My friend Lisbet* has a habit that tends to bother other people: when she likes something, she asks how much it costs. It doesn’t matter if it’s a friend wearing something Lisabet likes or a new acquaintance who has invited her into her apartment, if Lisabet likes it she will say something like, “This is so beautiful. How much did it cost?”
Lisbet doesn’t understand why this question can be experienced as intrusive or impolite. “What’s not polite? You ask ‘where did you get it?’ It’s just another question.” She is not alone in being puzzled. David Krueger writes, “most of us have learned to talk more easily about sex, yet remain seclusive, embarrassed, or conflicted about discussing money. Money may be the last emotional taboo in our society” (p. vii).
So why do we think it’s rude to ask how much a friend’s possessions cost?
The answer in part is that money has both real and symbolic meaning. In reality, it is a tool for providing food shelter and clothing for ourselves and our families. Without enough money to meet not only basic needs, but also small additions that many of us take for granted, life can be harsh and painful. However, symbolically money represents more than self-care.
Freud linked money to self-control and independence. More recently, psychoanalysts recognize cultural, social, class, and gender meanings, as well as the practicalities of down to earth, concrete financial issues. Money has come to represent things like comfort, safety, respect, worthiness, value, power, and even sexiness, love and happiness.
In fact, we could say that today money means different things to each of us and therefore can tell us something important and not always obvious about ourselves.
What does your money really say about you?
The answer to this question is not about numbers or amounts, but about what you do with it – what your relationship is to your own finances. As Krueger and Mann tell us, it’s about the stories you tell yourself about money.
Here are some examples of some of the stories I hear:
Being frugal makes me a good person:
Carol* saved money out of every paycheck, even though she did not make much money. “Sometimes it’s hard,” she said, “but I just ask myself if I really need something. Most of the time I don’t.” She shared a small apartment with a roommate, and made all of her meals at home. Carol said that she was protecting her future. “I may need that money one day.” But there was another, hidden story in her savings. For years she struggled with an eating disorder – a form of anorexia, where she deprived herself of food on a regular basis. As she started to get better, she told me with embarrassment, “I felt like I was better than other people. I could do without things – even without food.” For Carol, getting better involved changing the story she told herself. She still saved money for the future, but she decided that she should try to earn a little more money so that she could also spend a little more on herself in the present. “It doesn’t make me a lesser person. Actually, I’m a much better friend and a happier person now that I’m willing to take care of myself.”
Buying recognizable (name) brands shows that I’m smart:
Jack* bought an expensive name brand watch and carefully wore it so that it showed under the sleeve of his name brand shirt and suit jacket. He was very distressed and critical of me because I did not recognize any of the brands. For him, my lack of knowledge showed that I was not as smart or as critical a consumer as he, although he tried to write it off to my being a woman – “you don’t need to know about men’s clothes.” Jack’s hidden story was that he felt insecure about himself – although you would never know this by talking to him. He had always worried that he was not smart enough, and had embraced the idea that he could demonstrate his intelligence by what he bought. As he began to feel more secure about not only his intelligence, but also his place in the world, he also began to relax about showing off what he owned. Although he still believed that name brands were simply better made than unknown brands.
I don’t care about money, I just like being able to have the things I want:
This is a story a lot of us tell ourselves. It’s completely understandable and rational, of course; but it’s also often not the whole story. For example, Alice* loved to travel. For many years she worked as a bartender, making enough money to finance her next trip. Then she would travel to places she wanted to visit, sometimes working at odd jobs along the way, until she ran out of money and had to stop to work for a longer period of time. For her, money was a means to an end, and she really was quite content with the way she had set up her life. But along the way she fell in love, got married, and started to raise a family. “And suddenly there were other things I wanted money for,” she said. “I wanted it to make my husband happy. I wanted it to buy piano and ballet lessons for my children, to show what a good mother I was. And I wanted it to prove somehow that I had made the right choices in my life…and to be happy.”
What might have struck you by now is that running through all of these stories is a daydream that how we handle money will not simply make us happy (most of us know that isn’t necessarily true) but that it will improve our self-esteem and enhance our relationships. How exactly it will do this depends on your own history (did you grow up never having enough money for new shoes or for healthy food? Did you long to go away on trips like some of your school chums? Did both of your parents work long hours and you wished they would stay home instead of making money?), your personality and your specific needs in the present.
This is what many people don’t understand about Lisbet. For her, what you spent on a pocketbook or an apartment is just a piece of information. But she does not mix up the value of the material item with the value of the person who owns it. While she is frequently wondering whether or not she could afford it when she asks, she doesn’t think that she would be a better or more lovable person if she owned the same thing.
Money is a real and concrete concern, but it is often the symbolic, relational and self-esteem related meanings that get us into trouble. Figure those out, take them away from the money connection, and work on them. And then you can deal with money issues concretely and practically – and in a way that works for you and your loved ones.
*names and identifying information have been changed to protect identities
Money as a Tool for Negotiating Separateness and Connectedness in the Therapeutic Relationship. F. Diane Barth, in the Clinical Social Work Journal Vol. 29, No. 1, Spring 2001
1997 Daydreaming: Unlock the Creative Power of Your Mind Viking, by F. Diane Barth. August 1997 (Published in paperback by Penguin, 1998).
The Secret Language of Money: How to Make Smarter Financial Decisions and Live a Richer Life Hardcover by David Krueger and John David Mann. McGraw Hill Publishers. 2009.
Money and Psychotherapy: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals by Richard Trachtman. NASW Press. 2011.
Teaser image source: iStock File #5509580