Ancient coin via Wikimedia Commons
In the common synonyms and phrases for money, I’m struck by how many of their embedded feelings clash: “stinking rich,” “lousy with money,” “jingle-jangle,” “almighty dollar,” “smackers,” “folding dough,” “flat busted,” “fat city,” “easy come, easy go,” “it’s only money,” “a penny saved is a penny got” (as William Penn insisted, but altered by the spendthrift Benjamin Franklin to “ . . . twopence gained”), and on and on.
What’s especially impressed you in the bits of slang you’ve gleaned?
By the way, how do you feel about that penny in the savings account? Would it be better placed in groceries or clothing? It’s such a small amount, after all! And in Franklin’s time, its purchasing power was more like $10 or $20 today.
We do have the familiar “money is the root of all evil,” misquoting Saint Paul, who shrewdly observed the “love of money is the root of all evil” (perhaps better translated for our era as the lust or craving for money).
Or the proclamation, “We are the richest and most powerful nation on Earth,” American foreign policy becomes cast.
You are threatened: “Your money or your life,” as though they’re separate.
You’re evaluated: A person’s “word is as good as gold” or he or she is “well endowed,” with a sexual innuendo. We have “stone broke,” like a toppled tombstone.
These hardly express the neutral objectivity that academic economists would have us expecting! Instead, the everyday wisdom — the word on the street — voices unresolved conflict. In this view, aspiration is constantly crashing into the wall, dusting itself off with a shrug, and speeding off again. Whether it’s comedy or tragedy seems to be up to the actor. It was, after all, the heart of Charlie Chaplin’s movie fame, this tramp who survives.
Because our own lives are not like Hollywood, however, that crash could spell the end of our road. Maybe the real miracle is that we’ve gotten as far as we have without crashing. Or, if we have crashed, that we’ve somehow managed to get back up and in motion again. And aren’t you glad we no longer have Debtors’ Prisons?
Let’s consider some adult experiences and emotions:
How you would feel if your annual income were broadcast on the evening news?
How would you feel knowing exactly how much your friends and neighbors are earning? Would it change your perception of them?
When we deal with money, we draw on many deeply buried, rarely examined assumptions. While economics, the “dismal science,” assumes that we make rational decisions and apply openly available information, our personal actions more likely spring from habits, dreams, aspirations, or impulse motivations. Most of our money practices are so deeply ingrained we have no clue where they originate.
Just feel what wells up inside of you when someone or something trips up your usual patterns here. An unexpected bill, for instance.
And just look what happens when you get involved in a relationship with someone else — someone who operates on a much different set of unexamined assumptions.
As a participant in one of my money workshops said, “It’s like I already have this committee arguing inside my head, and now we have two committees contradicting each other.”
And just what do kids learn from parents like that? No wonder we’re messed up?
For another perspective, just listen to slang — especially the hidden emotions.
Take a moment to list some familiar phrases, quotations, and slang terms for money and wealth. These fragments are unconsciously embedded in the way we handle our money. Over the coming days, continue to jot down more as they come to mind. Include advice you’ve received over the years.
As these accumulate, what images are presented? Is there a consistent message? Or are they all conflicted?
Remember when sex used to be a “dirty” subject? My, times have changed!
Nowadays, people are more likely to speak openly about their sex lives than their money. Their “dirty” money. It’s a surprisingly secretive subject.
In fact, yakking about money in a social setting is typically viewed as, well, crass. Probably because we hear it come up as a loud, “How much did you pay for it?” or “Can you get me one?” or even “Can I try that on?” And we certainly don’t want anyone knowing how much we earn or how little, now, do we?
I’ll contend that speaking of money in a social setting is almost as verboten as speaking of religion. Here, though, I intend to do both. And unlike the usual message when money and religion are used in the same sentence, I won’t be asking for a donation or passing the offering plate. It will be more like looking at the spirit of money instead. (As I’ve found, atheists, agnostics, and nontheists have some of the best insights here. Stay aboard!)
You may have noticed a pattern in the previous postings so far. This project of looking closely at my own personal money issues was leading me to other folks who were doing the same with theirs. And by talking to each other, our individual understandings were being broadened. Frankly, it was pretty comforting.
Yes, we soon gained an awareness of which details would remain too personal to discuss and of our own emotional hot buttons, and we respected those, but the very act of discussing our money issues felt liberating.
While these Talking Money posts include discussion topics and exercises you can do on your own, they’re more fun and revealing when you do them with a group of friends or colleagues. In fact, many of the insights here have arisen from just that kind of open discussion — sometimes one-on-one with a trusted friend; other times within a lively circle. See what you’re comfortable with.
In the meantime, I’m hoping for some lively discussion in the comments field.
For now, let me ask:
How do you feel asking others for money? For yourself? For a cause you support? Or as repayment for a loan?
Barbara and Mary insisted that when you’re own on a journey, it’s important to know where you are — especially when you’re starting. And it helps to have a destination. It’s even good to know where you’ve been.
Well, otherwise, you’re just lost. You know, wandering.
A traveler can rely on maps, timetables, road signs, guides and guidebooks, landmarks, or even a compass and sextant or satellite positioning for assistance in getting from one place to another. By the way, as an update. How often do you use a GPS or updated traffic directions nowadays?
