Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Money Scripts

with 7 comments

Total Black: $685.16
Total Red: $228,657.45

Every so often you stop and take account of the inherent curiosity of life and its serendipitous moments.  It can give you pause and make even the doubting-est Thomas believe that maybe there is some . . . thing . . . else at work behind the scenes.  Call it energy, God, consciousness:  nonetheless it can take you by surprise and slap a smile across your face.  Yesterday reminded me of that.

Both before departure and after landing, I glanced at the wares peddled by the airport booksellers.  Since I had been elected treasurer of the non-profit organization whose board I sit on, I figured it certainly wouldn’t do any harm to pick up a treatise or two on non-profit governance and accounting.  I browsed a Borders at JFK airport and some regional bookstore at Orlando’s International airport.  Couldn’t find anything—despite the Border’s bookstore having an entire section devoted to the Harvard Business School Press.  So I walked on.  As I was leaving the gated section of JetBlue’s Terminal 5 at JFK Airport, I glanced over my should and spotted a tiny bookstore / newspaper kiosk.  And as if some external force took control of my body, I turned around, walked directly over to the shop, looked immediately down at the bottom shelf of one of the bookshelves, and picked up this sleek blue-colored book.  Immediately I realized that I needed to read this book.  Instinctively . . . somehow . . . I knew that I needed the knowledge and guidance within those pages to help take me to the next level of financial understanding.

From the Introduction:

“Many people think that problems with money stem from ignorance about the complicated field of personal finance, and they wrongly believe that the solution lies in gathering more information, collecting more tips and strategies for budgeting and investing.  This might help for some people; however, for the majority of us, a lack of information is not the problem.  The basics of good financial health are actually quite simple, and more advice telling us to save more or spend less is not going to help.

“If you, like the majority of Americans, already know what you should be doing but you can’t put that awareness into action, your problems with money have little to do with a lack of knowledge.  In fact, more information and advice can actually entrench our negative behaviors by making us feel “pushed” in a particular direction, and making us feel bad about ourselves.  When we wonder, ‘I know better, why can’t I do better?’ the answer we come up with is quite often ‘There must be something wrong with me.’  This is not only unhealthy, it’s counterproductive because the feelings of shame triggered by these thoughts only increase our ambivalence and entrench our resistance.  Nobody likes to be told what to do, especially when we already know it.  Case in point: Despite hundreds of books, thousands of newspapers and magazine articles, endless TV programs, films, infomercials, radio talk shows discussing the ins and outs of personal finance, there are still millions who are unable to make major changes in their financial lives.

“We believe that scolding you about the risks of not having an emergency fund, or the benefits of budgeting, or how much you should be saving is like trying to treat a brain tumor with an aspirin: It addresses a symptom while ignoring the disease.  Financial advice is not enough to change destructive financial behaviors. So instead of lecturing you on what you already know, we’ll help you find the underlying reasons for your self-defeating and self-damaging financial behaviors—and then show you how to get honest about your relationship with money, and take control of and transform your financial life.”

As soon as I settled in on long subway ride back home, I cracked the cover of Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders That Threaten Our Financial Health by Brad Klontz and Ted Klontz.  I actually had to put the book down a few times to allow myself time to mull over what the Klontzes were saying.  Drs. Brad and Ted Klontz, a father and son team, set out in this book to get to root causes of our dysfunctional relationship with money.  What they’ve dubbed “money scripts” are childhood interpretations of financial events that taught us lessons about money, and which still play out in our minds today.  Money scripts, they write, “stem from naïve, childhood interpretations that we construct in our efforts to uncover an underlying logic to the baffling, contradictory, often frightening adult world.”  Money scripts stem from what the authors dub “financial flashpoints”: “those critical ‘aha’ experiences or influences that related to money. . . .  As children, we gain insights and make assumptions about the world based on messages, intended and unintended, passed on to us by those closest to us.  When we see the people around us reacting to money in certain ways, we internalize that information, which leaves a lasting impression on us . . . .”  Money scripts can, in turn, lead to money disorders: unhealthy, subconscious behaviors and beliefs regarding money, often that we don’t know we carry with us.  Perhaps you grew up in a home where money was always short.  In adulthood, you may have swung in the opposite direction, frugally saving and never relaxing your grip on that cold, hard cash such that you enjoy the fruits of your labors.  Or maybe you always heard deriding comments about “the rich” and came to view having a lot of money as something undesirable.  Maybe mom bitched about not having enough to make ends meet but then spent like it was going out of style.  How would your mind process those conflicting messages?

I think the good doctors have truly hit upon something with their book.  For me, reading just the introduction to this book was like someone cracking a window in a hot, sweltering room.  Immediately my mind refocused and my energy resurged.  Yes, I’ll admit that after much of the derision and whipping I’ve received in prior posts, reading words as those above that tell me it’s not my fault is soothing.  But it’s not only that.  In fact, that’s mere icing on my financial cake.  Instead, it was my “aha” moment when I realized, “of course there must be more to it than just not spending wisely.”  The book got me thinking about my own money scripts.

Some examples employed in the book focus on fairly traumatic childhood moments where a message involving money sets a lasting impression: a doctor off golfing while a man’s mother went into labor; the child died without the doctor’s care but the doctor still wanted to be paid.  The doctor pays a visit to the family’s home, pulling up in his fancy sports car.  The father threatens the doctor and warns him against attempting to collect on the bill for his deceased infant son.  Once the doctor leaves, the father tells his living son, standing nearby, to mark that moment as an example how the rich only care about their money, not about anyone else.  I haven’t yet uncovered such a traumatic moment, or financial flashpoint as used by the authors.  But I can recall receiving very mixed messages growing up.

My father was very generous with money.  He was the one to slip you a few bucks when you went out at night.  He was also the one you turned to if you wanted to win a parent over.  He’d work on my mother and get her to give in.  He never handled the money though.  In fact, he didn’t even carru a wallet.  He had one; just never used it.  I remember taking  his wallet out of a cupboard as a boy just to look at the pictures inside.  It sat next to a plastic red dual-sided credit card holder into which way too many had been shoved: credit cards, charge cards, discount cards, outdated driver’s license, and so on.  Those cards you kept but wouldn’t necessarily carry in a purse or wallet.  Instead my father just carried cash in his pocket.  And often in multiple places.  Sometimes he himself would go digging through pants pockets looking for cash he may have left behind.  Other times flannel jackets.  Most times my mother removed the money before his clothes hit the washing machine but sometimes we’d find laundered money in the drier.

My sister somehow became the financially independent one of the family.  She earned a full scholarship to a local Catholic high school and then a full scholarship to a private Catholic college.  Her education didn’t cost herself or our family.  She worked at a fast food restaurant as a teenager and then later as a waitress for many years while in college.  She bought her own cars and has pretty much lived on her own dime.  Sure she reached back for help from time to time, particularly when my mother refinanced her home to lend me money to use during bar study and to later move to New York; she also loaned my sister additional cash she needed to secure a mortgage on a home in Philadelphia.

But in my family, my mother handled all the finances.  Atypical for the stereotypical middle class family.  I think my father may have written one check his entire life.  I recall nights when my mother would be up quite late, paying bills and balancing the family checkbook.  She was the financial gatekeeper yet she let many wayfares pass.  For example, as a child, I generally got what I wanted.  Even now my mother teases that regardless of how hard she tried, she ultimately gave in and got me some He-Man toy that I asked for.  (And Mattel certainly made enough of those for us to ask for!)  I recall dreading the days she went grocery shopping because it inevitably meant twenty trips to the car to haul in all the bags.  And these were weekly trips!  My mother was notorious for buying the wrong thing too.  I’d ask for Boo Berry and we’d get Count Chocula instead.  She always grabbed the sugar-free version or the fat-free version, but not intentionally.  And if we ever expressed interest in a particular item we’d be assured to have enough of it to last a lifetime.  Say you wanted a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and once that bag ran out you got ten in its place.

