Money Doesn't Grow On Trees

As the holiday season approaches, we may notice a heightened sense of financial pressure in our clients (and ourselves). Earlier this year, I attended a group psychotherapy conference (AGPA) where one of the topics was Inter-generational trauma. Sometimes we have feelings (like anxiety or depression) that may not feel like our own feelings; it may feel like our feelings belong to someone else. These feelings may have been passed down from prior generations. I began thinking about financial anxiety and the way I sometimes worry about money during times when I have enough money. I learned about money from my parents, who learned about money from their parents. In his book Moneylove, Gillies (1978) writes about parental poverty messages. Parents say things like "Money doesn't grow on trees" or "Finish your plate there are children starving in Africa".   What kind of poverty messages did your parents give you?

My mother, a successful writer, was irresponsible with money, she would say "It's only money". When she had a book contract there was money coming in; during other times the credit card companies would call asking to be paid. I was responsible for answering the phone and telling American Express that my mother was not home. My mother's chaotic way of dealing with money was frightening to me as a child. I responded by practicing "money anorexia", holding on tight to my money and saving for emergencies. Money felt like security to me. The main text of Debtors Anonymous (DA), entitled A Currency of Hope, lists 12 signposts to becoming a compulsive debtor. One of the signposts is "Living in chaos and drama around money: Using one credit card to pay another, bouncing checks, always having a financial crisis to contend with." Money was associated with chaos and drama.

My grandmother, Millie, lived through the Depression. Like any good Italian grandmother, she got upset if we did not finish our food. Millie worried a lot about money (and other things). Millie was given adult size chores as a child and her mother (Great Grandma Cascino) continued to rely on her for help throughout her adult life. Great Grandma Cascino would summon Millie at any time of day or night to run errands. If Millie was in the middle of preparing dinner, she would take off her apron and dash out of the house to go help her mother. The strange thing was that Great Grandma Cascino was perfectly capable of getting things done without anyone's help until the day she died (she once hurt herself while moving a metal furnace). Italian children were taught to respect their fathers and mothers.

I'm pretty sure I was my grandmother's favorite grandchild. I spent many weekends at her house; where she taught me about cooking and attempted to show me how to sew. She opened a savings account for me and showed me the monthly deposits in what she called a "passbook". I learned to save and began squirreling away money at an early age. When I was 15 years old I had a paper route and worked as a babysitter. I worked hard to save up the money to purchase my first Onkyo stereo. Music was one of my favorite escapes as a child

Each year, on July 4th my grandmother would declare “The summer is over,” it was clear to me from an early age that Grandpa was the optimist in the family. Charlie Baldanza was not afraid to take risks with his money, he joined his father’s construction business and over time he helped grow the business into a highly profitable company. He was confident in his ability to earn money, often borrowing against the family home to fund the business. He believed in himself and did not worry about money.  Charlie was active in local Italian charities and generous with his love, time and money.  His attitudes about money and time are examples of what Gillies calls “prosperity thinking” the belief that money is a “never-ending event” and that there will always be enough.  My grandfather was responsible with his money and confident in his ability to succeed.  His company did well and he passed the business on to my uncle when he died.

My father’s father was also successful; he was a pioneer in the early days of cable tv and a shrewd investor in the stock market. He was also an alcoholic and not very kind or loving.  I am not sure about his attitudes toward money, he did have a reputation for being stingy.  My Italian family tells the story of my maternal grandparents driving several hours to visit my paternal grandparents in Florida. When they arrived it was lunch time and they were offered a small tray of crackers and cheese. This was a quite an insult, if you visited my Italian grandparents at any time of day or night you would be served a delicious, full meal.   I am not sure if my WASP grandparents realized the full extent of their cultural transgression.

My father started out in an entry level position at NBC and worked his way up the ladder to becoming a successful radio advertising salesman during the 1960s, the “Mad Men” days.  He was very generous with his money but not very good at long term financial planning.  Another signpost from Debtors Anonymous is- “Poor saving habits. Not planning for taxes, retirement or other nonrecurring but predictable items, and then feeling surprised when they come due; a “live for today, don’t worry about tomorrow” attitude”.  My own attitude about money represents a blend of my parents and grandparents. I have an entrepreneurial spirit (like both of my grandfathers) and enjoy working for myself. I am a planner and a recovering worrier (like Grandma Millie). During my years in the corporate world I was diligent about funding my 401K and making sure I had a healthy emergency fund.  I continued to view money as a source of security as opposed to Gillies’ idea that money is a never-ending event.  It took me nearly five years to make the decision to go back to school to become a psychotherapist.  I was concerned about starting a new business and giving up the predictable income I had earned in technology. The structure and heavy workload of the technology world felt so safe and familiar to me; it was like losing a close friend.  When I returned to graduate school I took out student loans and had to use every spiritual tool I possessed to maintain my serenity. Like my grandfather Charlie, I was willing to take a chance on myself to pursue my dream and create the life I wanted.

The Debtors Anonymous (DA) program’s main text is titled A Currency of Hope. The stories are great whether you struggle with debt (often from credit cards), are an “under earner” or are just anxious about money.  DA has a great website which includes a quiz to see if you might have a problem with compulsive debting.  One of the DA “signposts” is being unclear about your financial situation.  DA recommends “keeping your numbers”.  You might create a spreadsheet or buy a notebook and track your spending every day.  This will help you gain clarity over your financial situation and may lead you to brew your own morning coffee when you realize your monthly Starbuck’s bill is the equivalent of a car payment. Or the opposite may happen and you will discover that you might need to relax about money and treat yourself.

As I continue to explore my relationship with money, I want to recommend several additional books that have been helpful to me. Earn What you Deserve, by Jerrold Mundis examines the way our beliefs and attitudes about money impact our earning power and our experience in life.  It’s Not About The Money, by Brent Kessell explores eight financial archetypes and how to identify your spending type.  Finally, Chellie Campbell wrote a book called The Wealthy Spirit.  I read the daily affirmations in her book every day when I returned to school; she has a great sense of humor.  I will close with one of my favorite quotes from Chellie’s book “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”—Carl Sandburg.