Take just a few moments and complete the sentence: “If I had a lot more money, I would [fill in the blank].” Of all the people I have asked to fill in that blank, it never ceases to amaze me how diverse the replies are:
“…retire, relax, and travel.”
“…get rid of the shackles of debt.”
“…build a medical research facility and name it after my dad.”
“…start a business and show my boss how it should be done, how people should be treated and how to motivate employees.”
“…buy or build my dream home.”
“…go back to school.”
“…spend a large amount of time with my family.”
“… tell my boss how I really feel.”
Even though the responses may be varied, they all share one thing in common: strong, deep emotions. People imagine that money will provide personal fulfillment for themselves and their loved ones, that it will give them a sense of security and exciting new possibilities for their life ahead. What’s interesting is that few people even ask me if I have a dollar amount in mind. They’re too busy dreaming about the answered prayers and the defeated fears that multiple zeros added to the right side of their savings account balance could instantly create. Almost everyone has something to add to: “If I won the lottery, I would …”
But money usually comes weighed down with emotion. Have you ever indulged your spouse with an extravagant gift? Have you ever worried about paying a utility bill? Have you ever felt good giving the guy at the bottom of the exit ramp with a “will work for food” sign a couple of dollars? Even when we think we’re long-term thinkers by paying for a home, saving for retirement, or saving for a child’s college education, fears and dreams shape our behavior. It’s taken me 48 years to fully grasp that thought. I’m still not sure I really have it.
Our emotional connection to money has some general subtexts as well. Things like:
- “I’m afraid my son or daughter won’t get a good job.”
- “I’m afraid I’ll end up dependent on the kindness of others for my daily needs.”
- “I just know if I give this investment strategy just one more shot, I’ll succeed.”
- “I’m comfortable, but I’m scared to wish (or ask) for more.”
- “I feel guilty for having so much when others don’t.”
- “I know nothing about managing money, and whenever I try, I feel like an idiot.”
There is a lot of fear surrounding our finances: fear of dependency, fear of success, fear of failure, fear of loss, and fear of the unknown.
What these phrases reveal is that managing our personal finances is a rational and logical process on the outside. It’s about budgeting and saving, incomes and cash flows, insuring against ruin and investing for the future. But on the inside, it’s completely emotional. Our decisions are influenced by the attitudes about money we learned growing up and our experiences since then have made us either more cautious or more confident.
What money means to each one of us individually is always just under the surface. It shapes our daily spending, our tolerance for risk, or even if we can stand to think about money matters at all. It reflects the emotions we’ve attached to our money, good or bad, and we then equate having enough with being respected or happy or even loved.
If you’re constantly worried, if you’re constantly thinking about finances, if you’re always on the defensive and losing sleep over whether you’ll “have enough,” or whether you’ll “lose it all,” you need to sit down and redefine your relationship with money.
We have packaged money in our society to have the same importance as oxygen. Have you ever been held under water against your will, even for just 2 seconds? Pure panic sets in immediately, doesn’t it? Yet we have the same fears about money and all it represents. We fear that losing it will mean less oxygen to our brains and that we will die. But that isn’t true. You may be uncomfortable for a season, but you don’t die without money.
- If you money intimidates you, you’re a prime candidate for automation.
- If you fear not having enough to the point that you’re an extreme saver, crunch some numbers and project exactly how much you’ll need and when you’ll need it to ensure a comfortable retirement.
- If you fear the loss of status, decide what luxuries are important to you and let the rest go.
- If you fear not having enough to make your debt payments, establish a budget and commit to live by it … and get rid of the credit cards.
- If you fear not being able to afford your child’s educational requirements, save something, anything, each pay period and begin researching scholarships and educational alternatives.
- If you fear not having enough to retire because you’ve started late, get started now. Don’t worry about the past.
- If you fear losing your job and not having enough for daily expenses, cut your expenses now, learn to make extra money, and develop a backup plan for your job.
- If you fear not being able to manage your own investments, get a fee based professional to help you.
When you can identify your fears, you’ll be on your way to redefining your relationship with money, because simple self-awareness is half the battle. When you know who you are, you can acknowledge your fears and take action to overcome them. You can identify your weaknesses and then set goals based on your strengths. Mastering your money means facing your fears, overcoming them, and then taking concrete steps to redefine how you look at and relate with money.