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Nothing can be more depleting than worrying about
finances. Transform your relationship with money to
revive flagging spirits—and bank accounts.

an anything make you feel more out of control than watching your
BY ELIZABETH MARGLIN nest egg get snatched up in the ravenous jaws of a recession? Amid the gloom,
many people feel pressed to reexamine their attitude toward money, along
with their financial priorities. Even the fashionistas among us are being forced
to don the hair shirt of frugality as layoffs become rampant, bankruptcy commonplace,
and fat 401(k)s a quaint memory. But as dire as all this may feel, taking a closer look
at how you spend isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “The gift of the recession may be that
we can learn to live a richer life with less,” says April Lane Benson, PhD, a psychologist
and author of To Buy or Not to Buy (Trumpeter Books, 2008), “and rediscover the
nonfinancial assets that make our hearts sing: communion, nature, community, service.”
The first step toward learning to live with less, though, involves understanding
why we want more. A rash of recent books examines the emotional or psychological
component of money and emphasizes working with our core financial beliefs. “Most
of us had a money initiation of some sort when we were between five and seven,” says
Spencer Sherman, MBA and author of The Cure for Money Madness (Broadway Books,
2009). “Because the subject was so emotional for the adults, what got transmitted gave
us a warped perspective regarding money that continues to guide our behavior.” Delving
into the ghosts of allowances past—what Sherman calls your money history—gets at
something far beyond merely sticking to a budget.
As someone who’s always been a bit of a Pollyanna about money, preferring to look
the other way when it comes to finances and hope for the best, I’m a prime candidate for
some self-analysis. When a friend raved about a telecourse she had taken called conscious
bookkeeping (—taught by former mind-body therapist
Bari Tessler—I jumped at the chance. The bookkeeping part sounded too much like
number crunching for my taste, but conscious suggested more of an exploration of wallet
and psyche, a mix that intrigued me. I called Tessler and signed up for the nine-session
course, curious to delve into my wounded inner comptroller, which was, unbeknownst
to me, clutching my purse strings in the fetal position.
Tessler’s approach to developing a conscious relationship to money involves a three-
part path: financial therapy, values-based bookkeeping, and what she refers to as life
visioning. Financial therapy focuses on the scripts about money that we learned at a very

young age from our parents and grandparents. “Understanding what your


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Try to figure out what’s
triggering you when the
urge to shop strikes.

money story is, whether it be the patterns you adopted or this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put
the ones you rebelled against, is the first step to recogni- it? These questions create a needed mindful pause if your
tion,” she says. “To know where a belief comes from is to shopping tends to be impulsive, as most overshopping is.
also know when that belief no longer serves you.” Look at the internal force that impelled you to shop. Was it
entitlement, tension, boredom, insecurity, or jealousy?

n my case, I grew up resisting saving—which I associ- CATCHING YOUR BREATH

ated with a tightwad ethic. Money equaled love (on nowing our money triggers is crucial, but it’s
my mother’s side), and saving meant withholding that only half the battle. We also have to tackle
love (my father’s legacy). Later, I linked saving money our current behavior—how we go about our
with an inability to live in the present. If all we have is the day-to-day transactions. The practical—the
here and now, what’s the use of saving for the future? When
bookkeeping aspect—translates understanding into action.
I did earn a chunk of change in my twenties, I bought a Each deposit and withdrawal, charge and check, purchase
piece of art rather than invest it in a CD or money market.
and return, offers an opportunity to be present and make
A mixture of naïveté and idealism formed my delusion that
changes. Applying the discipline of bookkeeping to your
financial proficiency and spiritual authenticity were personal life involves a basic concept: determining how
mutually exclusive. much you earn each month, what you spend, and where
Having a child—and turning 40—changed all that. Sud-it goes. Now that may sound obvious, but the results can
denly not having a will, any retirement savings, or a nest
be revelatory, as well as a little freaky. I had never sat down
egg set aside to cover my son’s potential braces, never mind
with those stark numbers before. Doing so reminded me
college, seemed stupid, irresponsible, and short-sighted—
of the courage needed to finally get on a scale when you
the opposite of spiritual. I needed to get my financial house
know you have gained weight but aren’t really sure you
in order, but without feeling deprived. That meant finding
want to know how much. When I did the final calculations,
absolute clarity struck, and a stunning
A mixture of naïveté and idealism formed my silence reverberated. Each month I
delusion that financial proficiency and spiritual spent at least $150 more than I earned,
and as a result, I had no savings ac-
authenticity were mutually exclusive. count, no 401(k), and no college fund
for my son. Even though I had no debt

