Talking About Money Without Tears

WSJ: How to Stop Fighting Over Money

Sermon Video

Sermon: Talking About Money Without Tears
You’ve heard it said that people don’t like to talk about money.

But what about the kind of person who ties up his or her sense of self-esteem with how much they have? These “money status” people tend to affirm statements like:

Money is what gives life meaning.
Your self-worth equals your net worth.
If something is not considered the “best,” it is not worth buying.
People are only as successful as the amount of money they earn.
Rich people have no reason to be unhappy.
If others have more, I’m less.

They affirm such ideas, and they can also behave in certain characteristic ways. Money status people tend to take bigger financial risks because they want to have stories of H_U_G_E gains to show off. Or, whether we’re talking diamond rings or donuts, this sort of person will try to bargain with the salesperson for the best possible deal—and will be so focused on how powerful this makes them feel that they’re oblivious to the fact that they’re acting like jerks.

Money status people like to talk about money.

So do “money worship” people. Now this second kind of person believes that, whatever the problem is, having more money is the solution. The sort of things they tend to affirm include:

It is hard to be poor and happy.
You can never have enough money.
Money is power.
I will never be able to afford the things I really want in life.
Money buys freedom.

Because of such convictions, money worship people can tend to be spenders. Since money is their security and love substitute, the act of purchasing becomes instant pleasure, instant gratification. To save and prioritize for the future is especially hard because that represents denial of urgent here and now hungers to feel good and worthwhile. Saving and prioritizing takes away all the fun.

So let’s talk about money, say money worship people. They want to tell you all about the things they got at the various places and how good they’re going to look wearing them or how improved their home will be or whatever. The whole experience was a rush and they want to tell you all about it.

And perhaps by now you see my point. There are different personality types around money, or different kinds of scripts that people live out. I’m not claiming that this typology system is 100% neat and tidy; in some places different types overlap; sometimes people can combine scripts that appear to contradict each other. But in general people tend to emphasize one over the others, as reflected by their most abiding attitudes and behaviors.

To money status people and money worship people, let’s add two other types which, as it turns out, DO hate to talk about money. Number three is the “money avoidance” person. Just listen to what they tend to affirm, which is in sharp contrast to the first two types:

Good people should not care about money.
It is hard to be rich and be a good person.
The less money you have, the better life is.
Being rich means you no longer fit in with old friends and family.
Money is a necessary evil.
Money doesn’t count. I’m above it all.
Someone will rescue me. God will provide.
I do not deserve money.

As for characteristic behaviors of money avoiders, one involves what might be called “the bill basket,” which is usually stored in some out-of-sight place. You get a bill, you toss it in the bill basket, and you walk away, and pretty soon the bill basket is overflowing. Which is when you get another bill basket.

Money avoiders can also act like “money monks,” which is a phrase that comes from Maggie Baker in her book Crazy About Money. The money monk takes great satisfaction in feeling superior to money and those who seek it out. The primary focus is what’s on the inside, together with disdain for externals. Money monks can also get into the habit of doing without—as in neglecting basic needs like dental care, car repairs, or insurance. Or they can find themselves just making do, in ways that are akin to purchasing a pair of shoes that are a size too small because they’re on sale and therefore affordable. Doesn’t matter that the shoes are going to kill your feet. You are making do.

Does any of this ring bells for you? Do you know money status people, either personally or in the news? What about money worshipers? Or money avoiders?

Or what about the fourth and last type of person: the “money vigilance” type? This fourth type is never going to get into the same kind of money troubles as the other three because, well, they are vigilant. What they tend to affirm is the following:

It is important to save for a rainy day.
If you cannot pay cash for something, you should not buy it.
Don’t spend money on yourself or others
People should work hard for their money and not be given handouts.
I need to keep track of every dime, but don’t ask me to talk about it.
It is not polite to talk about money.
People only want you for your money.
I would be a nervous wreck if I did not have money saved for an emergency.

