No Money, No Problem: A Deeper Look at Having No Money

I’ve worked with a number of clients for whom this scenario is very familiar: they live paycheck to paycheck, and no matter how much or how little they earn in a month, they wind up with nothing in the bank. Somehow, they cover their basics, but there’s nothing left over. They feel ashamed, they tell themselves they should be saving up, they fear the future without any kind of financial cushion to fall back on, and yet month after month, the bank balance goes back to $12. In fact, for a long time, I’ve lived this pattern myself, so I know it inside and out.

So, what is going on here? There can be so many different things at play here, but I am going to describe one very common unconscious dynamic that could be driving this particular pattern.

So, it’s a typical month, and you are making a relatively predictable income. Then, suddenly, something breaks your way and you have some extra money coming your way. It feels amazing, something in you relaxes, you might start thinking about putting away some of that money for the future, fantasizing about how amazing life would be if this “extra” was a regular thing, how you might now be able to afford that trip to see your friend upstate, and so on. Then, this new pocket of ease compels you to go on Amazon and order something extra – something you don’t actually “need” per se, but that makes life a little easier. Or, you order takeout and get something fancy. Maybe you treat yourself to a trip to the clothing store. This new sense of having a bit more in the bank feels so wonderful that you want to commemorate it with a new pair of jeans. You’ve been working so hard, that you do need some treat, something to validate how much you have to hustle and juggle every month. After all, you’ve had so little for so long, you’ve had to deny yourself most luxuries and make do with basics. Maybe none of this is consciously thought – you just make the order and try to enjoy the bounty while it lasts, because you know it won’t.

I know this will feel familiar to many readers. What’s at play here revolves around the experience of deprivation or a sense of lack, often stemming from the far reaches of our childhoods. We get so used to that state, that it’s hard to imagine anything else.  Those of us who came from poverty will have this state ingrained very deeply – but even those who grew up with financial comforts may feel ashamed or guilty about it (or about something else within the primary relationships) and unconsciously punish themselves by living a life of deprivation to make up for it. Whichever way it comes about, it’s the air we breathe, it’s the way we experience equilibrium in life – the life of husting and juggling just feels “normal” even though it certainly doesn’t feel good.

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So, what gets created – and recreated over and over – is a similar state of deprivation, even as consciously you might be wishing for a very different kind of life. And then there are all kinds of issues around the fact that if we grew up in poverty, then we also know that our parents struggled as well. My own mother tells me how when I was 3-4 years old, she would often go hungry in order to feed me. The layers of guilt and shame around having things (including money!) might build even more. Having more money would mean living a life that’s different from (i.e. better than) our parents’, and not wanting to disturb these relationships in our minds, we simply stay where we’ve always been. It’s a kind of equilibrium: no money, no problem…-ish…

Then, what happens when someone like this gets a bit more income in a given month (or week, or even day!) is that unconsciously there is some signal going off, saying that the familiar equilibrium has been disrupted. Consciously it’s a sense of “well I deserve the treat because I’ve worked so hard to get it!” or even “I’ve had to put off buying this because I couldn’t afford it until now!” – and that’s absolutely undeniable, which makes it hard to get underneath that. But what’s underneath is the “compulsion to repeat” (as Freud called it), which drives us to recreate familiar situations, even if they are painful – because there is much in them that needs to be experienced and “worked through.”

When I work with clients and we arrive at this realization, they often ask, “So what do I do to change this?” Seeing how deeply this goes, there might be a kind of despair as to whether it’s even possible to really change anything – or perhaps anger that we’re getting mired in old stuff that keeps us from addressing it in the present. I will explore this in part 2 of this blog post. And as I write this, I very much feel like the analyst who says, “Let’s talk about it next week” – but there’s a reason for that. This is deep stuff that takes time to integrate. But I will say that making these dynamics conscious is an enormous step in itself – where you recognize that on some level you do believe that “no money, no problem” is true. That’s where space opens up for real change.

