I remember coming home one day and the utilities had been cut off. There was no running water. My father said, “Oh shit” when he came home. He ran out the door. I guess he finally drove down to the utilities company and paid the bill only after they cut us off.
Meanwhile I’m wondering why everyone I know has running water except me.
This happened a few times. And it wasn’t exactly that there was no money. My father was either so depressed or so drunk that he couldn’t bring himself to pay the utility bill until he was forced to.
Now I’m not sure why my father was in charge of paying the bills. But at some point my mother had enough. She took over. The utilities stopped getting shut off, but I think she was a little bit shocked at how much credit card debt there was.
So that’s one story about money that has dominated my life. But it wasn’t as harmful as the stories I heard. My father had an extremely antagonistic attitude towards rich people, towards the attainment of financial success. He particularly got angry when people moved up in the world, maybe because he felt (incorrectly) that such stories challenged his belief that we all live in an unfair universe where the rich oppress the poor. Or maybe he was just jealous.
In any case, he judged himself (and others) by how the community perceived him. He was obsessed with image, but not success. So he was a pastor who worked with low income people. Which was fine, but sometimes he didn’t get paid. And he never got a raise in over twenty years of work. And he refused to put in any effort to raise money for his church, instead relying on institutional support from his old friends at a central office.
And, as the credit card debt story shows, he wasn’t particularly responsible financially.
Needless to say, this is a toxic set of stories about money. How did I react to these family stories?
Like most people, in some ways I rebelled completely but in other ways I submitted. I rebelled by being absurdly financially responsible. I absolutely always paid every bill on time. Even when I was working for minimum wage, which I did for years, I saved money. And I never asked my parents or anyone else for support.
On the other hand, I also submitted. I wasted years being terrified of success.
But either way, whether I was rebelling or submitting, those family stories still had all the power. They were setting the terms. Rebelling didn’t free me and it didn’t empower me. It just created a new sort of cage, where I never wanted to spend money even when it would make me happy and I never wanted to ask for help.
How did I get free from those stories?
Not by self-examination or internal change. I got free by constantly making new friends with people who had learned very different stories about money. I became friends with people who were massively more successful than I am and also people who were on and off again homeless. I became part of social circles where the entire group had different beliefs about money.
In other words, I became a part of new families. As these new families became more important to me, the old family stories started to fade. They became mere intellectual beliefs. And mere intellectual beliefs, unlike emotional habits, are judged by evidence.
I never believed I would own a house. I never believed I would be financially independent. But I became a part of new families (such as networks of professionals and entrepreneurs) where it was just assumed that everyone eventually buys a house. As I played my role in those families, I became the role that I played. And I ended up doing things I never believed I would do.
And no matter what family attitudes you have inherited about money, I don’t think there is some easy way out. I doubt the effectiveness of self-help. If you want to change your stories, you may have to join or form new families. You will definitely have to play new roles that will be very uncomfortable at first.
Now your story is probably very different than mine. Here are some common ones.
The man who is terrified of making more money than his father made. The woman who won’t let herself make more than her husband (or even ex-husband.) The working class person who deeply believes that they don’t “deserve” a house, a retirement, or nice things in general. The kid who grew up rich who thinks they do deserve nice things even if they never work for them.
Here’s a really common story. “My life has been so hard. I’ve suffered so much. I deserve to have a new car, an expensive…”
Listen to me. No one deserves anything, one way or the other.
But I’m not sure how helpful it is to try to challenge these unique family stories on an individual level. Arguing just makes people defensive. And nothing that I can say is as useful as the deep emotional change that occurs when you start to form and join new families, and start to play new roles. I do, however, want to offer something. So here it is.
There is a reason I told the story about my father being too drunk to pay the utility bill. Be honest. When you read that, did you think something along the lines of, “How ridiculous!” Or, “How pathetic!” Or, “God that’s just weird.” Or, “Man I feel sorry for that guy. Depression sucks.” Or, “This isn’t even about money! It’s about alcoholism.”
OK, here’s the deal. Your own family stories about money are probably that ridiculous. You just don’t see it that way because they are YOUR stories. So they seem powerful. But they’re not. They’re weak. They’re frail. They’re flimsy. They’re just about human failings.
The family stories that I wasted so much time rebelling against or submitting to were never powerful stories in the first place. They were just mine.
So I gave them away.