You bet these “money vigilance” folks will probably never feel crushed by debt, hounded by creditors, or advised by attorneys that their last best hope is declaring bankruptcy. They probably won’t ever experience that sort of hellishness. But these types can tend to be excessive and unreasonable in avoiding risks that could bring in a great infusion of vitality. Money worries can fill their hearts and minds until there’s room for nothing else. They can be the sort of person who drives hours to save a dollar—anything to get the best value for the money—even though they’re somehow unaware of all the resources they’ve wasted to save that measly dollar.

And that’s the four types of money people. The typology comes from a study done over the course of a decade by Brad Klontz, a research associate professor at Kansas State University who also happens to be a “financial therapist”—which is actually a fairly new thing. It’s meant to fill the vacuum between psychologists who are unsophisticated about money and financial advisors who focus on the mechanics of planning without the deeper awareness that it does not matter how clear a person might be on what they ought to do—they can still find themselves doing the opposite. People can be their own worst enemies. And so the aim of financial therapy: “to find out,” as Brad Klontz says, “what aspects of your upbringing, your money beliefs, or your relationship with money are causing you distress, sabotaging you, or keeping you stuck.”

And the distress potentials go way beyond the ways in which each of the money types can fall into extremes—as in, money status people becoming gambling addicts, or money worship people amassing crushing credit card debt, or money avoidance people accepting way less for their work than they deserve, or money vigilance people being perfect obnoxious Scrooges.

In addition to all that, consider what happens when the different types start to interact. Just imagine: the moment a money vigilance-type person discovers a money avoider’s bill basket overflowing with unpaid bills. The outrage. The waves of nausea.

It’s not pretty.

Maggie Baker in her book Crazy About Money tells the story of a financial planner asking a client couple about how much they need to meet basic expenses. “One spouse says $4,000 a month; the other spouse says $7,000 a month. When the planner asks how much they saved in the past year, the one says, ‘Not much,’ and the other says, ‘We did pretty well.’”

Now does THAT ring any bells?

Money fights: the #1 cause of divorce in the early years of marriage. “Drive by” conversations, in which one spouse shoots a dart at the other because they’re frustrated and resentful about the latest incident.

One spouse is all about money status, and the other is into money vigilance: a terrible combination. How possibly could they have gotten married without knowing this? But it’s the magical thinking mentioned in the Wall Street Journal video we saw moments ago, which goes like this: “Our love automatically means we see eye to eye in all ways including money ways.”

No one who has ever fallen in love is a stranger to that kind of thinking. And then the real world happens. Rude wake-up call.

We are back again to the idea that people don’t like to talk about money. When it creates such waves in relationships, why do it? Even money status and money worship folks could agree to this, in situations when they’re talking to people who are into money avoidance and money vigilance….

So let’s just stop talking about it already.

No more money talk.

Zip it.

[lock lips and throw away the key]

But we just can’t go there, as much as we might like to.

As says Karen McCall says in her book Financial Recovery: Developing a Healthy Relationships With Money, “absolutely everyone has a relationship with money—whether they want to or not, and whether they know it or not. The relationship may be harmonious or it may be acrimonious, distant or obsessive. It may be conscious or unconscious, supportive or abusive.” It’s all these things, she says, and even more. That’s when she goes on to quote a friend and colleague (David Krueger) who likes to say that our relationship with money is “the longest-running relationship in our life.” Now listen to that. “Even before we are born, our parents’ financial circumstances and attitudes lay the groundwork for our first experiences of the world, influencing what kind of prenatal care our mothers receive and what our resources, education, and opportunities will be as we grow. Similarly, after we die, our estate (or lack thereof) lives on. Our children will likely be influenced throughout their lives—consciously or not—by whatever we teach them, intentionally or unintentionally, about money. They may pass on those lessons to their children, giving our relationship with money a multi-generational impact.”

In other words, when you are talking about a relationship as central and influential as the one we have with money, we don’t dare zip it. Too much is at stake for ourselves and for the ones we love.

We have to talk about money.

And the good news is that we can do that in ways which are much more productive than usual if we do at least two things.

First: surround it with compassion. Whatever the money issue is which is causing distress, sabotaging you, or keeping you stuck.

You know, what’s interesting about Brad Klontz’ typology of the four money scripts is that he found the links between who held what belief and their family background, race, gender, education level, or income to be weak. The strong links were altogether different. The strong links were between beliefs and certain kinds of financially traumatic moments growing up. Say, for example, that you are seven and you find out that you’re about to lose the house you live in. Your parents are over their heads in debt. They tell you that you are going to be ok, but you still feel paralyzed by fear. Now, what kind of beliefs about money do you think you, the seven year old, will form if the rest of the story is that your family figured out a way to keep the house on its own? By contrast, what if the rest of the story was that grandma bailed you guys out? Says Brad Klontz, “If grandma swoops in and saves the day, you could walk away from that thinking that you don’t need to worry about money. Or where there was lots of talk about losing the house, that could impact you so you live your life afraid of losing everything.”

This is exactly why we want to surround money issues with compassion. Because there’s always more to them than meets the eye. Most of what’s really going on is unconscious, invisible, underneath. The problem is not lack of character, a shortage of hard work, an inability to solve problems. The problem is rooted in what happened when you were seven and scared out of your mind.

(As a side note: I wish there was time to expand on the unconscious depths of economics. It’s just fascinating, what light the discipline of behavioral economics sheds on the many irrational things people do in order to avoid loss. Neuroeconomics actually peers into our brains and shows us the irrationality.)

Point is, we just have to have compassion for this, for ourselves and for others, when, once again, we’re in a money tailspin or embroiled in yet another money argument.

We are only human.

Which naturally sets us up to do the second thing which enables more productive money conversations: go deeper. Go deeper than, for example, what your preferred money script allows. Money status folks like to brag; money worship folks love to talk about what fun they are having; money avoiders think money talk is irrelevant; and money vigilance folks think talking about money is rude and takes away energy from the real work of tracking every penny. But go deeper than this. Get underneath your money script and get to the stories that ultimately made you the way you are. Share those stories with the people you are building a household with, or the people of this Beloved Community.

Not for the first time do I wish my father was still alive, so I could ask him what it was like to be so close to completing his training as a surgeon, but then he and Mom had their second child (me) and he ran out of money, and so he asked his Dad to help, and his Dad said no. Because his Dad was a strict money vigilance kind of guy who came to Canada from the Old Country and was a completely self-made Man who simply could not comprehend the finances involved in medical school. So my father had to start work prematurely as a family practitioner and he forever felt the loss of a brighter career as a surgeon. What was that like for him? How was that related to the money patterns we ended up living out in our household, which were analogous to what a person with borderline personality disorder lives out. One moment the money is flowing, then next it’s a source of high anxiety—and I never really knew what tipped the scale. All I knew is that I felt I was always walking on eggshells. There wasn’t regularity or rationale. Sometimes they were very generous when I needed things; other times when I needed things there were explosions, and they made me feel terribly guilty. Oftentimes money flowed into wants and not needs. Oftentimes we spent money in completely irresponsible ways, like constant eating at restaurants, or Mom’s money worship pattern of buying jewelry and clothing and tchotchkes for the house but when we got home she wouldn’t even take the stuff out of their original boxes and wrappers. They would go straight to storage. And she would continue to buy new things, money worshiper she was. Meanwhile, my Dad loved to say to his kids, angrily, “Do you think money grows on trees?”

I bring all this up merely a spirit of curiosity. I’m going deeper. It’s not about judgment. It’s not about anyone being bad. It’s just about trying to understand, and to heal.

We try to remember the old hurts and tell the old stories because that’s how healing works.

What are your stories? What were your parents or parental figures like? What financially traumatic moments can you remember? What happened next? Is that why you might be a money worshiper? Or something else?

I would wish that everyone here goes deeper like this. Do this with your small groups. Do this with friends. Talk about this with loved ones.

It’s not more money that solves problems. It’s more emotional insight, more emotional intelligence. You can win the lottery, but if you are emotionally stuck, all that extra money is going to feel like a curse, I guarantee you.

Money talk CAN be productive talk. Surround the money issues with compassion, and go deeper. It leads to a healthier relationship with money, and that means greater likelihood for following all the sound advice that financial planners are bursting at the seams with.

But first our hearts have to be ready to receive. The emotional work needs to take place, first.

Step by step by step, we are on our way to a better place.