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Managing Money Before it Manages You

“Wealth is the number of things we can do without.” Leo Tolstoy

More and more people aren’t managing their money well.  Often their money is managing them if not completely overwhelming them and their families. Besides work, money is the leading stressor in the richest country in the world-America. Things are getting worse with our financial habits. More citizens are filing for bankruptcy, foreclosing on mortgages, losing their homes, accruing record credit card debt and living in la-la land with money. Moreover, too many of us see no way out of our miseries but just more of the same. Far too many of us need help with basic money management principles and ruthlessly honest assistance for taming the hidden forces that compel us to overspend and over debt. We can’t afford to put our heads in the sand any longer. We need to get on top of our relationship with money ASAP!

Impact of faulty money management habits

First I think it’s essential we not beat ourselves up for not handling our money well. After all so many of us are in the same boat. We can’t all be nuts! Let’s keep things in perspective. You and I are good persons but we may have some serious money issues. We are not the problem; our money habits are the problem! Second, it’s best to realize that managing money is a learning problem, not typically a psychiatric disorder. If we’ve learned to be overpowered by money we can learn to be empowered in our money habits. Although we will have to face many sobering emotional realities if we get on top of our money problems we’re certainly capable of doing so and we’re not crazy. One of the best kept secrets about being on top of our money habits is that doing so brings us to a more sacred and exhilarating place in our lives as a whole. Money won’t make us happy but wisely managing it will. Finally, it’s vital to take off the rose-colored glasses and see how faulty finances affect us and our loved ones.

When money problems run our lives our whole family is constantly stressed. We may distract ourselves from our worries by zoning out with electronica but bank and credit card statements are lurking at our door and they constantly occupy space in our heads even when our door is closed and our TV sets blare. Our children are affected as they pick up on our consternation and act out our stress through misbehavior and developing a bad case of the “gimme’s.” Our marital relations get strained in fights over money, one of the leading causes of divorce. It’s hard to feel lovey-dovey when your basic security arising from money ills are impending. A recent American Psychological Association research study found that over 48% of Americans lie awake at night due to stress, largely due to money worries. Increased health problems, poor relationships, and lost work productivity all result from faulty money management. Most of us would be willing to change our habits if we knew we could get help and support for doing so. Take the first step by deciding if you have a problem and then get the help you deserve.

How do I know I have a problem with managing money?

Most of us already know if we  have a problem with money. We just don’t know how bad it really is and what to do about it. You likely have a problematic relationship with money if you answer “Yes” to the following:

“I buy things just because I feel I have a right to them, don’t want to feel deprived or need to keep up with others who can afford good things.”

“Typically I use a credit card and don’t even think about what I can afford when I buy.”

“I have no personal budget and don’t know what my bank balance is.”

“I buy because if I don’t buy I would get depressed.”

“I have unsecured debt like a student loan or credit card debt that is fairly sizable.”

“I am a likely candidate for bankruptcy.”

“I couldn’t miss a holiday sale that gave a big discount.”

“I believe I would be happy if I had more money.”

“I chase debt, juggling credit cards and loans to go from one debt to another.”

“People don’t know what a fix I am in with finances and I have to lie about my money ills.”

“Money is love, If you love somebody you have to buy them things.”

“My partner and I often fight about money.”

“I couldn’t imagine going through Christmas without buying gifts.”

“My kids are constantly wanting more and more and I don’t know how I can afford to give it to them.”

Faulty money management beliefs

Most of us don’t get into money trouble due to our recognized beliefs about money. For instance, we know we want to be debt free and financially secure, we believe that saving is good, and we desire to live within our means. Our real trouble with money comes from our unconscious faulty beliefs about money that bring chaos and endless heartache into our lives. Although the beliefs below may sound familiar, what they cover up may be rather unfamiliar. Most of these paradigms have been learned from our growing up years and from current subliminal brainwashing by the media. Clearly what can be made conscious can be changed. Some of the faulty beliefs are:

Shopping will make you happy

The thrill of buying may give an initial rush much like a drug high but it’s effect quickly wears off when expensive goods are brought home only to hang in their original bags in the closet or are received with bored indifference from loved ones who are already too indulged to recognize our efforts. When we give meaningful simple things to loved ones, not all of which are bought, we will sustain our happiness and not use spending as a mood altering experience or as a way to be liked.

