What is money? Is it the paper bills balled up in your pocket? Is it the piece of plastic in your wallet? Is it a series of encrypted ones and zeroes flying through cyberspace? It’s all of these things, but it’s also none of these things. Because money is really nothing more than whatever we all agree upon as a means of exchange. In simpler times, we used a barter system. You have a chicken, I have a bag of beans. I want chicken for dinner, you were thinking of a hearty bean soup. You give me your chicken, I give you my sack of beans, all is right with the world. But maybe you don’t want beans. You really had your heart set on some nice brined cod. So instead, you give me your chicken and I give you a shiny rock that you can then exchange with someone else who has your salty fish. And just like that, money is born. But although the concept of money and how it works is fairly simple, the role it often plays in our lives is anything but simple. For some people, it’s the only thing they live for, while others are utterly terrified by it.
Does any of the following ring a bell? It’s the end of a long week and it’s time to unwind a little. You head out with some friends, or your spouse or partner, ready for a good meal and a cocktail (or three). The menus hit the table and where is the first place your eyes land? Not on the impressive array of delicious dishes on offer…but on the prices. Your stomach is crying out for the $42 filet mignon with truffle mashed potatoes, but your brain, or rather the emotional center of your brain, decides the $27 chicken breast with steamed broccoli is the more sensible choice. Now, fifteen dollars is not an insignificant amount of money. Depending on where you live, it’s three to five gallons of gas. It’s a ticket to a movie. It’s a month of Netflix. But, in the grand scheme of things, fifteen dollars isn’t going to break the bank. You’ll still be able to make the mortgage payment. You won’t need to put off retirement for an extra two years. And, I don’t mean to sound like an asshole here, but if opting for the filet means you literally won’t be able to put gas in your car the next day, you probably shouldn’t be going to a restaurant with a $42 steak on the menu in the first place. What’s really going on here has nothing to do with the numbers in front of the dollar sign, it’s about your emotional relationship with money.
When I was growing up, the only issue I had with money was that there never seemed to be any of it around. I didn’t have money. My parents didn’t have money. No one I knew had money. Whenever I got up the nerve to ask my dad for a few bucks, he’d usually come back with the classic gem that money doesn’t grow on trees. Sometimes he’d just hit me with the mystifying, “What do I look like?” He didn’t follow it up with “a bank?” or “Daddy Warbucks?” or “a loan shark?” Just, “What do I look like?” Despite the vagueness of the question, the meaning was clear: Don’t ask me for money. Most of the time I was looking to buy a part for whatever shitty car I was trying to get running so I could get to whatever shitty job I happened to have at the moment. I would look through car parts catalogs and think to myself, “How in the world can anyone possibly afford to buy this stuff?” Then I would think, “How in the world do these car parts manufacturers stay in business when no one can possibly afford to buy this stuff?” Because no one in my life ever had money, the messaging I received was that it must be hard to make money. Obviously, if it was easy, then everybody would have loads of it. The messaging solidified into the belief: “It’s hard to make money.”
But beliefs are not facts. Beliefs are merely opinions that we form based on whatever data is delivered into the programming center of our nervous system. And there may be nothing that triggers our nervous system more than our beliefs around money. Let’s take a minute to remember that our nervous system is composed of two parts: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is responsible for what we call “fight or flight” mode, and was developed over hundreds of thousands of years to protect us from actual physical danger like, say, a stampede of angry elephants, or a rival caveman with a bone to pick (or a bone to smash over your head). Today, the SNS still serves the same purpose, but with a scarcity of wild elephants roaming the suburbs, our fight or flight response is more likely to be triggered by non-physical threats, like when the Wi-Fi cuts out with a minute left in the last quarter.
If your emotional relationship around money is colored by anxiety, fear, or unworthiness, then as far as your nervous system is concerned, the $42 price tag on that steak might as well be a gun pointed at your head. Same thing when you see those rising gas prices or open that electricity bill in the middle of August. You have the money to pay for it. Hell, you might have a million dollars in the bank. It doesn’t matter because your nervous system has been programmed to have a particular emotional response when it comes to all things money. Some of you might have parents or grandparents who lived through the Great Depression. If that’s the case then you were probably overwhelmed as a child with very specific ideas about money. For people of that generation, the belief may not be “Money is hard to make” but rather, “Money is easy to lose”. And you were probably fed a steady stream of penny pinching, saving every dollar, and never spending money on anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Now just the thought of spending money on something like a nice steak dinner, even when you can easily afford it, feels dangerous, reckless, and irresponsible.
Or maybe you’re at the other end of the spectrum. You have no trouble at all spending money, which is, in fact, causing you all kinds of trouble. In the same way that some people use food, or sex, or drugs and alcohol to quell anxiety or other unwanted emotional states, others find relief in spending money. Boyfriend dumped you? A new wardrobe will take away the heartache. Feeling anxious about turning 40? That ‘69 Dodge Charger will do the trick. The boss has been riding you like an Italian tourist on a Vespa? Time to pull out the credit card and do some serious damage on Amazon. The truth is, you don’t really need any of those things. You might get a quick fix from a hit of serotonin, but your boyfriend is still hitting the bricks, your 40th birthday is still around the corner, and your boss is still going to be who they are when you show up for work tomorrow. Somewhere along the way, most likely from experiencing the way your parents dealt with stressful situations, your nervous system was trained to equate spending money with comfort and safety. Maybe your parents divorced when you were young and mom tried to bury her own feelings of guilt or remorse with frequent trips to the mall. Maybe you had a rough go in middle school and your parents showered you with gifts to try and ease the pain. Whatever the case may be, now you’re an adult and whenever your sympathetic nervous system gets triggered, your immediate and unconscious response is to reach for the wallet.
The good news is that just as your nervous system was trained early on to have certain emotional responses around money, you can retrain it to have the kinds of responses that are more aligned with the outcomes you’re looking for. Here’s a simple exercise you can try to recognize your emotional patterns around money and begin the process of untangling them: For one full week, before you pay a bill, buy a coffee or order something on Amazon, take a minute to stop and check in with yourself. Ask, “How am I feeling right now?” then write it down. You may find that just by pumping the brakes, you’ll reevaluate your decision to make the purchase in the first place. But, if after taking a minute to examine your feelings, you’re still thinking, “Hey, I really need this 24-pack of tube socks,” then go ahead and complete the transaction. Afterwards, stop and check in again. Ask, “How am I feeling?” and write it down. As the week goes on, look for trends in the emotions that show up before and after you spend money. Examine the quality of emotions that are present. Are they fear-based? Or love-based? If you don't love what you find, join us at a Power Series Weekend Intensive and we'll tune it up!
Here’s what our client, Constance, had to say after attending our Wealth 101 program: “(I learned) okay, this money comes in, how do I distribute it, how do I invest? And tying my emotional experience to practical action. And I’ve been in that system since we’ve done the program and it’s amazing to already see the results and the hope and the possibilities and inspiration that came from it. So I just have this whole new relationship with my money and enjoy it so much more and know what is possible and what I can create from it.”
The Power Series is designed to train you in the tools, strategies and techniques for evaluating and retraining the thoughts and emotions that drive actions. If your emotional patterns around money are driving actions that don’t align with your vision for the type of life you want to be leading, we probably have the answers you’re looking for. Click HERE to learn more about the Power Series and sign up today!