Several years ago, I sat in my fancy condominium, with its cathedral ceilings and skylights, and watched my frozen breath. It'd been months since my heat pump had brokenfor the third time. Months during which I couldn't find the thousands of dollars I needed to replace it, months of space heaters and warm sweaters that kept the bitter cold at bay, but not the shame.
Today, on paper, my finances look better. I sold the condo and I'm slowly paying off my debts. But the truth is, I've had to work through my love-hate relationship with money. And I know I'm not alone. My friend Robert recently had to take out a second mortgage on his house because he'd "forgotten" to pay estimated taxes on a new home business. Claire runs up huge credit-card charges every month, then struggles to pay the minimum. Betty consistently spends $500 more a month than she brings in, but recently managed to get a loan to buy a new car with a sunroof. "It'll be all right," she tells me. "I'll figure something out."
It's All in Your Head
What's going on here? Popular mainstream author and financial advisor Suze Orman would say money problems are literally in our head. "The road to financial freedom begins not in a bank or even in a financial planner's office," she writes in The Nine Steps to Financial Freedom. "It begins with our thoughts. And those thoughts, more often than not, stem from our seemingly forgotten past with money."
Though I might not endorse everything Orman has to say, I decided to explore my thoughts and feelings about money. As I scanned through my memories of when money first meant something to me, I remembered an instance when, as a preteen, I overheard my grandfather quizzing my father about how much he was making. Was that real or just imagined disapproval in my grandfather's voiceand defensiveness in my father's? I wasn't sure what our family's money situation was. My mother left most of those decisions to my father, and neither thought it right to talk about money with their children.
It dawned on me that perhaps there was part of me that didn't want to know about money matters, who wanted someone else (a husband?) to take care of itand, by extension, me. I've had to ask myself if I feel my life as a single person is somehow less legitimate than my sisters' lives and homes with husbands and children. If so, the embarrassing fear (hard for many modern women to accept) must be: The real life I desire will never come. I will be alone.
Other memories brought up questions about the value of things. For example, my thrifty mother tutored me well in the fine art of sale shopping. To this day I rarely buy anything at full price. But while I'm not one of the "rich," I've enjoyed pretending to be.