One face of money

Is it really that frightening?
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Home is where the heart is, right?

Many of our money decisions are tinted by broad cultural perspectives. Home ownership, for instance, is more likely when parents are able to help their children, either through a loan or an inheritance — and when a stable career allows the buyer to remain in that location.

Kids in this situation are likely to hear the advice that renting is “just throwing money away.”

But for youth in other cultures? They’ve always rented. They live in big cities. They can’t get a down payment together. Maybe investing in education is a higher priority. Or in wealth that can be easily transported in the event of persecution. It’s a great topic for cross-cultural discussion. What would you do in their situation? What advice would you give?

Consider the way Americans frequently proclaim their “right” to do whatever they want with their possessions, in effect saying their wealth exists independently of everyone else. But does it? Does the constitutional right to the “pursuit of happiness” extend to hedonism? Or is it something some of us would insist is far more in line with common wealth? For that matter, does it differ from pleasure?

No wonder some of us want to keep our financial affairs wrapped in privacy! Secrecy is first-cousin to deceit, and money is not exempt. “Lies sever community; secrecy smothers it,” Jim Corbett writes in Goatwalking.

That is, it comes at a price. The next question is, Who is expected to pay?

When you unlock money issues in the light of open confession, transformation occurs. Believe me.

Let’s go back to that matter of your home.

Whether you own or rent, what does your residence say about you? What do you identify as your needs — and what would you see as your dream home?

Tell me something about your furnishings. Anyone else into IKEA? Or antiques?

Are you getting a better feel for money?

Think back, if you can, to the first time you handled $100 bill. Remember who’s on its face? What was your feeling?

If you haven’t done that, go to your bank and get one. It won’t bite, I promise. Now, as for the feelings?

How about a silver dollar?

Neither is it something we use in our general circulation.

Even though the Ben Franklin is worth something like a $20 bill was back when I graduated from college, that twenty still seems to be the max that people handle easily. Even a fifty gets suspicious looks at the checkout counter.

As for that silver dollar? It’s for collectors, right? Or something like a jewelry drawer?

When you started these exercises, were you shrugging off cash as a neutral object possessing no spirit or motion of its own? Did you — or do you — view money as being totally dependent upon the temperament of its users? This, of course, is the classical argument of the science of economics.

But as we’ve been looking more intensely, we’re seeing money issues scuttle off in many directions. Just what are people exchanging? The fact that we call coins change says something of their chameleon nature.

And we speak of money as a medium of exchange. Maybe we need to remember that a medium can meddle with spirits, as in a seance, or burn with friction, as in electrical resistors — the kind that heat stovetops and ovens, clothes irons, and electric blankets.

Is cash nothing more than an extension of barter? Or does something much broader occur as we handle our finances?

Dictionary definitions often help sharpen our focus. With money, however, they yield surprisingly little insight — which is, in its own way, informative. For example, there’s this, from an American Heritage edition:

MONEY 1. A commodity that is legally established as an exchangeable equivalent of all other commodities and used as a measure of their comparative market value. 2. The official currency issued by a government. 3. Assets and property considered in terms of their monetary value; wealth. 4. Profit or loss measured in money.

We’re still at the noun stage. A cold noun, at that. Perhaps the first definition in a Funk & Wagnalls dictionary is more helpful:

Officially issued coins and paper currency that serve as a medium of exchange and a measure of value and may be used as payment for goods and services and for settlement of debts.

At least we’re getting a glimmer of some verb action — it pays up or settles debts and even measures values. What is still missing is an awareness of the emotional content of money.

Tell us your experience of touching the $100 bill or the silver dollar.

‘Money phobias’ come in many varieties

Annette Lieberman and Vicki Lindner take a hard look at what they perceptively identify as “money phobias.” Their book, The Money Mirror: How Money Reflects Women’s Dreams, Fears and Desires (Allworth Press, 1996), fits men, too, when it comes to the ways each of these fears may affect you or someone you know.

Moneyblindness: These people don’t allow themselves to see their financial lives at all. They close their eyes to money, considering not really there, unreal, vague. They find it anxiety-producing to look at their financial situation. They often delegate money management tasks to others and avoid serious thought or conversation about money. They might leave money machine receipts all over the bank floor, or pile up unopened mail and bank statements.

