Change coaching Counseling Money Psychology Stress

Overcoming a Money Disorder

Money and Psychology

photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.
photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.

Is it cruel to write about the topic of money right after the ACA launch experienced a big fail, and middle-income Americans realized that most of the healthcare plans would not directly benefit them? I hope not! It appears that I owe my community a blog post about money and financial depression. I’ll tackle the first part – money and money disorders –  and the second part you’ll read sometime in early 2014, when some of the dust post-ACA settles.

How I got where I am today, on the other side of my own money disorder, is a story in itself.  I’m painfully aware I’d rather break some bones in my hand than talk publicly about money. Apparently, this is the norm, and I am not alone.

Last year, my coach Patrick Snow helped me lay out the table of contents for my book project, “Designing Your Practice: An Artist’s Approach”. He told me to take out twenty-one pieces of paper, label them Chapter 1 through Chapter 21, and add a couple of blank pieces of paper to hold the title, content, copyright, and bibliography pages, so on and so forth. He then told me that not only should I have a chapter on the topics of change and leadership, I’m required to write a chapter about money. What how-to book would be complete without talking about money? No sh-t, right?

When the time came around to write my money chapter, there were, and perhaps still are, parts of me that would much rather take a hammer and break my fingers one by one so that I wouldn’t have to write about such a personally painful topic. A chapter about money requires me to share money stories.  I felt a level of embarrassment on par with farting in public. I bumbled through the chapter, and then I did everything possible to forget about too many words and too much pain. I did such a good job of forgetting, I forgot to share some of those stories here, where they might do some good before the book gets published.

I searched my website, strangely hopeful that maybe, just maybe, I had bothered to write about money and the drearily depressed feelings that slugging out synthetic feelings of joy and hope when thinking of financial freedom and success might stir. No such luck. I only wrote about how to pay for your therapy sessions, a how-to primer for those who were worried they didn’t know how to hire a therapist and get their insurance company to pay for all or a portion of the cost.

If I’m going to be in pain while I write, I might as well be uncomfortable for a good reason. Pardon me while I squirm.


Getting In Touch With Your Feelings About Money

Do you know how you feel about money? Do you find money and money management easy to talk about? Do you experience shame when you can’t afford something you want or need? Have you thought about how much money you need to earn, live off, and save in order to be comfortable and content? And finally, do these questions make you feel uncomfortable?

If you’re squirming, it’s time to get in touch with your feelings about money. Many people aim to make ends meet without confronting and resolving their feelings about money. What I’ve come to discover about money is that our feelings about money often influence how much or how little money comes your way. Feelings may seem unrelated. But if you don’t feel comfortable with money, and you don’t have any real plans with what to do with money once you have it, money doesn’t seem to stay around long. It’s like you have this giant foam middle finger telling money that you can’t – or won’t – handle it because you don’t take the time to care.

My Story: “Laters, Baby” 

If you walk into my office today, you won’t see the reference points for my personal understanding of money struggles. There are growing plants, comfortable couches, and electronic devices that keep my office humming along. Tall windows allow light to stream in on crisp Fall days, and air conditioning in the summer keeps the office and waiting room cool and comfortable. On busy days, I get my sushi order in by phone and drop downstairs for a  three-minute turnaround; if you miss booking your next appointment, your favorite time slot will be gladly taken by someone else. My bank accounts are in good standing. My credit is fair, I have a home, my car is paid for, and my basic needs are met. I sleep pretty well at night. So do my two cats.

It wasn’t always this way. I can still recall a time when I was grateful for a spouse who could pay for the groceries and mortgage if my business wasn’t profitable. I often held two jobs in the early days of my practice: my private practice hours, and another job in healthcare as a nurse as long as it did not sap all my physical energy. At that time, I didn’t spend much time thinking about money, because my basic needs and beyond were met. I had few financial goals for myself. The goals were oriented around avoiding trouble.

All this changed abruptly in late 2009. Business was slow. My spouse and I were separated. It was like switching Internet radio stations from racy Jazz to Classical Music, only played slowly underwater. Suddenly there was more month than money, and I experienced real fear about how I would survive.   Like many others trapped in self-fulfilling prophecies, I was afraid that if people knew I was struggling, it would mean that I could not help others. I lowered my fees, gave away services to those who could not afford them until they could (sliding scale and pro bono work), and worked as many hours as I could to supplement my income. The harder I worked, the further I felt from staying above  ground. And yet, I still had no goals and no way out.

