The only way you will ever permanently take control of your financial life is to dig deep and fix the root problem. —Suze Orman

You’re finally done! Your bankruptcy is discharged!

Before we move forward, let’s put something into perspective. Bankruptcy is basically like a bandage for your debt problems: It can help stem the bleeding and give you the time to heal. But it does little to help you figure out why you were injured in the first place. And if you don’t discover the root cause for how you got into debt, it’s only a matter of time before your financial problems could return, possibly worse than before. True financial recovery only happens when you find the root cause of the problem and deal with it at the source.

Most of the time, our problems don’t stem from just one thing, but rather a number of layered issues working in tandem. One technique I have found particularly useful in uncovering these layers is the “5 Whys” technique. First developed by Taiichi Ohno, Toyota’s former Executive Vice President, this approach harkens back to the early childhood habit of repeatedly asking “Why” to drill down to the real cause of nearly any problem.

How It Works

The process is remarkably simple:

1. Begin by writing down the problem. Don’t skip this step; writing it down helps make the issue tangible and confronts any denial that might keep you from moving forward.
2. Ask “why” the problem exists. Write down the answer.
3. Ask “why” again. Quite frequently the first “why” won’t uncover the root; it will lead to another “why.”
4. Repeat the “whys” until the root cause(s) become evident.

Let’s use a very simple example to illustrate.

THE PROBLEM: Your friend has a flat tire.

1. Why? He ran over a nail in the road.
2. Why? He had to take a route with a lot of road construction.
3. Why? He overslept and was running late for work.
4. Why? He went out drinking with buddies on a work night.
5. Why? He left the office angry and needed some outlet for his emotions.

5 whys. Can you see how this process leads to a root cause that someone might not have identified otherwise?

Also, can you see how elements all worked together to result in a flat tire? Understanding the sequence is essential. Otherwise, an earlier answer might be a distraction that prevents you from addressing the real issue. In the example, your friend might have genuinely thought he’d fixed the problem by buying a more expensive, puncture-resistant tire. When the real fix is going to be back at work.

The “5 Whys” is actually deceptively simple; it can be challenging to push yourself and reveal the deeper issues within. Given that, start using the process with smaller issues—perhaps why you yourself may have been late for a meeting. But once you get the hang of it, try using this to see if it helps you understand your financial circumstances, and points you toward a new solution.

Even if you don’t adopt the “why” practice, now that you’ve gone through your bankruptcy process, work on uncovering and dealing with the issues that led to it. We are happy to help!