a balance between immediate and deferred gratification; yet (I was running through an extra cushion I had earned
abundance and simplicity. from some side work), I clearly was headed in that direc-
“We fill money with emotions and use it to play out tion. This epiphany of numbers made one thing crystal
our dramas,” says Susan McCarthy, author of The Value clear: Something had to give, and it might not be pretty.
of Money, (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008). “But really money is Though I felt like I had the wind knocked out of me,
neutral—just a vehicle to make inquiries.” I was eager to stay the course. So I made a budget that
Take compulsive shopping for example. For Benson, seemed simultaneously awfully close to deprivation
compulsive shopping––the high of the buy—can be broken (bye-bye waxing) and strangely liberating. In learning
by pausing, even mid-checkout line, to ask yourself six to see spending and saving money as a reflection of
key questions: Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need values, I could feel the stirrings of a sea change.


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Many of the money experts I talked to say simply that money
is a mirror. Tessler quotes feminist icon Gloria Steinem to drive Tips to Stay the Course
the point home, “We can tell our values by looking at our check- Observe a secular Sabbath. Just handling money
book stubs.” If you died, and the only way anyone could know can be a drain, which is why Brent Kessel, author of It’s
about you was by tracking your checks, what would they think? Not About the Money (HarperOne, 2008), advises hav-
That you were a clotheshorse? A massage junkie? A gourmand? ing one transaction-free day a week, where you don’t
A philanthropist? What we do with our money speaks volumes purchase anything. “Notice at the end of the day if you
about our priorities. I was ready for my checkbook to show less were any less satisfied—most people tend to feel hap-
bling and more bang, less frivolity and more frugality. pier,” Kessel says.
Be a giver. Nothing works more effectively to trans-
MATCHING FUNDS TO PURPOSE form an attitude of grasping and desperation than to
give money away. When we put even a small amount of

hat readiness came from having a better grasp of the
money aside for charity, volunteering, or simply having
big picture. To start tracking spending, a key part of a dinner party (not a potluck), we can “shift our outlook
any financial makeover, Tessler led us through creat- from scarcity to sufficiency,” says Spencer Sherman, au-
ing a budget. But to make the number crunching thor of The Cure for Money Madness (Broadway Books,
more playful, Tessler encouraged each of us to personalize our 2009). “Giving changes our financial chemistry, our
chart of accounts, which she refers to as a “map of intention.” sense of who we are in the world.”
We were asked to rename the conventional Accept no substitutes. Buying stuff is often really
categories, such as rent, utilities, gas, a thinly veiled metaphor for treating yourself to some
so they more accurately reflected tender, loving care. Why not ask yourself what you
what they mean to us. Thus, rent may really need—relaxation, excitement, sensual or aes-
become “sanctuary for the goddess; gas, thetic pleasure, the thrill of discovery? Then, sug-
gests April Lane Benson, author of To Buy or Not to
“fuel for accessing the world”; and
Buy (Trumpeter Books, 2008), come up with appropri-
utilities, a “light and energy matrix.” ate alternatives, such as going to a museum, taking a
Even taxes could acquire a more dance class, or enrolling in a course that interests you.
positive spin; one person in the A recent study backs this up: A survey of more than
course called them “contribution 12,000 Americans showed that people received more
to helping my community run pleasure and satisfaction from investing in life experi-
well.” In this light, bookkeeping ences than in material purchases.
becomes a surprisingly creative Get naked. Surprisingly, one of intimacy’s last frontiers
act, a way of naming—and own- isn’t sexual but financial. It’s rare that a couple will come
ing—our passions, intentions, and completely clean with each other about all their money
most cherished values. “We will habits. Making time and space for money as a couple is
key, says Bari Tessler. It’s a three-part journey: sharing
only willingly learn the practical
stories, getting clear on the numbers, and setting inten-
stuff if there’s something fun and tions and goals. Figure out together what’s nonnegotia-
meaningful that we get out of it,” ble and where you can compromise, and don’t let hiding
says Tessler. or blaming enter into the conversation.
I loved categorizing my accounts Go against the grain. One way to break free of your
in a language I could relate to and ingrained money habits is to force yourself to do the op-
seeing what I was—and wasn’t— posite for a week, says Sherman. If you are a spender,
giving energy to each month. Dur- save and vice versa. Note the feelings that come up as
ing the second month of the course, you reverse roles, and take pleasure in the novelty. Use

