Iâ€™ve met very few people who donâ€™t have a deeply ambivalent relationship to money. On the one hand, we spend most of our waking hours trying to earn it. Most of us assume we donâ€™t have enough and believe (usually erroneously, I think) that weâ€™d be a lot happier if we had more. But, on the other hand, weâ€™re also contemptuous of it. We may wish we were more affluent, we may harbor secret get-rich-quick schemes or fantasies of winning the lottery, but we also think that chasing the buck is shallow and unspiritual, and a sign of how greedy and unevolved we are.
Some of us attribute magic powers to money, imagining that it can protect us from all the suffering and loss inherent in being human, or that it can transform us into lovable, fulfilled, and contented people. Some of us are completely amoral and relentless in pursuit of money, in complete disregard of our other needs, our health, or any consideration of what constitutes right livelihood. At the other extreme are the chronic under-earners, who seem to have an allergy to money. Committed to the popular delusion of the superior virtue of the impoverished, they safeguard their moral purity by keeping themselves destitute.
A surprising number of people are actually afraid of money. In my work as a psychotherapist, I speak with many who can discuss their darkest family secrets or the most minute details of their sexual lives with complete candor; but who become evasive, ashamed, and anxious when asked to talk about their personal finances. Itâ€™s as if talking about money, or even paying attention to it, violates a taboo. Typically, such people protect themselves from their anxiety by living in a state of perpetual vagueness about their money. They may have gotten Aâ€™s in math in school, but theyâ€™re incapable of balancing their checkbooks, and donâ€™t have the vaguest idea about how much they actually have. (One man told me â€śI use the Braille method. I stop writing checks when they start bouncing.â€ť) Often they have no idea where their money goes. When I ask them how much they spend each month for food, clothes, entertainment, etc., they havenâ€™t the slightest idea.
Every system of spiritual and psychological development emphasizes becoming conscious as crucial to growth. This seems obvious, but many people donâ€™t believe it where money is concerned. When I recommend to clients that they balance their checkbooks as a spiritual discipline, eyebrows are invariably raised. But becoming conscious in any area of life affects all the other areas as well. When people come out of vagueness, face their fears, and commit to paying conscious attention to their money, focus and courage begin to come into other areas of life as well, and patterns of avoidance begin to weaken everywhere in their lives.
For similar reasons, some people find it useful to find out where their money is going by keeping a record of every expenditure they make for a period of at least one month. I often recommend that clients keep a notebook with them at all times so that they can make a note every time they spend money. The clarity that emerges from such an exercise can yield surprising discoveries. One man who did this discovered that he had the habit of spending an average of seven dollars per day on coffee and pastries at the local Starbucks. Not an uncommon habitâ€”but thatâ€™s $2,555 per year. This man had been complaining that he could never afford to take a vacation.
The information gleaned from such an exercise can be further used to take the next step in handling money with greater consciousness and intentionality, by providing the raw data needed to develop a deliberate spending plan. The basic idea is that, instead of spending on whim and impulse, we develop an overall, year-long plan for spending our money on our needs and wants, as well as for savings and investments. People who develop such a plan regularly discover that their money seems magically to go a lot farther than it did before they had a plan, even when the overall income remains the same.
Some people find these recommendations too daunting or anxiety provoking, and the terror of establishing a conscious relationship to money too strong to overcome. In such cases consultation with a professional financial planner can often be of help. For those who have difficulty getting their finances under control on their own, support form the fellowship of Debtorâ€™s Anonymous can also be of great help.
If we want to overcome financial insecurity, we need to learn to avoid the childish extremes of either worshipping money or demonizing it. When we develop a realistic and conscious relationship with it, money reveals itself as a kind of congealed energy which we can use both to our benefit and to contribute to the lives of others.
Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco.