I’ve just finished reading a book by Geneen Roth titled Lost and Found, Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money. I love Geneen Roth. She helped me uncover my food crazy and now reading this book is helping me get to the absolute bottom of my money crazy.
I just read this: “We all follow life instructions given to us ten or thirty or fifty years ago…We absorb a set of beliefs before we are old enough to think for ourselves, and unless we question them, they become the default lenses through which we enter into every situation we encounter.” and I had an epiphany.
Two years ago, what I thought was my worst fear came true, after a move and a job change and a house “situation” we were unable to exist on the money coming in. We were dead broke. I had spent a few years trying to examine my issues with money, but it wasn’t until then, at rock bottom, that I thought I got real.
I started to see the patterns of saving then splurging then digging out of debt that I continually found myself in for what I thought they really were: fear and compensation. I grew up always worried about our financial life. My widowed mom might have overshared her financials with me too young and I took on the burdens she faced trying to stay afloat. I learned then that you would never have more than enough, but that you could always work more to get what you need and try to be happy with that.
She was a stellar role model at making the best of your situation and I thank her for that, but I learned nothing about how to live with money because she never had enough to teach me. What I’ve just realized I did learn-completely subconsciously- was that when things started to go right financially, the world blew up.
My father died when I was very young and so all I have of him are stories. The stories go like this: we were poor as he worked his way up to a successful attorney but we were pretty happy. We had great family experiences even though sometimes mom and dad argued about money. Often the arguments were about dad accepting favors, or “stuff” from clients in lieu of actual monetary payments. One famous quote of my mom’s is, “this painting is lovely honey, but I can’t put salt on it and feed the kids dinner.”
Those were the stories of my siblings’ childhood. They were young and poor and happy and then things started to get better, dad was about to be a judge, we were about to live the life they’d worked so hard for.
And he died.
He died before they got to take their great vacation as a couple. He died before they got to enjoy dinners out. He died, just when things started to get good.
As an adult, what I vowed was that I would never be broke like my mom. I would always have enough money.
As an adult, what I did was overspend and keep myself in a constant state of just getting by because that is what was comfortable. I thought I spent and limited myself from having money as an adult because I never had it as a kid. For years, we’d get to a point of starting to feel comfortable and then the bottom would fall out.
Just when our marriage stabilized a bit financially, we were in our second home, my husband was making real money, I took a job I loved for a little less pay.
The day I started, THE DAY I started, my husband called to tell me he lost his job. They laid off the entire department and he was unemployed for nearly six months. We lived on my Catholic School teacher salary and extra money from selling Mary Kay.
Then we had another baby and sold our house. He got a job and things started looking up again. Our future seemed bright.
Then my mom died.
You can see where I’m going with this right? We get ourselves stable and shit happens. Literally.
When we hit financial bottom a few years after my mom died, I had quit working all together because we had just moved. On one salary and two house payments, I had to really learn what it meant to squeak by. Throughout this, I thought I’d finally be able to come out the other side and stop repeating the same defeating patterns with money. I had to face my biggest fear- not having enough. Then I had to face the second biggest-sharing it with others. I had to open myself up to the pain and shame that comes with doing exactly what you promised you’d never do. I walked directly into my mom’s shoes of having to figure out how to sustain my family on little to no extra cash. I had to learn about money. I had to learn to budget. I had to learn to spend. I had to learn to face my money and be comfortable in a relationship with it.
But no one was dead.
And that was the first revelation. Things can go belly up even if you’re not widowed. We were broke and it had nothing to do with my husband. I battled back. I was proud of the progress I’d made. I thought I was super healthy.
Lately, I’ve been walking around in a near constant state of panic. We’ve begun to turn our lives around, not completely, we still have debt, but we are paying it off in such a way that there is a little more cash every month to feed and clothe everyone. I’ve battled many of my own demons that began the spiral of unconscious spending so I’m in a better spot with money. I am now hyper-aware of what I do and how I live with money. I feel more comfortable with the management of it. As a family, we’re looking at the light at the end of the tunnel and starting to talk about what we’ll do when we’re out from under it all.
And all this has me scared out of my mind.
So much for healthy.
When things start to go right financially, the whole world blows up. Right?
I used to joke that this was the “hit by a bus” feeling. I’d tell The Husband, “It’s back. I have that feeling in the pit of my stomach that something awful is going to happen.” right when everything in our lives was flowing nicely along. I didn’t think it was that big a deal, until I realized the power I let it have.
For fifteen years I’ve either consciously or unconsciously kept us in a near constant state of chaos. There are moves and job changes and new babies and new businesses and new degrees and more school. It seems chaos and change are my drugs of choice.
When you are focused on moving along, you don’t have to focus on where you are. That would explain why lately, as we start to get our budget under control, set down roots and plan a future and there is nothing on the horizon but more of the same, I am waking up in cold sweats after dreaming that I’ve spent all our money. That would explain why lately I’ve been looking at houses to buy because nothing says “just scraping by” better than taking on a new mortgage. I used to think I did these things because I was afraid to have money. Because if you have money and you can’t complain about being poor then you have to be happy. And what would I do if I got money and still wasn’t happy?
That’s what I thought was the problem with me. Then I realized that what is going on in my head is this:
If we’re just scraping by, if we’re broke but happy with what we have, if nothing is perfect, then no one dies. Right?
It’s both terrifying and liberating to realize this about myself. For so many years I’ve stopped myself right before I do something really well. I’ve had a business that was almost great. I’ve had opportunities that I passed up or floundered in because it would have meant sure success. I’ve mastered mediocre and I’ve mastered being happy with it.
Now it’s time to move forward. Knowing doesn’t mean I’m finished fixing. We never are. But at least now I know which voice to dispute when it starts to tell me to limit myself. Now it’s our time to find real success because I can remind myself that it doesn’t mean someone dies or the whole world blows up.
And if that happens anyway? Well, I’ve proven to myself that I’m strong enough to handle anything.
What’s stopping you? What have you learned that shapes your relationship with money or food? What is keeping you from being the best you can be? Sit with that a minute. It may hurt for a while, but you’ll be thankful in the end.
P.S. Looking for more parenting guidance and tips for self-care? Check out From Chaos to Calm a guided training to help you feel better in this tough season.