a friend of mine was singing in a the exercise to learn about your motivation and expand
concert. The tickets cost $20, and your comfort zone.
Imagine the worst. Manage your fear, says Kessel,
even though I was indulging myself
by going directly into your worst-case money scenario,
in other ways (clothes are my bête
such as losing your job. Are you a bag lady, a grocery
noire), I wasn’t big on spending on checker, divorced? Now imagine that you bring all your
entertainment. But when I thought innate resourcefulness to the situation, and notice how
of that spending in terms of support- that makes you feel about yourself. “Reminding yourself
ing my connection to my friend, I of your resiliency alleviates the paralysis that comes
gladly bought my ticket. from the fear of going belly up,” says Kessel.


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Tracking money mindfully calls for a daily and WHO MOVED MY DREAMS?

weekly commitment. Tessler recommends saving all o now you save all your receipts and track them
your receipts and then every few days, or at least once a in your budget. What more can you possibly do?
week, entering those expenses into your accounts. She Working hand in glove with the budget—
advises thinking of bookkeeping as a sacred ritual or your map of intention—Tessler gets you to take
practice, “a way of grounding, taking inventory, check- your plan a step further by challenging you to ask the
ing in, and getting current.” By taking responsibility big questions: What’s my purpose? What are my dreams?
for our spending, rather than pleading ignorance, we Where am I going?
learn the grown-up art of discrimination. As financial If anything, a recession like the one we’re in can be
a golden opportunity to hunker down and reevalu-
ate our priorities and see them in a new light. “Boom
times makes people numb to others’ suffering and their
own real joy,” says Kessel. “But now we are opened up,
vulnerable, and can really feel our own fear. There’s a
sense that we are all in this together, more connected
than we imagined, and we have to acknowledge our
true interdependence.”
In my own grand vision, my son Jordan plays a star-
ring role. When he gets older, there’s so much I want
to teach him about money, lessons that I am only now
starting to grasp. About how money is both more and
less important than we think. How it helps or hinders
our ability to realize our dreams. How it connects us to
others and demonstrates that what goes around more
often than not comes around.
Even though I am far from financially savvy—let
alone secure—I can no longer play dumb. I know there
are things I can’t have and don’t really need, things I
must wait for, and things worth saving up for. After
this course, and spurred on by my watershed birthday,
I took a few steps that at least signal maturity. I started,
humble allocations notwithstanding, a 401(k). I also
created an account for Jordie, which I call his “dharma
fund.” I skipped waxing my legs this winter and have
made my painful peace with hirsuteness. And finally,

There’s a sense that we are all in this together,

more connected than we imagined, and we
have to acknowledge our true interdependence.

because I now save all those annoying receipts, I was

able to exchange a belt that had broken a few months
after I bought it.
advisor Brent Kessel, author of It’s Not About the Mon- I needed that replacement, believe me—all this belt-
ey (HarperOne, 2008), points out, “the wanting mind tightening can take it out of a girl. I even needed to down-
thrives on not being accountable.” Doing our accounts size it, but of course I’m not complaining about that. ■
helps us cultivate a sense of enoughness and allows us
to observe our wanting, and its consequences, with a >> Want more fulfillment from your finances?

cool head. Visit for

helpful exercises, sample budgets, and more ways to save.


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