The New Maslow Hierarchy; Entitlement of Cell Phones and TV

Most people don’t realize it, but they adhere to a system of need fulfillment every day.  What do I need to get through today?  And then tomorrow?  Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist (1908-1970) observed a pyramid of needs in the human condition.  We are all subject to certain needs and wants, and go about our daily lives in pursuit of those things, and in a specific order or “hierarchy”.

Maslow’s hierarchy is taught as part of a professional bill collectors national certification through ACA International.  It’s important we understand the needs and motivations in real-time of the people we are talking to and trying to negotiate payment plans with.  Without getting too detailed here, Maslow’s Hierarchy goes like this:

At the bottom are PHYSICAL NEEDS.  Food, water, shelter, and the necessity for life.  Maslow purposed that people can’t deal with other issues in life unless they feel confident in these.  The next level is the need for SAFETY.  If a person feels threatened, by physical harm or in this context that they could be evicted from their home,or lose their job tomorrow, they are not going to negotiate on past-due bills.  The middle level is SOCIAL needs, or the need to belong.  People need to be part of something larger than themselves, and until they can see themselves feeling comfortable in their surroundings, having basic needs met, and feeling somewhat secure about tomorrow, we can’t really negotiate on past-due bills.

The top two tiers, SELF-ESTEEM and SELF ACTUATION, are where bill collectors are able to functionally work with people to get their debts paid.  Well, that’s what we have been taught for over 50 years.  In the circles of bill collectors I frequent, I can say this is no longer the case!

Instead of seeing the majority of people concerned with things like food and shelter and a job before they worry about paying bills, we see a new list of items that have become non-negotiable for the average American in debt.  TV used to top that list.  People just won’t forgo cable or satellite TV no matter how much it costs.  They will let us garnish their wages before they go without TV.  The new Top-of-the-List item is cell phones.  People will not give up a family cell phone plan as it may embarrass their children to be the only ones at school without a phone, or texting, or Internet service, etc.  And now we see people talking about the tattoos they want instead of paying their bills.

Oh sure, the list of items can go on to things like drive-through coffee, gambling, jewelry, hair and nails, pets, and so forth.  And no doubt if we look at the average debtor’s finances there are plenty of areas to cut back or change priorities.  But TV and cell phones are NOT up for discussion.  And this is the change. People do not connect the fact they are spending their money on non-essential items with the need to pay their debts.  There is no shame is standing in our office with recently done nails, a Starbucks in one hand and smart phone in the other, driving a newer car, and then pleading poverty that the $25 payment is “all we can afford”.  In the old days, people used to know they were lying to you by saying the “check’s in the mail”.  Today, people don’t realize how much money in their budget they have placed into their own “necessity” list, when it really isn’t necessary.

I could tell you story after story of people who can’t see all the money they have, but are spending on other things instead of their bills. There is one word that has come to codify this new Hierarchy in America; Entitled.  I teach collection classes to people all across the country, and this word has come up EVERY time we talk about priorities and spending and paying debts.   What would Maslow say today?

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