It was during this time that I thought of my childhood and what I had learned about money. My parents were immigrants who struggled to learn English and follow their dreams to make their financial dreams come true. I worked in their retail store when I entered high school, observing the ins and outs of business ownership. Sometimes they were just getting by and learned to make do with less. My mother used to buy her clothes at Kmart. I wore my sister’s hand-me-downs. We were told to never be too proud to take any job that would help us survive an economic crisis or misfortune.

My parents instilled in me a confidence that I am hard-working and have many choices available to me. When the economy tanked, it just seemed natural to rely on the knowledge that I could survive both the personal and the national crises. In 2010-2011 took the time to learn aspects of my business that others ignored, particularly in the area of technology and Social Media. I started to write again. I took a day job in healthcare to stabilize my income, and saw clients in the evenings to keep my practice alive.  I even took more gigs through my performance art, using weekend time to earn more. It was “just enough” to get by. But I did not sleep well. I would sometimes lay awake with worry.

This time around, I had more “money stories”; that is, I have more stories about how I feel about money by trying different things. The less I felt afraid, and the more I felt confident about making it, the easier it became to take steps that led to building my business. Yet that only seemed to happen when I confronted my own fears about money, and my unconfronted fear is that I had become lackadaisical about money planning. When I had money, I paid my bills. I bought the things I needed. I put money aside for healthcare and savings. Still, I didn’t plan to have more money, and I didn’t spend any extra time or energy determining what I would do with an excess.

There was my money disorder, as clear as daylight in a grey Seattle skyline. I can tell you, this isn’t a very wise way to think about money. It feels like just being a piece of a pipe that simply shunts a resource from one spot to another while you remain bone dry. Yet the minute I aligned my business plan with the opportunity to make money, the more I was able to give to others, help others, serve more people, and do more good. People paid for my services in counseling, consulting, performance art, and small business coaching. The painful feelings about making money went away. I am now really proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish with the help of a few key people who helped me set my money goals straight regarding my business.’


Money-Disordered Thinking

What are your thoughts about money? Here are a few people have shared with me over the years:

If I work hard, I’ll become a workaholic and I’ll lose my family and friends.

Money is evil. If I seek money, I will become enslaved to it.

If I make more money, I’ll become greedy and no one will like me.

If I make more money, my friends will expect me to pay for everything.

Everyone has debt, so why shouldn’t I? Isn’t this just “how it is?”

As long as I have a little money saved up, I should be OK.

Life is just suffering, and not having money is a part of suffering.

I shouldn’t have to work hard for money, so if a job is too hard for me, I shouldn’t have to do it.

Only people who are rich are depressed about money.

I don’t deserve to have money. 

Pretty crummy thoughts about money and work, right? Perhaps you have a set of your own  money-disordered thoughts.  It will serve you well to identify them and set them aside for a moment while I present to you a few very thoughts about overcoming your money disorders.


Overcoming Your Money Disorder

If you wish to break free from money-disordered thinking, you can. There was a way into this mess, and there is a way out.

1. First, you will need to change your language in order to change your thinking about your past thoughts about money. For example, you may be saying, “I can’t seem to stop spending more money than I make.” Change your language to, “I am recovering from my past practice of spending more money than I make.” If you don’t like the image of recovering, you can select something else, such as, “I am letting go of my past practice…”.

What you want to accomplish with changing your language involves opening up the way to move from negative thinking, which simply attracts more of the same behaviors, into positive actions, which gives you opportunities to try something different. For example, if you say, “I always feel depressed when I go to the store and I don’t buy something frivolous for myself”, you can try saying, “I feel good going to the store and purchasing what I need.”

2. Reassess your skills and your “givens”.  Taking inventory without judgment, along with the context in which you find yourself (i.e. need time to pick up kids from school, have an aging parent to care for, missing essential skills with computers), will help you prepare your questions and game plan for filling in gaps in your skill set as well as identifying career pathways you may not have considered before.

I’ve met many English majors who have gone into business rather than stay in the field of education along their original pathway out of college. Somewhere along the line, it didn’t dawn on them until much later that they were missing essential business skills. By pairing themselves up with other business owners and receiving coaching, they were able to break into a higher income level and achieve more success.

