malfunctions getting round to identifying extreme hoarding as a form of mental disorder in its own right. As has been clear to anyone with personal experience of it, or even those who watch reality TV regularly, hoarding is an immensely distressing disorder with a major impact on the lives of individuals and their families. It's also very hard to treat or manage.
Is hoarding money and underspending in the same category? Does it blight lives and scupper relationships? And if it does, who would know? Those who are most affected are not likely to draw attention to themselves. They're staying in saving money. They're not seeking help because they're not aware that anyone could help. Which is sadly true.
To return to the opening question – do you know a young person who has trouble spending money? If you do, and particularly if you have ideas of what can help or what definitely doesn't, I'd like to hear from you. Use the comments below or email me. Getting underspending discussed is a vital first step.
PJ White is editor of Youth Money