Making Friends with Your Finances

Money scares me. I’m clueless about it. It feels like a mystery, a threat, a force of nature entirely beyond my control.

There. I said it. Now I’m breathing again, and after I wipe the cold sweat from my palms, I’ll be ready to continue.

It’s not easy for an American male to admit that the getting, spending, saving, and investing of the green stuff has him freaked–but that’s how it is for me. I’m just not a money guy. I open cellophane-window envelopes with apprehension–even the ones with checks in them. I’ve tried budget after budget, and they’ve had no more effect on my money sense than fad diets do on my waistline.

I look around and assume that everybody I see handles money with ease and savvy. The prosperous-looking young couple emerging from the gleaming SUV are super-earners and snappy investors, heavily into obscure but high-performing tech stocks. The gray-haired biker roaring by on his Harley probably owns a string of tattoo parlors–his saddlebags are full of bundles of 20-dollar bills headed for the bank.

In my better moments, I realize that I’m not alone in my confusion about the almighty dollar. If statistics are anything to go by, many, many of my fellow Americans find money and credit hard to handle–that is, if they’re lucky enough to have enough of it to handle. Bank-issued credit card debt has more than doubled since 1994. Eight times as many people are going bankrupt today as during the Great Depression (and our population has only a little more than doubled since then). There were 1,539,111 “nonbusiness” bankruptcy filings in 2002 alone–roughly equivalent to the population of Philadelphia.

Wait, you say–those stats don’t necessarily prove that Americans are bad with money. They may show that our standards of what constitutes prosperity–even just plain old economic security–have been so skewed upward in the last few years (particularly in the go-go late ’90s) that most people, with the exception of the super-rich, have been trapped into (1) living beyond their means, (2) falling behind at a precipitous rate, or (3) both. At the same time, corporate scandals, the post-dot-com economic downturn, and the 9/11 shock to the nation’s soul and pocketbook have made for the darkest cloud of economic uncertainty since the oil-crisis ’70s. (And as for the poor, they’re practically invisible under the current Republican administration.)

Well, yes, but all of this merely underlines the real dilemma that we, the money-challenged, find ourselves in. The internal confusion we feel when we try to make sense of money is matched by the genuine strangeness of money. If it were only a matter of confused individuals (us) getting clear about something simple and rational (money), we could all be experts in an afternoon. But money–the supposedly cold, clear numbers on the bottom line, the “beans” that bean counters count–has been freighted with all kinds of irrational baggage from time immemorial.

According to anthropologists, money was probably first used not in trade but as a convenient substitute for sacrificial animals in religious ceremonies and for the paying of tribute to overlords. Early money could be anything from stones to shells to nails. One particularly important form of money, coins made of a precious metal, originated in the early sixth century B.C.E. in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey) and spread quickly throughout the ancient world. Soon, laws mandated that coins had to contain a certain percentage of gold or silver by weight, and the odd idea that the value of money was “rooted” in the “natural” value of precious metals was established. These metals were valuable mainly because they were shiny and rare. Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman, the godfather of today’s right-wing libertarians, explores the paradox of money in the Encyclopedia Britannica (1985 edition). The real reason money works, he notes, is that people accept it in place of goods. Why? “Because they know others will. The pieces of paper are valuable because everyone thinks they are.”

So it’s not too much to say that money’s value resides in our heads, sustained by what we think others think. Is it any wonder that money has a powerful psychological charge? That in many ways it’s a head game?

To begin with, we live in a culture in which the getting and handling of money is considered to be the main business of life. To be flustered by money is to fail in some basic way to live up to our culture’s idea of adulthood. Money also has a stunning power to symbolize primal states of being–like love, power, and safety. Beliefs about money nurtured in childhood can wield profound influence on our whole lives. Kids brought up in poverty are famously prone to feeling that “there never will be enough for me,” or that everything has to be wrenched by force from a hostile world. Children brought up in wealthy homes, on the other hand, may develop a compulsion to bestow gifts as a way of “earning” their good fortune and obtaining love. Or they may, as psychologist Robert Coles has shown, develop a morbid fear of economic failure, which they see as letting down not just themselves but the whole family line. At any economic level, family taboos on talking about money can leave children mystified about it, irrationally fearful or ignorant of it. These people may end up living in a dangerous economic fog, hoping that money will always (somehow) come and always (magically) be enough.

Yet who can blame us for being reticent to talk about money, about what we earn, what we’re saving, how it’s going, and how we feel about it? It’s dangerous territory. In such discussions our deepest fears and phobias are just millimeters below the surface, sure to emerge.

And the American economic system is testing us at ever-higher and more artificial levels every day. In his book Financialization of Everyday Life (Temple University Press, 2002) social critic Randy Martin traces the transition in our culture from saving to investing as the chief means of building wealth. As Martin notes, this shift from socking away money in pensions or savings accounts to “managing a portfolio” has made it incumbent upon the average man or woman to become a successful market player–“to invest wisely, speculate sagely, and deploy resources strategically,” as he puts it. Once upon a time (before the 1980s) fiscally responsible citizens were expected to pay our bills on time and direct some discipline toward the household budget. Now, after 20 years of free-market “reforms,” we must possess the skills of an accountant, stockbroker, and CFO just to keep our heads above water. To help us with this impossible task, a plethora of books, Web sites, and TV and radio programs crackle with the Newspeak of investment culture: mid-caps, 12(b)1 fees, price-to-book ratios. Increasingly, in the culture’s eyes, to fail to become a player in this ultracomplex world is to fail as a functioning member of society, as a caring member of a family, as a serious, adult human being. That’s where my mind gives out altogether.