Of course I’m exaggerating a bit for emphasis.  But not by much.  It seemed as though my mother really wasn’t focused when she shopped.  Perhaps partly due to long hours at her job.  But there’s a disconnect there between coupon-cutting and tough-times lectures and excessive weekly grocery shopping and “giving-in” to your son’s “beautiful blue eyes” pleading for a toy.  My mother sent mixed messages.  She sometimes committed what the authors dub “financial incest”: complaining to my sister or myself about our financial difficulties, something no child can comprehend let alone respond to.  But then she’d be off buying lots of things.

As I got older my mother began insisting upon me finding employment at thirteen years-old, complaining that I needed to begin earning my own money to help out; they couldn’t keep giving me an allowance.  I noted in I Need a New Gig that I had started my working life off as a paperboy.  I can still remember going to the local bank with my father to open a savings account with the money I began to earn.  I saved up enough money from my paper route to buy the family’s first VCR.  I started out a saver.  Then I bought that VCR.  But I still kept saving.  For a while at least.  But sometime around when my mother strong-armed me into that dishwashing job I started to resent having to work for money.  A grade school journal entry has me complaining about the dishwashing job and contemplating cashing in my U.S. savings bonds just so I could pay my parents back.  (The journal was some experiment my 8th grade teacher hit upon; we wrote journals; she read them—odd no?  But at least I have musings from back then.)  I owed my parents money for the aquarium I had and the fish and supplies I had purchased.  Ultimately I did quit that job.  And cash in those savings bonds.  I assume I also paid my parents back.  And somehow my decent into the financial maelstrom began.

Back in Feelings and Finances I spoke of my youthful affair with the Franklin Mint and all its wonderful creations.  I was about twelve when I started down that path.  ‘Bout the same time as when I began working at the restaurant.  Clearly something conflates at that point in time.  I’ve just gotta parse these memories a bit more.  My father didn’t care much about money.  He let my mother handle it.  My mother handled it, but complained to me about it and sometimes went back on her financial decisions.  There’s a message there that I have to unravel.  My sister is frugal; damn near stingy.  I’m frivolous with money.  Opposite reactions to similar events dictate some sort of financially-confusing upbringing.  And I’m happy this book will help me begin to unravel these gordian knots.

7 Responses

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  1. Oh come on Laid-Off not again!! What the hell am I supposed to do – wait???

    Prince Michael III

    February 9, 2010 at 22:15

  2. Getting there . . . Long post. Half-way through now.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    February 9, 2010 at 23:32

  3. Understanding how you approach money and why is important, yes, but so is a goddamn budget.


    February 10, 2010 at 09:03

  4. You don’t need books – just listen to me! Give me the money you put into your books.

    If you want to save money, don’t buy crap.
    If you want to lose weight, don’t eat crap.

    Prince Michael III

    February 10, 2010 at 18:58

  5. Did you guys even read the quote from the book? Budgeting isn’t the answer. Not for people who have money disorders, as the authors call them. I’m definitely righting this course, but there’s something “wrong” when I feel I “deserve” some cup of coffee or go around paying for human contact. Something in my head equates money / spending with human value. Gotta figure that out and eliminate it. Budgeting won’t help if I ignore it because of some excuse I tell myself to spend money on something.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    February 12, 2010 at 08:35

  6. Just because it’s a good idea to figure out the root of your money issues (and for the record, I’ve been telling you that you needed therapy for months, but you have dismissed such suggestions out of hand) doesn’t mean you can’t also make a budget and practice sticking with it. You need a plan, and you need to get a handle on where your money goes. Information is power.


    February 12, 2010 at 10:12

  7. Anon, it is all well and good saying make a budget and stick to it but it is not that simple. Will power has proven to be a fail fail fail tactic to make a change about ANYTHING !! Weight los, quitting smoking, stop overspending, being able to keep a job, keeping a good relationship etc.

    Words that you say to yourself or the “fears” you have play a major part.


    July 31, 2010 at 01:11

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