I have been thinking about money a lot lately. Or rather: I have been observing the way I think about money, and how I handle money.
Three things have triggered this sudden interest: First off, I am at my grandparents‘ house, and a lot of family-related issues have surfaced since my arrival, the importance of success, prestige and financial wealth being a dominant theme. Second, I have come across the blogs of two women who talk about how to deal with money issues in a way that really speaks to me (Mara Stix and MyMoneyMind – both in German). Third, for the first time in my adult-life, I don’t have an income. I am currently living on my savings. Some days that feels like the greatest luxury, other days it terrifies me.
The money mystery
Not all of the insights that keep coming are new, but what is new is that for the first time in my life I am taking an active interest in my financial situation. I am realizing how much my avoiding the topic has been connected to my fear of lack of control. I have mostly lived with the feeling that I can afford everything I really want to do – which is not a bad place to start. However, since I avoided thinking about money, I always felt a powerlessness, both regarding my income and my expenses. It seemed like a kind of magic: if I went into my savings because I wanted to travel, money suddenly appeared (often only after I bought the tickets). The times I did try to take responsibility, I thought tracking my expenses was the best way to gain control – but suddenly all I saw was money running through my fingers like sand, and I hated the feeling of having to think over every cent I spent. It made me feel poor, even though technically I wasn’t.
I wasn’t able to connect the dots, so I thought that it was best for me not to actively think about money – I thought that was the part that made it „disappear“ because whenever I just did what I felt like, I was fine! I honestly thought that thinking about money was the problem. I am taking the liberty to blame my German heritage at least partly for that – just look at German expressions and proverbs about money, and you’ll understand: money stinks; stinking rich; Money isn’t something you talk about, it’s something you have; … the list goes on, not everything translates well but you get the gist.
This is also where family history comes into play: like everything else, my family’s values and ideas about money shaped my own values and ideas about money. Since I avoided thinking about money, I naturally was blind to how my family’s way of handling money had shaped my own view on it.
So here are the facts: I have never been actually poor. Even as a kid, my parents (and my grandparents, too) had savings accounts for us, so as an adult it was a given for me to keep it that way. I have gone into these savings whenever I wanted to travel or if I really wanted to buy something that my regular income didn’t cover. I have never spent any money I didn’t have, meaning, I have always made sure my credit cards had their limit at the amount that the balance on my account covered. I have been fortunate to have parents who paid for my university studies. The only time I went into debt was when I bought a house with my boyfriend. And even then, we would have had the means to pay cash, and that was the main reason we felt comfortable taking the loan. (Before you get the idea that I am loaded: houses on the Swedish countryside are ridiculously cheap, at least in the less populated areas, for obvious reasons – lack of jobs, schools, etc.) Since I no longer own that house, I don’t have that mortgage anymore, either.
All that sounds pretty good, right? Then here’s the real question: how is it possible for someone like me to have money issues? How could I for even the fraction of a second be under the impression that I am poor – let alone for longer periods of her life? The answer, as the a fore-mentioned blogs reminded me, is that wealth has less to do with your bank account balance than your state of mind. The Secret, anyone?
Abundance and scarcity – It’s all in your mind
According to the law of attraction, what you think is what you get. When you experience yourself as being in a state of abundance internally, abundance is what you get externally. Same goes for scarcity, of course. That explains why money always „magically“ appeared, when I decided to spend it on something that wasn’t a necessity for survival but just something I knew I’d enjoy. You can only make that kind of decision out of a sense of abundance, with the confidence that you’re provided for, that the money you’re spending on something fun won’t be missing when it’s time to pay the rent. The law of attraction is also the explanation why money suddenly seemed to be disappearing whenever I focused on money: the only way of focusing on money I knew was looking at the expenses. Naturally that created a sense of scarcity, which in turn invited scarcity into my life.
In the past few days I have been observing myself, and experimenting with some of the insights I’ve had.
How much money does it take to feel rich?
I started tracking my expenses shortly before I understood that the focus on them can produce the scarcity-mindset that leads into panic. After giving it some thought, I decided that I’d continue anyway because I wanted to know how much I need to live comfortably. Of course, the sky is the limit but sometimes it helps to have an actual number. It feels easier to think, „OK, I need X€“ thank thinking „I need a lot of money“. What was even more surprising: My X turned out to be not even a crazy high number. I have only been tracking my expenses for little over a month but I am seeing that I’m nowhere even near that number, and I have been making an effort to not be cheap. That was one of things I had promised myself: if I was going to live on my savings, I didn’t want to do it feeling like I can’t afford anything. I mean, savings are finite, so I obviously need a new source of income at some point. I’d rather have short while of fun with my money than a long period of dreading every cent I’m spending of it. From that perspective, keeping track has calmed my mind tremendously, and has reduced that aspect of lack of control. Just goes to show that it’s not what we do, it’s how we do it that makes all the difference.
