The First Step I Took Toward #GoodEnough Personal Finance: The Importance Of Owning Your Own Money Story

Believe it or not, I have been wanting to write about money and personal finance for ages. It is a little funny that I haven’t written much about it until now, considering how much I have revealed over the years elsewhere.

I have written, in other places and sites, about things as personal as my underwear selection. I’ve told stories about sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. I have shared deep and personal feelings about self-loathing, post-partum depression and other treacherous places in my inner landscape. But I have never written about money.

I suspect this strange omerta around finances may be true of many of us. There are many friends of mine who know my past romantic misadventures or work struggles — but maybe one or two friends out with whom I’ve shared money travails.

The truth is that money is truly one of the last taboos in our society — it’s considered distasteful, personal and even dangerous to discuss it in any kind of public forum or open conversation.

But perhaps that’s why I want to talk about it — talking money in an open, honest, smart, critical, practical and even heart-filled earnest way feels like an act of rebellion.

(I also feel like money is like this weird secret subtext in a lot of consumer-oriented blogs on fashion, decor and general lifestyle — you just wonder if some of these bloggers are broke, or if companies are just sending them things — or even how they seem to post a billion posts all day with super-professional photos and don’t seem to work but…???? I don’t want to judge, but I think an atmosphere of compassionate openness on the subject would make people not feel weird/bad/lacking? What do you think?)

I held back on writing about personal finance, though, because I didn’t want to jump in and present myself in any way as an expert when I consider myself still learning. I’m afraid of criticism. I worry about presenting things in a shallow way. I’m blocked by shame and embarrassment. Most of all, I don’t know where to begin.

But the strange truth of it is that growing as a ‘financial being’ — and I don’t mean in a strictly income/dollars way — has been intricately braided into my growth overall as a human being. Talking money makes me feel especially vulnerable — but in terms of personal growth, where we feel vulnerable is often where we have the most room to expand our self-knowledge, power, strength and ingenuity.

Money is a missing dimension in a lot of people’s stories of their lives, but I think that does a great disservice to our collective growth to keep it shrouded in silence. And so — I guess in the interest of honesty and vulnerability and transparency and dignity, and also just to scratch the itch that has long been bugging me — I’d like to begin by telling my own story of this strange, weird, embarrassing ramble.

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If I had to adopt a money motto about my approach to personal finance for the first part of my life, it would be “flying by the seat of my pants…in a dark funhouse of mirrors.” That somewhat touches upon the haphazard way I dealt with money in the early part of my adult life, as well as the internal distortions I had about it.

These didn’t come out of nowhere. I grew up in a family where my parents were very good with finances. They were classic savers, products of the Depression era and working-class blue-collar immigrants to the U.S., with stringent spending habits and a sense of thrift.

The problem, though, was that their financial decisions and philosophy were never explained to me and my three sisters. My parents didn’t like spending on summer camp, new shoes, board games, birthday gifts, candy — you know, the stuff that kids always want. They saved instead — for a house and for retirement ample enough so that they wouldn’t be burdens on their children when they got older. (Of course, my sisters and I didn’t discover this until well into adulthood.)

But my sisters and I perhaps felt they didn’t spend on stuff because, somehow, we weren’t good enough for it. We had a sense of privation, but had no idea why — except for this vague sense that we were on the verge of some kind of chaos and somehow spending money would bring us closer to disaster.

Not spending money wasn’t framed as a decision to save for a more important priority, but as a way to avoid calamitous ruin that was always on the verge of catching up with us. And so money became this unseen ghost in our lives, controlling our decisions and experiences without being fully acknowledged or explained.

This dynamic basically installed some weird background virus in my brain as I grew up: WE ARE ALWAYS CLOSE TO RUIN, THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH, YOU ARE NOT WORTHY OF SPENDING UPON. Money, in my growing brain, was a source of anxiety and worry — it didn’t create pleasure, power, freedom or security for my parents, or for us kids.

My sisters and I therefore grew up with a sense of intense, incomprehensible, inchoate privation and scarcity that made us feel defective and ‘not good enough.’ So it was with little wonder that when we came to adulthood and money became our own, our spending was sometimes out of control — it was a way of rebelling, of establishing our own identity, of filling in the strange holes in ourselves that felt ‘not good enough’ or ‘vaguely fearful and lacking.’ All of us racked up some credit card debt, though it wasn’t overwhelming. I made other mistakes, too. Sometimes I estimated my quarterly payments wrong as a freelaner. I was terribly disorganized sometimes because I traveled so much, or I was gone for weeks or months on a film production job. (This was before the golden age of online banking and the like.) I made a few other bad decisions, mostly because I just didn’t know, and felt deeply embarrassed at having to ask for help. I graduated from a top school; I was supposed to be smart…and yet I felt really dumb about these things.