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4 thoughts on “No Money, No Problem: A Deeper Look at Having No Money

  1. I had lived that way for a while, until I realized that I have to hide some money from myself. Even $10 from a pay check if set aside to the bank or to the shoe box and hidden dip in a closet was good practice for me. But main thing was setting a goal of buying something really big some day in the future. That really really helped. I was on Welfare and was paying rent for the apartment that we shared with my parents, but I was dreaming of buying my own apartment some day. That goal REALLY helped me through all of the bad times, such as to stay on at the really bad job with an abusive business owner, because I knew that I have my daughter to feed and to pay rent.
    When I found a better job, I still kept bringing my own lunch to work, despite that sometimes i felt that I deserve to be able buy a lunch that someone else cooked. My lunch at that time pretty often was a cup of the Ramen soup, which you could buy on sale as cheap as 10 packs per dollar. Even if I had to eat 2 Ramen soups per day, it was pretty cheap and was saving a lot of money.
    Another money saving lunch technique for me was to buy a big loaf of bread and a pack of Franks (8-10 franks per pack). Having 2 slices of bread plus a precooked frank or 2 was fine lunch. That is still pretty cheap lunch even today, if you buying that on sale or at the Dollar Tree or at Jacks store. That kind of lunch still costs no more then a $1 per day, but it is usually cheaper. That strategy and keeping my main goal in mind kept me from falling into a depression when I saw my co-workers ordering their breakfasts and lunches from the restaurants in the area. At that time I resisted an urge to buy a new clothes at every time I had some extra money. I was hiding those money from myself immediately. How? I had set up a direct deposit from work going to a 3 different accounts. One account was easily accessible, 2nd one I have to look for a location to get money from it and I purposely had the 3rd bank account pretty far from me, so I had to make some special effort to get money from that one.
    Shopping for anything was a matter of the careful and frugal decision. At any time when I wanted to buy something I was asking myself if I really need it or I can leave without it. That approach definitely helps even now. Media and TV have all kinds of really aggressive propaganda to make people to buy more, such as “Shop till you drop”; catching store names such as “Best Buys” or Shop Local!, All kinds of advertisement that hard to resist, but I HAD to do it if I wanted to climb out of the dip hole of my poverty. No any impulse buying of any kind. I felt very guilty to my young daughter that I could not even afford to buy a hamburger at McDonald at some point, but I was able to pay rent and save little by little for something else. (I do not feel guilty anymore, even though I am not eating at McDonald anyway).
    It took me 2 years to be able to afford a 2 day bus tour, but I was so happy that I was able to do that with my daughter!
    I was surprised to learn that some of my acquaintances had no idea how to make their own sandwich at home, even though it was a common sense for me that it is way much cheaper to buy a loaf of bread, cold cuts and maybe lettuce and that will last for a week. One of my friends was happy to learn that cooking her own chicken is much cheaper eating then buying sandwich at the deli or any other place. Too bad that schools to not teach students to some basics of the saving money and home economics.
    I feel that in a long run I did the right thing, because I own a co-op apartment now, I can afford some nice vacations and do not have to stay on a diet of the Ramen soup and hot dogs anymore.
    So, my advice if you want it – set up a really big goal and keep it in mind all times. Remind yourself about it at every time you have an impulse to buy something as a”reward for your struggles”. Small rewards do not last long, but you will be sorry that you wasted your money on something that you could live without.

  2. What a thoughtful article. I really appreciate how you go WAAAAY beyond the surface and address the underlying *relationship* we have to money, not as a immutable FACT, but as a narrative based on our earliest experiences. KUDOS!

    • Exactly!! These issues go WAY deep and are very challenging to uncover, but not impossible. In fact, I’ve seen MANY people drastically change their relationship to money in the most incredible, inspiring ways! Thank you for your response.

  3. Beautiful, clear and much-needed reflection, Vanessa. Thank you for taking the time to write this and for opening space for us to think.

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