I never pay in cash

All I need is a credit card

If you have financial problems, use your credit cards only for real life or death emergencies. Otherwise you will be too tempted to act cool and not fathom the consequences of your spending habits. When you pay in cash, use a debit card or rely on a balanced checking account for purchases so you have a concrete experience of what you are buying. Credit card companies want you to fog out and pay their high interest rates. It’s a lot more cool to only spend money you already have.

Money is love

Too many of us think we can just throw money at any problem and it is solved. We give people money if we want to impress them, get them to like us, or to stop their feeling some horrible life challenges. Well guess what? Money never impresses in the long run, will never give us love, and will never stop our own angst over someone else’s life suffering. Money has its value, but it’s not love. Sometimes we love more by not giving money.

Why should I do without?

Living in the land of plenty and perhaps growing up with emotional neglect or overindulgence may prompt us to embrace materialism as a way to be happy. We may have lost touch with our own natural ability to be happy by having less. Actually mot of the really fun things in life don’t involve money at all. Taking a walk by the lake with a friend, holding hands by a fire with a lover, or sitting in silence next to colorful maple trees in fall cost nothing. When we aren’t distracted by money we rediscover a creative and sacred part of us that lies hidden in each of us. Simplicity makes us whole, not money.

Why wait? I need it now!

Some of us have an inflated view of ourselves thanks in part to the distorted views of the advertising industries. We believe we ought to have rewards without having to work for them. Somehow that makes us feel special. Obviously if we really felt good about ourselves we wouldn’t need to be so special. The reality is that saving for something we want and then buying it later builds real self-esteem in us. Having to wait for what we want affirms character in us and enables us to cherish what we eventually buy. Patience gives us character and meaning.

I am one of those people who can’t keep a budget

Anyone can learn to budget and live within their means. But first you have to decide to do so. Endless debting is a form of self-abuse, something that may be going on in other areas of your life as well. Not spending money you don’t have and getting a trusted friend to help you arrange your finances and stay on budget will give you a whole new life. But that’s only if you want to be happy!

Why do I still keep hurting myself financially?

Money problems are never about money. They are about the distorted relationships we have with money and the hidden inner conflicts we have apart from money. Money itself is really neutral but it can be used as a symbol to express our inner conflicts. If we feel empty we may overspend to fill up. If we feel like a loser we disown more money by going into excess debt. If we are out of touch with our emotional selves we may space out our spending habits and be reckless with our credit cards. We keep hurting ourselves financially because we are unaware of what is really driving our money behaviors and we think money is the answer to our problems.  Frozen grief from childhood, current identity disturbances, and naiveté to cultural brainwashing all are at the root of money problems. However, for some of us, ignorance is bliss as we are too scared to be truly happy.

Getting started: tips on healthy money management

My money tips are: get a budget, don’t spend money you don’t have, pay off all unsecured debt ASAP, use credit cards only for emergencies, pay with real money-cash, check or debit card, keep a running money balance at all times and do with less. Read How To Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt and Live Prosperously by Jerrold Mundis (Bantam Books, 1990). You’ll be more likely to use these tips if you rely on the support of a trusted friend or professional helper and self-help groups like Spenders Anonymous (goldenvalley@spenders.org) or Debtors Anonymous (952-953-8438). Accepting help is not an admission of failure but an acknowledgment of courage. Eliminating debt and spending less, changes your whole life in ways you’ve never imagined. You’ll be richer than ever before and money itself will be a mere afterthought.


John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

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