I don’t have much excuse, but in my defense, I wasn’t ever taught to budget or invest, or spend or save wisely. I wasn’t taught how to negotiate. I wasn’t taught to talk openly about money, to ask questions or ask for help. It was assumed that I’d Somehow Figure It Out, though it was never taught in school or at home. And when I tried to seek answers, I felt judged and shamed.

And I existed in a punk-y/creative milieu that disdained financial acumen — money, too, was a silent subject in this world, or it was super uncool to care and be responsible if people were vocal about it. (Though there were always weird, quiet exceptions, like the super-ethereal flaky hippie I knew who was actually a real estate tycoon in upstate New York or those punk rock kids whose zines and record labels were started with capital from trust funds.) Money = root of all evil, right?

So I struggled often in silence on my own — making mistakes sometimes, fixing them, but feeling often like I was on the verge of something perilous as I moved blindly in the dark.

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On my part, I did try to learn. I would read books on personal finance. But even in my 20s, I felt like I was already making a million mistakes that were near impossible to rectify or just existed in a different reality — I didn’t work for an employer who could match my 401k contributions, for example, and THAT WAS THE ONLY WAY TO SAVE FOR RETIREMENT! I was a freelancer, so I couldn’t understand how to save 20% of my income every month when my revenue was so erratic. After rent, loans, food, transportation and whatever, there was no 20% left. And then, I struggled…should I save first, and then pay off student loan debt? Save for retirement vs. save for something else? I constantly struggled with figuring out what was the “right” thing to do…and I then was paralyzed when I couldn’t figure it out.

I hated reading finance books — in fact, I found reading stuff like Derrida easier to read! (And in French, too!) Most financial advice is written with certain assumptions in mind — and it’s written in a certain way. There are a lot of “rules” and numbers and figures to follow — and if you deviate from the path, you’re kind of doomed to poverty, penury and the general loserdom of not having your money stuff together. Or you’re shamed for spending, or for not knowing what you should know. A lot of existing writing on money is generally super-boring, super-normie, super-heteronormative. It’s written very dryly with no soul, little empathy and little recognition of the fact that people make mistakes or hit roadblocks. Most money advisors expect perfection or a weird adherence to normie conformity, or their advice doesn’t work. (If you don’t start investing by age 21, you’re doomed!)

Either way you slice it, you get shame and scarcity if you don’t fit yourself in a certain slot or box. Who wants to deal with that?

Once, I even tried attending a class in an attempt at self-education. It was taught by a middle-aged dude in a suit who looked at me contemptuously in my thrift-store clothes, and answered my clearly stupid questions in an even more contemptuous tone. As a free-spirited freelancing artist type in that class, I felt like I was on a strange planet full of squares whose big goals were to retire at age 40 after working for a big conglomerate or starting one of their own. My goals and outlook were radically different from the goals he advised. And most of all, I felt shamed at wanting to live and think and feel differently — like I was setting myself up for catastrophe for making different life choices. I felt shamed for having debts, for thinking education was worth taking out loans for, for using a credit card to pay for a trip to Paris once. I felt ashamed that I didn’t want a regular job with a big solid Fortune 500 company or felt okay with renting an apartment in NYC and putting off buying a house. (Because, dude, I wasn’t even sure where I’d be for the next five years!)

I remember leaving that class, coming out into a fine early summer night in midtown Manhattan. Thought it was one of those gorgeous evenings that feel like the whole world should open up to you, I felt alone, and small, and almost like “Why bother? I’m already so behind and made so many mistakes.” I long believed that I never really fit in when it came to the world at large. And while the city clearly gave me many places and people with whom I did fit in, it seemed that I would never quite fit into the world of the financially together and with-it. I really felt like I should just give up.

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No one wants to feel ashamed all the time, so I continued to ignore money until it pressed me in some way. Then I would fix whatever issue came up, and then I’d go on my blithe way.

Instead, I focused on my strengths as a person and created as interesting a life for myself as I could. I was comfortable with risk; I was creative; I liked cities; I was a good communicator and fast learner. I garnered more skills, more projects, more experiences, more travels. I got an MFA and met a million wonderful, interesting people and lived in NYC again. I had some lovely spiritual experiences in the church called nature. I fell in love a few times, felt romantic thrills and despair and then felt at peace with whatever happened to me in terms of love. Life was cool and interesting and beautiful.

But underneath it all, I had a small, niggling anxiety and shame that my money game wasn’t as good as the other aspects in my life. Don’t get me wrong: I was making money, managing myself as a business. By making lots of mistakes, I learned to negotiate a little; I learned how to save some, but always fretted it was not ‘good enough’ or if it was ‘right.’ I paid off debts. I got better at freelance tax payments. I spent a little smarter, mostly because I was scared of spending anything at times — and then I would overspend a little after weeks of privation as a weird kind of ‘vent.’ I started an IRA but sometimes I couldn’t save what I thought I should, and felt awful about it.