Moneysqueamishness: They believe that wanting money is “greedy” or “corrupt” and that talking about money is “tacky.” This attitude is culturally instilled. In their eyes, to want a lot is selfish or greedy, although most secretly lust after money. Women are expected to be more moneysqueamish than men.

Types of individuals Lieberman and Lindner see in this category include Financial Virgins, who associate money with inappropriate desires for sex or food; Weaker Vessels, who believe money will corrupt their life or work; Genteel Poor, who keep their needs to a minimum and may practice voluntary poverty despite a secure financial position; and Money Martyrs, who think it is morally superior to be victimized financially and to be champions of the poor.

Moneydenying: They regard the need to earn money as a strictly temporary state of affairs, the imposition to be suffered until they are rescued. They “plan” on being rescued financially by someone — THE ONE or an inheritance. They usually spend everything they get, don’t take money-earning seriously, and think money should be glamorous and exciting. They don’t plan for retirement.

Moneyeluding: They want to get rich but somehow are paralyzed and unable to achieve their goals. Often they cannot decide what work will be right for them, yet still hold out for the “right one.” They can never be satisfied by a job; there’s always something wrong with it. They fear risk and success. They may see themselves as lazy or undisciplined, but fritter away potential earning time. They may chalk it up to “low self-esteem.”

Moneyfolly: They blow their money or give it away. They can’t keep it for themselves. It can be a common trait among adult children of alcoholics. They spend in a quest for emotional goals; it’s a kind of medication. They view their resources as inexhaustible and are unable to calculate how much real money they have to spend. They see budgets and spending plans as punishments for spending too much. They usually have excessive debt—usually on credit cards.

Moneyparanoia: These are the hoarders, building a money fortress between them and people who might want to rip them off. They solve emotional dilemmas by maintaining financial control at any cost, even if it is totally unnecessary. They may be obsessive savers or very much into material possessions. They don’t enjoy any benefits of having saved money. Their friends call them “cheap.”

Moneyconfusion: They can’t separate money from their emotions and can’t see negotiation as a game. They have a terrible time asking for a raise or raising their rates. They would rather take care of their opponents’ needs. They tend to personalize money and financial institutions. They rarely have concrete financial goals.

And if that’s not enough, Lieberman and Lindner point out that few moneyphobic individuals suffer from only one phobia!

Do any of these apply to you? Or to someone close to you?

Did your parents display any of these phobias? If so, which ones?

Let me tell you about a pair of delightfully gaudy swim trunks

As I began working through these exercises, I uncovered my own deeply embedded sense of deprivation. You can’t hit on a more emotional nerve than that, can you? It manifests itself in many avenues besides money. It could probably be the basis of a full-length scholarly tome.

A book? Turns out several have, under the Scarcity Versus Abundance mindset. We’ll get back to that later.

My task, though, involved learning to deal with this.

As a corrective action, whenever that sensation arose, I’d acknowledge a blessing I enjoy now. Remember, whatever childhood experiences gave root to my ingrained perception, I can’t really say I’m deprived now. The problem is feeling that I am. And, as I’m reminded, feelings are what they are. Live with them, don’t deny them, but don’t be held captive, either.

An emotional breakthrough occurred when I was walking through a department store and saw a flashy swimsuit that would have been fun to wear to the pool or beach.

Let me add that up to this point I rarely enjoyed shopping. I seldom found clothing that fit, for starters, and when I did, it wasn’t the least bit to my style. Since then, thanks to money dialogues with others, I’ve come to see that you’re not obligated to buy something when you walk into a store — OK, it wasn’t quite that bad, but close — and savvy shoppers (like my now wife or my now neighbor Tim) can make such excursions true adventures. Again, having “money-buddies” helps.

Don’t ask me what I was doing in that department store. I have no idea, nearly 30 years later. What I did record was that in examining the tag, my first reaction was, “I can’t afford that,” which stirred up that old overwhelming, painful feeling of destitution. As I recognized the source of the reaction, however, I couldn’t help but smile. I had to admit to myself, “I can afford this. But I choose not to buy it!”

That is, I’m in control and not a victim! Huge difference.

The upshot? For a switch, I felt empowered instead of indigent. I was aware of the blessings my paycheck provided. I compared the price of the swimsuit to other items I was buying and decided to indulge. I really did.

Know what? Every time I wore that, I got complements. It was simply fun. Not what you’d expect to hear in a personal finance dialogue, right?

So a year or two later, crossing through a Sears store in a mall, I came across a vibrantly green Hawaiian shirt, in cotton at that, and the price was quite reasonable. No question, I bought it, pure impulse, and have worn it to many New England contradances since, along with other affairs. Always gets complements and smiles, even now.

If I were always making impulse purchases, the exercise would go the other direction, but for me, these were spontaneous responses to the wonderful creation around me.

By the way, my Hawaiian shirts now are from yard sales, and they always get complements, even when I’m walking down the street. Not bad for a buck, eh?

How comfortable are you when it comes to shopping? Any suggestions for the rest of us? Any ways you’d like help?

Is the grass or cash really greener on the other side?

Discussing these issues in a trusted circle can help you discover just what a two-edged sword money is. You’ll find allies who you’ve thought were on Easy Street are also having personal money struggles.

For instance, someone may see she’s been harboring buried resentments or even shame rooted in feelings of impoverishment, while another has felt weighed down by guilt arising in privilege and ease.

Consider how some people compulsively “save for a rainy day,” even when it’s storming in their own life. Others fear putting anything aside for the future.

Some may realize they’ve been using money to buy friends or personal attention. Others may admit feeling used, in factuality or in their secretive imagination.

You may be one of them. Either way, there’s no escaping the emotional wallop. But you can come up with corrective actions that gently release the bondage.

As you unearth these buried foundations, can you suggest an appropriate corrective action? For yourself or someone else?

Some people, for example, have a hard time spending on themselves. Maybe they feel they don’t deserve it, or that others are more in need. For them, the corrective action may come in discovering little ways to pamper themselves. It may be nothing more than a cup of gourmet coffee, a piece of chocolate, a bar of scented soap, or fresh flowers. Nothing lavish, mind you. Keep it simple.

Some people are more inclined to spend for causes outside their own locality or event their congregation than within it. “Why does it seem we’re more willing to open up our checkbooks for a project in Africa than for one just down the block?” one workshop participant quipped. In that instance, we could look for opportunities to care for financial needs within our closest circle.

Some people think money was invented for their indulgence. For them, the corrective action may require curtailing their personal consumption while finding ways to help others. Volunteering to work one shift a month at the local soup kitchen, for instance, may do the job.

You begin where you are.

Once you identify negative childhood impressions or dysfunctional adult outlooks, countering a tendency can often be easy, even inexpensive. Sometimes it may require drastic action, such as taking scissors to credit cards. Again, we begin where we are.

What’s surprised you the most in these exercises so far?

A few helps in navigating this money maze

The exercises you’ve already done here should you give you a taste for what’s ahead.

You’ve seen that some of these require you to do some very personal work. It’s about your encounter with money issues, pro and con.

You may decide, of course, to read this beginning to end, as you would any book. Make it an encounter just for yourself. In effect, you’ll enter a dialogue with yourself as you go, even though many of the answers will be found deep within you.

A second step is to have a notebook by your side. Each time you come across a set of questions, take a few minutes to reflect. Then jot down your thoughts before continuing with your reading. As your notebook pages come together, so will your personal Money Journal or Money Autobiography.

A third step involved involves commenting on this blog. One thing I’ve learned as a blogger is that the readers’ comments are often better than the post that prompted them.

My own experience tackling these issues leads me to say that talking confidentially can be especially rewarding. First, they can keep you on track … and honest with yourself. And second, they can vastly enlarge the scope of your vision. They’ll bring up things you haven’t seen right in front of you.

You can do this one-on-one with a “money-buddy,” someone who will share reactions and memories as you both weave through the presentations. This approach is somewhat like playing see-saw or working an old-fashioned two-man saw; along the way, you’ll discover and appreciate sides of each other you hadn’t suspected.

Or you may use this as the foundation for group discussion. Voicing your thoughts in a trusted circle enhances your growth — and theirs. One person’s expression can set free another’s buried recollection, or cause someone to ask, “Is that so?” in a way that opens new comprehension.

Remember, this is a personal journey that will guide you in choosing how you want to better use your own money, time, possessions, and wealth. You may be quite surprised to learn you’re not alone in confronting and resolving these issues.

How’s that little notebook coming? The one where you’re recording all of the places your money is going? Any surprises? And anything you want to keep secret?