Rewriting My Money(Love) Story

When you start getting serious about turning your desperation into inspiration (which has pretty much been my process over the last year or so), you start thinking about what’s holding you back from all different kinds of things. As always, the things that hold us back in life are usually ourselves. 

Now that I’m running a business full-time (after having taken The Flying Leap into self-employment in November after quitting my day job), I’m thinking about money all.the.time. Turns out that money is one of the places in my life I’ve struggled the absolute most in life. Money, for me, is tangled up with a whole lot of other emotionally charged things, including love and food.

I’ve operated through most of my life with a scarcity mentality. Despite a middle-class upbringing, I perceive scarcity in everything because my earliest experiences in life were all about scarcity. (I know that this is different than growing up with actual scarcity. If growing up with scarcity is your story, I don’t want to diminish or dismiss the very real effects of material scarcity. My life experiences have led me to struggle with emotional scarcity, which nevertheless shows up as perceptions of scarcity of all kinds that often times aren’t real. Old beliefs die hard.) In my case, being relinquished for adoption as an infant taught me that love is scarce, temporary, painful, and will probably disappear at any given moment. The child me later interpreted my relinquishment as clear evidence of my own worthlessness (do you leave or give away things that are precious and invaluable?) and undeserving state, which shaped my later attitudes about money.  Being adopted does weird things to your head and heart in terms of self-image, self-worth, and ideas about scarcity.

I’ve been trying to rewrite my money, love, and food stories this year. Reframing the money story has been particularly difficult, as those beliefs go deep, deep, deep. Here’s what I’m learning: like most things in life, money is just a relationship that we’re having with resources. Like any other relationship, our relationship with money can be positive or negative or somewhere in between (in Facebook parlance, “It’s complicated.”). But I’m done having a poor relationship with money, one based on lack and scarcity. As always, my relationship with money is only as good as my relationship to myself. I’m focusing on loving myself more and better all the time.

I’m working on shifting my scarcity mentality. I started thinking recently about how we so often say, “I’m broke” to describe a state of not having money. Literally. Broke. Think about it. Broke. Broken. I have decided to stop describing my financial state in this way. I’m not broken in any sense of the word (financially, emotionally, spiritually, or in any other way). I’ve gotten serious about watching my language around money. Even better than never again describing myself as broken, I’ve decided to also pay attention to how I talk about making and having money: deserve, create, make, worthy, limitless, and have as opposed to want, need, don’t have, lack, never, too expensive, finite, limited, and “for other people.”

 My massive student debt from graduate school had been causing the biggest emotional and mental drain on my money attitudes. I would sometimes sit and think about the enormity of it and collapse into a pile of despair, shame, and self-recrimination. I’d read news articles about undergraduates with $30k in student debt and think “I WISH.” Lots of graduate students (including me) borrowed huge student loans to make up the difference between “full funding” (OMG I’m still sort of hate laughing about this) and the financial realities of our actual lives. (While I was in graduate school, my old car needed new struts, front and back, and some other stuff, which cost me $800. How was I going to afford that on my TA paychecks?? It was either more student loan money or a credit card. Pick the method with the better interest rate.)

One of the things that’s the most difficult about graduate education is this: you’re essentially losing almost ten productive years of your life to pursue a degree that probably won’t lead to employment in that thing. (This, of course, varies by field. And this is not to say that you can’t make a lot of money or find happiness outside of academia.) You’re living in poverty for almost a decade, which means laughable paychecks and no ability to save for big things, including retirement or a real home furnished with something other than secondhand Ikea furniture. 

But I absolutely refuse to be resigned to debt servitude for the rest of my life. I’ve made paying down debt a priority this year. I’ve been working on shifting towards an attitude of gratitude about it. I’ve been thinking about how my student loans provided me money at the moment that I needed it to finance my education, which I value and love. (Keep in mind that trying to cultivate gratitude towards my own student loan doesn’t mean that I think anyone else should go into six-figure debt for a PhD in the humanities. I’m just saying that it seems like a waste of emotional energy to keep feeling ashamed and bad about my student debt now that I’ve got it.)  I didn’t blow my student loan money on booze and Netflix; I made the best decisions I could with it at the time. I’m thinking a lot more about the things that my student loan did for me: it funded conferences, a two year sojourn in Guatemala, archival research, groceries, car repairs, many plane tickets, and a whole lot of other stuff.

One of the best cures for underlying negative beliefs is to take focused, inspired, and concrete actions that directly counteract the negative beliefs. I’m budgeting in new ways this year, which was a decision made partly out of a new year’s resolution and partly out of the realization that I needed to get serious about money. I started budgeting this year with You Need a Budget (YNAB), which I’d heard about for years and yet never tried (I’m not affiliated with YNAB—I just really like their method and software). I’m still getting the hang of it but it seemed like a revelation because of its immediacy as opposed to the future forecasting I’d always tried and failed at (hard to budget for money that you’re always afraid won’t be there). I’d been tracking money with Mint for a few years, but felt like it was too easy to ignore. I would go weeks without checking balances because I couldn’t bear to see how little money I had. 

I quit balancing my checkbook twenty or so years ago because I couldn’t stand the massive anxiety I felt whenever I did. Back in the day when we all used (paper!) check registers, I actively avoided ever writing in my check register and trying to figure out how little  money I had left. I couldn’t even look at the thing, because subtracting money out of my check register felt like staring looming scarcity in the face. I would start to panic about how little money I had because my faulty emotional wiring system made everything around me look like scarcity. To relieve my money anxiety, I opted for the hope and pray method, never sure of how much money (or love) I had in my life at one time. I once narrowly avoided bouncing a rent check by the grace of the twenty-four cents still left in my checking account.

Part of shifting my scarcity mentality is dealing with my propensity to hoard money (and love), which leads to thinking about money (and love) as a finite resource. YNAB has helped with this because I’ve budgeted spending money on stuff I want into my budget. Like, it’s money that I should actually spend (and enjoy spending—yikes!) because I’ve set aside money for it. Spending money (even though the emotional anesthesia of buying needless stuff sometimes feels pretty great) used to give me a lot of anxiety because I was afraid that spending money would inevitably lead to running out of money. Here’s my new approach: it’s okay to spend some money, particularly on yourself. I don’t feel guilty about spending money on myself any more because I have made a category specifically for this.

I’m creating places for money to go and purposes for money. I’ve honestly believed for many years that purchasing my own home was out of my reach. It seemed like something for other people who were not me. There was literally no room in my financial goals or budget for home ownership because I didn’t think it was possible. I decided to change that this week and create a budget category that just says, “Home.” I funded my home category with a very modest $25. But its there and will be taking shape as an actual thing in the months and years to come. I’ve also made some categories for other things I’d like to do, like buy another (used) car eventually, attend a training for a prison teaching project in 2019, and possibly save up money to go to my annual meeting. (For reals, if the big annual meetings actually want to support independent scholars, they should create some travel scholarships. But I’m not holding my breath.) The point is that I’d never really thought about what kind of life I might like to fund nor made any concrete plans to create that life.

I’m meditating on all of the above.  

What are you doing to shift your money story this year?


Cover photo credit goes to Photo by lucas Favre on Unsplash.