Despite my semi-better financial organization, I could never shake the feeling that I wasn’t doing enough — or maybe I was doing the wrong thing and dooming myself to poverty? I was still at sea, head above water — but for how much longer? I hated that feeling of not being in control. That sharp yet hidden feeling of fear and imminent ruin I received as my unspoken family inheritance still dogged me.

What was wrong with me? I was a smart, successful modern lady with lots of travels, work, writing, love and such under my belt. Why was this area of life always plaguing me and always making me anxious? At best I ignored it, but at worst it made me feel limited, hemmed in, imprisoned.

I wish I could point to a big revelatory moment — they always make for a good story. But all I can say is that, at some point when I graduated from film school with a ton of student loan debt, I felt it was time to really knuckle down about my money game, my love game…all kinds of game.

I was in my 30s, a grown-ass lady…it was time. I had the emotional and cognitive bandwidth now. I would try again, and this time I wouldn’t let a bunch of money bullies get me down.

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So I decided to read books and blogs about money again, because sometimes I am a masochist. I read better books. I read blogs by people who dug themselves out of debt. (Luckily, this now was the era of 24/7 on-demand Internet, so there was a lot more information around.) Sometimes I felt alienated. Sometimes I felt intrigued. Rarely did I feel “gotten,” but I trundled through.

Very little of it still applied to me, my weirdo creative/spiritual/punk-y outlook or my lifestyle, which was still independent, freelancin’ and freewheelin’. I picked up nuggets here and there that helped me out, but it didn’t really address the fact that money still scared me shitless at times.

But once you read enough money stuff, you start to see patterns. You start to see the hidden assumptions undergirding the discourse. You start applying those college critical reading skills and realizing financial advice and writing isn’t descended from God but instead reflects agendas, perspectives, POVs — so why do you have to take it and its assumptions at its word?

And at one point — probably after reading the same robo-article about the latte factor — I realized something else. Something really obvious yet subtle, but also empowering and life-changing. I had spent my life — and much of my film school education — exercising my creativity and emotional imagination. Creative and emotional imagination, not to mention empathy, had gotten me far enough in life. Why couldn’t I apply these, in some way, to how I managed money?

Did money have to be approached in the same way, with the same assumptions and tone? Couldn’t it be an object of spiritual and emotional and intellectual growth, like the way relationships can be? Or even fashion? If I can explore the spiritual ramifications of a leather jacket or whatever — why couldn’t I do that with money?

That led me into a way different direction of inquiry, more towards behavioral economics, the psychology of money and ‘financial therapy.’ This was way more up my alley, and much more fascinating and “at home” with my INFJ/Enneagram 4/Cancer astro-self.

I suddenly realized that mainstream financial crap often COMPLETELY IGNORED the emotional dimension of money — though money is one of the strongest reasons behind momentous emotional events in people’s lives, like divorce or separation or just garden-variety shame, secrecy and embarrassment. Money is intricately tied to emotion, to personal power, to our sense of feeling sovereign in our lives. And yet so much financial writing detaches this aspect from money.

Maybe the trick isn’t to divorce and ignore the emotional aspect of finance, I thought, but recognize it and harness it in some way. And once I merged money with emotion, spirit and creativity, it came together for me.

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Of course, it wasn’t like a fairy godmother waved her wand and poof! All my money problems disappeared! I still had (and have) a lot to learn. I stopped worrying about feeling stupid once I realized that nearly everyone has money challenges in their life, and asked friends how they handled financial situations and created financial management systems.

I still read books and blogs — I made a goal to read 1-2 books on personal finance a month a few years ago, especially on the behavioral/emotional end of things. I still had to develop habits, take care of old business, create systems that worked for me instead of shoehorning myself into something. The difference now was that I had a POV on money, and having that “lens” helped me filter out the shame-making bad slant and extract the good in a lot of information.

I began telling friends in my real life about this. Not many of them, because let’s face it, I was still embarrassed that I felt like such a teenager still when it came to personal finance.

But something kind of awesome happened: they wanted to know, too. Their specific issues may not have been the same as mine, but they too felt as if this area of life often eluded their mastery in a way that left them embarrassed or silent. And that’s when I realized that this was something we should all be sharing.

Sharing: that’s how it begins. After all, the number-one “step one” I took in after reading deeper in the realm of “alternative money advice” (as I’ll call it) is to see and learn your own money story. I myself found this was a strong foundation with which to begin transformation my relationship with money and finance.

There is so much more than this, of course, but one of the most important foundations to build a strong relationship to money is to know thyself. And that begins with learning to see yourself as a financial being.

And so, if you’re hoping to change your feelings and relationship toward money, I offer this to you, too. Begin to put together your story.

