Have you ever thought about money as something you have a relationship with?
Some people have an anxious relationship with money. For them, money is like a lover who is always about to leave, or else probably won’t be there for them when they really need it. Other people have an avoidant relationship with money. They think, “Money is just for rich people. It has nothing to do with me.” And some people have a secure relationship with money. No matter how little they have, they have a sense that, no matter what happens, they’re going to be okay.
Have you ever sat down and thought about your relationship with money? It might be a way of relating that’s been in your family for generations. When I have clients do a “money biography,” they often find that their way of relating to money is not completely their own — it’s something they’ve picked up from their mothers or fathers or even grandparents.
For example, I often have clients who have both debt and savings. It never occurs to them that the debt is canceling out the savings and making them feel disempowered. This never occurs to them, because their families always had debt. It’s as though they’re not totally sure who they’d be without it.
Our relationship with money spans our whole lives. It can get better, or worse, depending on the amount of love and energy we put into it.
My earliest memories surrounding money were associated with my parent’s depression. I grew up in Iran and lived through the Revolution there. My stepfather had been a successful entrepreneur who lost everything during the eight-year war with Iraq, except for a few bundles of clothes that sat sadly in one of our unfurnished rooms. Each time I walked past that bundle, I felt the weight of my family’s despair. I didn’t understand my parents’ anxious relationship with money, of course. All I knew was that we were suddenly poor. I thought: Money has abandoned us.
Now, of course, we were poor. But that same year, in fifth grade, I learned about a very different relationship to money. This happened when I overheard my mother talking about wanting to sell those bundles of clothes on the sidewalk. “It won’t work,” my stepfather replied. “We’re already ruined.” I didn’t understand economics, but I did know I wanted to get rid of that pile of clothes more than anything. Maybe then my family would be less depressed.
So one day, I decided to take some of the clothes to school myself and sell them to my teachers. I had a whole pitch ready: “I’m saving you time by delivering quality brands straight to you.” To my surprise, my teachers bought everything.
I walked home rubbing those strange pieces of paper together in my hand, thinking about my teachers’ smiles and the smiles that would be on my mother’s face. That was when I realized something very important: money is about connecting to people. If you have shame, fear, or guilt in relation to others, you will associate those same qualities with money. But if you can see that you are worthy — that you benefit others and they benefit you — you can feel more secure in your relationship with finances. As a child, I partly inherited my parents’ shame and sense of not belonging, but because I was still young, there was another part of me that was free to hope.
Years later, when I was homeless in America as an undocumented immigrant, I was forced to ask for help from strangers. At that moment, I remembered my fifth-grade teachers and how happy they were to buy from me. That helped me understand that if I could only connect to other people, the money would eventually follow. I asked anyone I could find for work, places to shower, or rides to school, and I got creative with what I could give in return. I heard plenty of nos, but I also got some yeses, and in the process, I made lasting relationships and gave people an opportunity to practice generosity, which, I have learned since, is another key to creating a healthy relationship with finances.
You don’t have to be rich to have a healthy relationship with money. You don’t have to be poor to have an unhealthy relationship with it either. As long as we think of money as an unchangeable law, like gravity, it will always disempower us. But if we think of money the way we think about any relationship — something we can actually improve — we can heal old wounds.
Over the next few weeks, get yourself a journal and write your own “money biography.” The following questions will help guide you:
1. What is money to you? What role does it have in your life?
2. How does money make you feel? Does it bring out anxiety in you, avoidance, or both?
3. How would you like to be relating to money?
4. How have you related to money in the past?
5. If you had more money, what would you do with it?
The good news is: once we bring awareness to this issue, it starts to change right away. Money is going to be there in your daily life, like it or not. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel good about it?