It’s no wonder that a powerfully emotional substance like money, organized (or disorganized) into the hyperreal whirl that is our economic system, creates casualties–not just the expanding ranks of the poor but also the walking wounded of the middle class, who both abuse money and are its victims. These include the chronic debtors, overspenders, people who simply toss all the window envelopes into a bag and hope that the whole sorry mess of economic obligation will just go away. Debtors Anonymous, a 12-step program that helps chronic debtors (and people with many other kinds of money distress too) publishes a list of “Signposts on the Road to Becoming a Compulsive Debtor” that reads like a symptomology of money malaise: “Unwarranted inhibition and embarrassment in what should be a normal discussion of money. Unusual difficulty in recalling and relating specific obligations to available funds. Unrealistic expectations that there will be funds available in the future to meet obligations incurred in the present. A feeling that someone will take care of you if necessary, so that you won’t really get into serious financial trouble.”

Debtors Anonymous’ solution, like that of all 12-step programs, is corrective action and the acceptance of personal responsibility, within a framework of spirituality, a nonreligious dependence upon a higher power. “Money is not the problem, only a symptom,” declares the DA literature, and that declaration is worth taking seriously.

Money and its discontents throw a very bright light upon what it means to be independent. We’re thrown into this world naked, unprotected, radically insecure, radically dependent. As we grow we are expected to stake out the territory of our personal independence; then, as we mature further, create financial independence for ourselves. The voice of the money-troubled is the voice of someone who hasn’t managed these transitions, the voice of the desperate child, crying to an all-powerful parent: “I’m afraid. Care for me. I can’t manage on my own. I don’t want to have to look at the mess I’ve made. Make it better.”

It’s easy, hearing that whiny voice, to shout “Grow up!” But the voice carries a truth within it: We are dependent creatures, and we will be all our lives. Life will confront us with needs, dilemmas, and losses that we will never be able to “plan for” or to insure out of existence. In some measure, we will remain radically in need as long as we live. The poor person, struggling debtor, or overspender, trying to climb out of hock and meet his financial obligations for the first time, is overwhelmed and knows that he can’t do it alone. He reaches out, he even prays. But none of us can do any of this stuff alone. The things that money symbolizes–security, trust, hope, obligation, safety, generosity–are too big for money to handle, too big for us to handle, too big (I believe) for any but the biggest answers, the ones that come with faith.

Money does matter, of course. Because it exerts enormous psychological power over our lives and enormous impact in the real world, money offers us a profound subject for reflection and a means of self-knowledge. Money touches upon every aspect of our lives and acts like a magnifying glass on every attitude, hope, fear, and habit that we possess. And on that basis, I believe, it’s so interesting that almost all of us can find a way to put ourselves on good terms with it–even me. The truth is, I am ready to stop fearing money. That does not mean adopting the persona of a hotshot investor or the anxiety of a late-starting saver, but to be an inquirer: to explore what my relationship to money is, and how changing it could improve things for me and my loved ones.

Every money question is also a profound life question, and in my life I want to seek a deep understanding about important issues like security, power, comfort. How much of these good things are in my hands, how much not? What is their ultimate source? Certainly I can find security in a plump annuity, but also in the relationships I cultivate with others, with my own soul, and with God. There is the safety born of a rich, mutually helpful relationship with family and neighbors. The power that comes with spiritual centeredness. The security of knowing one’s calling. As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “He who knows the why of his life can make do with almost any how.”

I have to be careful not to end up in financial fairyland, of course. Money issues–the hard need to save, invest, and manage my resources–push me out of my private safety zone and into a reeling world of contradiction, choices, and concerns. I accept the necessity of sacrificing time and effort for the sake of my future and the well-being of those I love. But I cannot hide from the fact that money issues place me in the thick of an economic system that is both miraculously productive and deeply unfair, and that I must find my place within it and a platform from which to take it to task. Ironically, as much as I have protested in the past that money doesn’t really matter, I realize now that it helps me find out what sort of human being I am–what I am willing to do to obtain material security and what I am not willing to do.

And so, steering clear of both the golden vision of perfect security and the reflexive retreat from what scares me, I propose to pay attention to money not just as a practical necessity (which it is) but also as an inquiry into what I value. I hope to scorn nothing that helps me better understand what money means to me (from self-help books to stockbrokers), and at the same time to avoid all prepackaged answers, whether from self-help books or stockbrokers. I hope to live in the security and safety–and the danger and excitement–of the search as I go.

Because nothing has more power than money to show me where I am powerless; where I need to seek help and find faith, where my efforts end and something more powerful simply has to take over, I intend to embrace money as one of those unsettling teachers that the Buddhists like to talk about–a former enemy, now an uneasy friend, who knows my weaknesses and will slap me down smartly if I show it too little respect.

And so instead of just “managing” money, I’d like to live with it in a bracing relationship, a sort of marriage, that will keep me on my toes, questing and learning, as long as I live.

Jon Spayde is a senior editor of Utne.

Contact Debtors Anonymous at or 781/453-2743

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