3. Expand the options of what is possible for you. You need to think outside the box when it comes to both the options of work and making money. If you work a job that makes $15/hour, it isn’t conceivable to simply work more hours at that job to make more money. You will exhaust yourself and your family life will suffer. Instead, it makes more sense to ask the question, “What can I do that I would enjoy that allows me to make more money than ___/hr?”

If you have no clue how to begin to answer this question, you are ready to consider attending a workshop about increasing your income potential. There are numerous motivational speakers and coaches who are adept at explaining the different ways there are to making money, with no limits based on the amount of college education you have completed, age, ethnicity, or gender. Two of the most recent people who have helped me in my own recovery (<— use the language!) from money-disordered thinking of the past are Patrick Snow and Jeffrey Combs.

One of the expansions I needed to experience was to see myself out of the context of my parent’s goals and dreams. My life looks very different from theirs, and yet I am also a happy person as I am. Letting go of their goals for me was an important part of my process of discovering that I wanted to become a writer. There are no writers by trade in my family, yet all of us possess the skills to write well. I discovered that along with my desire to heal people, I also wanted to write stories to inspire others. I simply needed to connect the dots in how writing could also be a part of my career and income path in the present and future.  While this decision initially caused one parent to express disappointment, I was able to continue with my goal without being emotionally derailed.

Do you see that it is no coincidence in considering my skill set without judgment, looking at my options, and expanding my interests, I selected a pathway that is not associated with an hourly wage or a financial limit? For one person, that same process will lead him or her to decide to learn about flipping houses, buying and selling real estate, or going into a multi-level marketing (MLM) business. Your process may lead you to a different conclusion. The point is, go through the process. Don’t skip it. 

4. Define your goals. I notice that when I don’t have a specific goal, I also don’t seem to get anywhere. To make money without a goal is bit like hopping into your car for a drive with no destination. You’ll feel busy, but eventually you’ll run out of gas and wonder where you are and how the heck you got there.

Once you have a goal in mind, you’re in a much better position to select appropriate avenues that will help you achieve your goal. You can gauge how long it would take to save the money you need, and it could help you curb frivolous spending. You’ll know when to say “yes” to something, and when to say, “no”.

5. Rid yourself of unsecured consumer debt. There are few money problems that are more devastating than unsecured credit card debt. Not only is the interest high, but if you get behind and are stuck paying only the principal on a balance, you will end up paying far more than what you owe.

After looking at some of my client’s financial information, I could see why they were depressed and exhausted. Without the hope of progress against a mounting balance, they felt paralyzed from enjoying life.  Instead of working in order to live life to the fullest, they were staying alive only to work so they could keep from defaulting on the loan against a house, or being hounded by creditors for missed payments.

If you find yourself in this position, you may need to seek help from a free financial advisor to create a plan to pay down your consumer debt. This may include contacting your credit card company about arranging an alternate plan of payment. It also means suspending any further spending using those cards. If you have an option to switch your high interest debt to a lower-interest program, do it. All you will need to do is have your income taxes and W-2’s ready for inspection, so a bank loan officer can assess your ability to pay the debt without defaulting. Bank loan interest rates are usually less than credit card companies; a credit union may provide the lowest rates available. I also recommend sharing your situation with your closest friends and family members. If they know what is going on and what you plan to do, they can be much more supportive than if they think nothing is wrong.

Once you have a plan in place, you can calculate your DOLP – date of last payment (this acronym was found in David Bach‘s books, including “Smart Women Finish Rich”). You can do this at the same time you work on finding other avenues for increasing your income and decreasing your spending.

6. Stop comparing yourself to other people. When you stop comparing your financial goals, income, and activities to others, you’ll feel much better. Part of the illusion of a money disorder is based on a fantasy of experiencing what others have without any of the pain, time, risk, or hardship involved.

Instead, write down your dreams about what the “good life” looks like to you. Only include the parts that are meaningful to you. Are you surprised to know that not everybody wants to be a millionaire in order to satisfy their wishes for financial stability? Would you be shocked to know that one person would like a condo in the city, while another believes the good life involves a second house in the country?  If being a millionaire is your dream, go ahead and write that down. Imagine what it would look like to earn that kind of income. What would you do with it? What would bring you satisfaction? Your dream should be your dream. It is your job to figure out what your dream is.