We take all this for granted.
With money matters, however, we too often simply head out into the forest or desert or the nearest mall and hope to pick up a few things by day’s end. Before we set out, though, we really do need to know just where we stand. Where are we starting, what have we already learned along the way, and where to we want to go — today, this month, this year, during our lifetime?
Here’s a helpful exercise to begin with for now.
Keep a small notebook with you when you venture from the house. Every time you make a purchase, jot it down. Coffee or soda. A pack of gum. Newspaper or magazine. Hairpins or elastic. Candy from the vending machine. Everything.
This will give you a map of where your money’s going. And that, in turn, will help you map where you want it to take you. We’ll pick up on your little ledger in future postings. Remember, for now, try to get this down to the penny. (And that includes your credit card purchases!)
Through Barbara and Mary, I met Penny Yunuba, a Quaker in Boston who had used similar exercises to achieve her own financial freedom and soon was relating her discoveries as well as suggestions for things to consider. As she put it, she had bought her own freedom. You’ll meet her in upcoming posts.
So an Episcopalian and a Mennonite had engaged me in a personal investigation that now included a host of New England Quakers — many of them from other backgrounds. But that’s not all.
Coincidentally, some deep conversations with a Disciples of Christ minister in town had me examining ways the “earthy” sides of the human condition — including cash — affect spiritual and emotional wellbeing. That is, my own spiritual and emotional wellbeing. He, too, was challenging me to reconsider many of my basic assumptions and actions.
What had started out as a very practical matter — gaining better control of my personal resources — was pointing more and more toward psychological health and even religious experience.
Talking about money in this way is revolutionary, indeed. But it requires looking closely at an often difficult and conflicting personal past and breaking out onto new ground.
With the help of these colleagues, I soon began viewing my life quite differently. Even if I wasn’t earning any more than I had, I was feeling much more empowered about what was already in hand. These were my decisions and choices, after all. I could be in control, rather than feeling myself a victim. Hallelujah!
Do you ever feel you’re a victim when it comes to money? (You’re not alone!)
By coincidence, at that summer’s week-long sessions of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends being held at Bowdoin College, a workshop in the classroom next door was addressing similar issues. Somewhat sheepishly, I introduced myself to the two women who were leading it. “If I’d known you were going to be offering this, maybe we could have combined them,” I said.
That’s how I met Barbara Potter and Mary Hillas, both from Portland Friends Meeting in Maine. They laughed and bid me to join them over food that night in the dining hall. They were soon plying me with material they’d been applying in their own presentations and encouraging me to continue.
One thing they observed was that mostly men had signed up for my workshop, while theirs attracted mostly women. I’d soon see why. By the way, they’d been at this a lot longer than I had.
They had begun facing these head-on through the upheavals of mid-life passage, the kind that can arise through divorce, the death of a spouse, loss of long-term employment, remarriage, relocation of grown children, retirement, an inheritance or endowment, and the like. The insights they gleaned soon led them to lead workshops where money was explored as a central dynamic of each participant’s spiritual journey. That’s right — faith. They, too, worked to uncover primal feelings and family messages that shaped individual relationships to money. Many of the exercises they designed sought to make conscious the ways our beliefs about money impact our self-image, our work, and the living out of our deepest values. Their mission, they proclaimed, was to bring money out of the closet and into the Light.
Whew! And then they told me to use whatever they had, if I found it useful. You’ll encounter much of it in upcoming posts.
Do you think women handle money differently from men? How?
Once upon a time, which is to say a long time ago, a couple of friends asked if I’d go halves with them on a study kit they saw advertised in Utne Reader. They’d moved off to establish a medical practice in an economically besieged corner of the country and were financially strapped. So I shrugged, asked myself why not, and figured that helping them get their fiscal house in order was the least I could do.
Look, I’ve always been frugal — or at least been seen that way. Besides, I’d chosen a profession that didn’t pay especially well. Usually, on the wage scale, journalists were below public-school teachers, even before the Internet eroded the business. Frankly, looking at this mess could be depressing. Oh, sigh, as one colleague used to say.
Even though I had earned a minor in economics in college and was editing the Sunday Business section in a statewide newspaper, nothing had prepared me for what we would encounter in the materials based on Joseph R. Dominguez and Vicky Robin’s Your Money or Your Life. If you’re not familiar with their work, I think you’ll find it revolutionary. We’ll come back to it later. A lot.
As my friends and I worked through the exercise workbooks and swapped the audio cassettes, our phone calls and letters turned into confessions of what we were discovering about ourselves and the ways we handle money. This was hardly what I’d expected. These were becoming passionate discussions.
Later, after adding Jacob Needleman’s Money and the Meaning of Life and Richard J. Foster’s Money, Sex, and Power (later renamed The Challenge of the Disciplined Life) to the curriculum, I facilitated an eight-week autumn workshop in my local Friends Meeting (Quakers), where a lively circle spent two hours each week examining some of these topics.
Afterward, one of the participants suggested we offer a similar workshop at New England Yearly Meeting of Friends the next summer.
As you’ll see, it grew from there.
Where do you talk about money? Your money? Or is it largely kept secret?