What did you first learn about money? What are your unspoken beliefs? What are some of your earliest money memories, and how do they play out with you now? What are some of the worst and best decisions you made? How did you feel about these, then and now? What are some of your present obstacles? Your challenges today? And your triumphs and successes?

Go through your own life and write it through the perspective of your finances — the high points and the low ones, too. Include the tricky bonuses, contracts, clients or raises you negotiated; your jobs and what you learned about your earning potential from them; the secret habits or weird little ‘things’ you did during breakups, life snafus or general difficulties. They all add up to your own unique story.

(I know this is odd and even strangely, terrifying shameful for some — it was for me — but knowing and OWNING your own story is incredibly freeing and healing in the end. Trust me!)

You don’t have to write it down as a story-story. You could just jot down notes in a notebook, or do a kind of Q&A with yourself in a journal. But however you format it, seeing your life from the perspective of finance helps you realize that these weird icky feelings about money didn’t come out of nowhere. You see what your emotional money inheritance is — the link between how you spend or save now, and what you learned unconsciously as a kid. You own your mistakes — but also remind yourself of your triumphs. You might even realize you know and do a lot more than you realize. And that you can — slowly, with great effort — begin to change your feelings and your story if you want.

Of course, a healthy #goodenough money mindset is more than your story. Once you’ve made peace with your past, you’ve got to lay down the habits, practices, goals and foundations. Money, like so much else, involves habits and systems, which I know sounds boring. But they become a lot less boring once you go down further on the path and realize handling your money stuff is actually a concrete way of committing to your vision in life and nurturing your present and future selves.

But any kind of path like that involves a first step — and this was the one that worked for me.

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I still face changes and challenges in my personal finances like everyone else. Having a child and dealing with the bumpy implementation of Obamacare wiped out my savings — and this year, having to buy a new car and travel for my sister’s wedding wiped out my savings again. (Sigh.) And that really, really sucks. Right now I’m still trying to figure out a system of merged finances with my partner. (Right now, it’s basically just me, and I don’t feel so great about that at times.) And I have the new challenge of saving for retirement vs. now saving for college for Budge vs. WAY MORE EXPENSIVE HEALTH INSURANCE (ARGH!) Life isn’t a constant gravy train. It is always dealing with SOMETHING.

But I feel infinitely more empowered and interested by this aspect of my life now, and that feels revelatory. I don’t feel bullied by it. It is an infinitely saner, more peaceful and more powerful feeling.

The truth is, how you feel about your money is likely how you feel, deep down, about a lot of things in your life, especially as they relate to your sense of power and efficacy in the world. (Oh, I know, that sounds so corporate! But how sovereign and fierce you feel in life is very closely tied together — they even share the same chakra!) It’s funny how those feelings of fear and scarcity that permeate money at times can bleed into your emotional and personal life.

But it works the other way around. I know “abundance” is a super-bougie term now, and totally a privilege — and that many, many, MANY people experience life as anything but abundant as they constantly grapple with privation and poverty. When you talk money and finance, you have to think about social justice at some point — that’s just a given. (That is all kind of outside the scope of a little blog post, but trust me…I’m aware.)

But on the everyday ‘just being a lower-to-upper middlish-class human living my life’ level, there are ways to nurture a feeling of ‘enoughness’ both in our lives and in ourselves. At heart, I find we all want to feel like we are ‘enough’…and sometimes, no matter how much money we have or stuff we buy, we feel like somehow we are still not enough. But one of the most powerful ways to create ‘enoughness’ is to foster a distinctly non-perfect but sane, peaceful, mindful relationship to finance, one where you direct as much of your money as possible in ways that align with you.

My money story isn’t over — far from it — and I’m learning that it has its peaks and troughs, hills and valleys. Some seasons it works out with ease, other seasons you’re just maintaining. Though sometimes I do want to ignore it and just stick my head in the sand and hope it somehow works out, I’m learning not to beat myself up over the natural ebb and flow. I’ve learned that you can have setbacks, but you return to your basic habits and practices and get back in the proverbial saddle. There is no mean, bougie ‘financial expert’ to please — there is only you and your family, and the life you want to create.

But through all the chapters, I’ve learned this. You have to meet basic needs — and yes, this can be hard, and it has been immensely hard for me. I have made below the poverty line in my life. But even at my most financially challenged, it helped me immensely to remember that money is really an energy, one you can nurture and be creative with. It is not you, but it’s an extension of what you can or can’t do in the world, like your physical body, intellect, relationships, work, creativity and empathy. These are all things that reach their potential when they are exercised, developed and tended to — and yep, so is your money, no matter how much or little you have. Once you put your finances on par with these in a simple way — especially if you have a very emotionally weird thing with money — you fire on a whole new level. You don’t have to be perfect, or bougie about money — it can be creative and insightful, just like so many of you are.

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