One of my working mottos is that with more money and resources comes more response-ability. If you don’t believe this, take a moment to read about what happened to pop star MC Hammer. He blew his money on expensive toys and buying other people’s dreams. Once the money dried up, he lost everything, including the people he thought were his friends. On closer inspection, it appears that he had attempted to purchase a fantasy life that was unsustainable, but the weird part of the story is that he wasn’t really enjoying himself.

One of the goals I have is to leave my private practice in a state that it can help another group of therapists carry on the work of providing mental health services and education long after I retire. The money I pour into my business comes back to me in the form of a livable income, but it also provides an avenue to educate and mentor others. This is part of what the “good life” means to me: leaving a legacy. I can’t put an exact figure to it, but if I include my costs to operate a business (let’s say it’s $15K a year) and subtract it from the net profit, that number is the figure I’m looking at to say, “Am I meeting my goal for what the financial part of the “good life” looks for me?” Three years ago, the answer was firm, NO. Since then, I’ve been unafraid to adjust what I’ve needed to in order to get the answer moving in the direction of a joyful yes. I’m looking forward to selling my business to a qualified owner, and watching that person enjoy the fruit of my labor. So far, I am so grateful for all the people I have been able to help with their personal problems, families, work, businesses, and reaching their goals and dreams. It is an honor and a real pleasure to be involved in the kind of work I do with each and everyone of my clients.

Now, do the same for your job or business, and subtract your monthly expenses. If what is left over leaves you saying, “No, I am not meeting my goal”,  then your next challenge is to consider why, and to consider what is holding you back, including your emotions and history with money. Again, consider not comparing yourself to anyone else, or anyone else’s goals for you.

No one can tell you what your goals are. You either come to terms with the fact that your goals are too small, too big, or just right. If you goal is to be able to work a 9-hour job five days a week so that in the evenings you can watch two hours of television in peace after dinner, that’s your goal. If your goal is to do that same job so that you can come home and work on a business project that will take two years to build before it might make a profit to help build a college fund for your kid or put yourself through an MBA program, that’s your goal. The point is to make your own goals, and stop yearning over what others want. Instead, own your own wants and desires.

This point is difficult for many people. Media constantly serves up status symbols in the form of cars, fame, fortune, and  — well, stuff! Money is also a thing, and it is no-thing. Money, for the most part, exists as numbers. In that sense, I agree with Jeffery Combs when he reminds people that money is just math; it’s just numbers. Your ideas, however, and your concepts about money, are very different from money. What you can do with money is subject of which you will find dedicated bookshelves in your local bookstore.

When you separate your ideas and concepts about what you would do with money from other people’s dreams about money, you are free to do all kinds of things! You can help educate children in small towns in Africa (my sister does this through her church). You can help restore an animal preserve with endangered species. You can invest in a non-profit company like Vittana committed to helping young adults finish college through the use of repayable micro loans. You can invest in a company who will make the first large molecule patch delivery system for insulin (my brother’s pharmaceutical company, Promethon Pharma, is doing that). The possibilities are endless. When your “good life” definition expands, guess what? Your income usually grows too.

When your feelings about money change and expand, you’ll likely see that positive feeling reflect in your income and savings, as well as your activities that help you make a contribution to your community.

What has been your experience with having a money disorder? Feel free to share here, or write me offline and indicate what you’d like me to anonymously share in the comments to this blogpost.

By Imei Hsu

Imei Hsu is a mental health counselor, active retired RN, AIP Coach and PN1-NC, writer, triathlete and arts promoter in the Seattle area and through online services. With 30+ years in healthcare (22+ years in mental health), Imei has a commitment to helping people discover insight into their health, relationships, and connecting. She is the owner of Seattle Direct Counseling and the blog, a presenter and speaker on a variety of psychological topics, and a positive force on the Internet. She launched her personal project, My Allergy Advocate, in 2018. Imei is a two-time Ironman Finisher (Mont-Tremblant 2016, Ironman Canada 2018); she also finished her first ultramarathon in 2017 and has gone on to race the 100K distance while preparing for 100 Mile trail races and a backyard ultra. You can find her running everywhere and eating all the thingz, watching movies, camping under the stars, and cooking real food.

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