Napkins, prayers and wedding dresses
Speaking of intention: I found that when it comes to spending money, how I feel about it has often very little to do with the actual amount.
The other day I found myself fretting over buying paper napkins. I was standing in front of the shelf thinking „Yeah, but I don’t really need those. Sure, these are prettier but I still have napkins at home, better use those up first.“ Then I realized: I was acting as if this were a life-and-death-situation when in fact it was napkins – that cost 99c! Also, the reason why I still had napkins at home was that I never wanted to use them because they were depicting a scene from a children’s book in which a teacher is chastising his student. (I’d really like to meet the genius that thought „Hey, this’ll make for great merchandise – how about some napkins!“. No wait, I don’t.) I came to my senses and bought the happy napkins. Really, they have hearts and birds and little doodles and it even says „Happy“ on them!
The next „exercise“ was more legit: taking my wedding dress to the dry-cleaner’s because I was planning on selling it. I learned that depending on the dress, it was going to cost somewhere between 75 and 140€. If you consider how my mind felt about the napkins you can do the math and figure out how it felt about that … Was I even going to get that money for the dress?! Heck, I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to sell it at all – not because of the dress but because I don’t consider myself to be a good sales-person (that’s another story for another time). Then it occurred to me that this was just what I needed as incentive. If it costs that much to clean it (and I knew I wouldn’t have the guts to only pretend I cleaned it and sell it as is), there was no way that I wasn’t going to sell the dress. So the same mind that almost wasn’t going to spend 99c on napkins was suddenly ok with spending up to 140€ not knowing whether that would turn out to be money down the drain or an investment. (Still not a life-and-death-situation, though.)
As I approached the dry-cleaner’s with my dress the next day, I noticed how much I was worked up over the whole situation. Of course, it was more than the money – I clearly hadn’t really come to terms with the whole decision to sell my wedding dress … I stopped, took a deep breath and prayed. More specifically, I prayed for help to let go of my fears, to stay with love, and for the whole situation to resolve itself in the best way possible, regardless of my fears. This is what happened: when the lady at the dry-cleaner’s saw my dress she said: „OK, this may have been your wedding dress, but here it’s an evening gown. That’ll be 17€.“
Do I think that was an answer to my prayer? Maybe. OK, I do. But I am not sure that that prayer was my prayer. Maybe the fact that I had made a deliberate choice to be fine with the cost and not fret over it was that prayer already. Maybe that was the step that was enough to tell the universe I was ready, that it was OK to come and meet me (more than) half-way. Maybe that prayer on top was just for me and my fear. Maybe it got me an additional discount. I don’t know.
I have been doing a lot more things since then: taking my beloved cat wrist watch in to get fixed (it was so cheap that the cost of fixing it was absurdly disproportionate to the original price). Buying a new pair of glasses AND sunglasses even though I don’t „need“ them (everything is relative – I’ve had my glasses for 9 years, and besides, some might say that there are more decadent things to own than a second pair of glasses). Buying a bunch of flowers for the house (my no. 1 quick fix tip for creating spaces with a sense of abundance when a place is lacking that feel). Eating out (I haven’t felt like cooking or doing the dishes lately, so I decided that it’s time to take a break at least some days).
The luxury of not buying something
As I am conducting my little experiments, I notice several things:
1. I can afford everything I really want because none of the things that I find pleasure in turn out to cost as much money as my fear wants to make me believe. For instance, I have no desire for objects that are mere status symbols. I tried on two pair of sunglasses that looked almost identical. Both were brand names but one was about half the price of the other. Of course I didn’t get the expensive one, just because it had the Michael Kors logo! I don’t think I will ever define wealth as the ability to afford brand names for their own sake. (Which is not to say I judge people who do – if it makes you happy, it’s cool. It’s just not me.)
2. When my mind is in a state of abundance, I actually buy less of certain products. I used to buy a lot of groceries in bulk – because it’s „cheaper“ that way. I bought stuff just because it was on sale. I bought things „just in case“. All of these types of purchases come from the scarcity mindset. The amount of money you spend on those can just as easily add up to a small fortune – or even a large one. I love having an empty fridge because that makes it easier for me to eat whatever I feel like on any given day. If the fridge is full, I feel burdened by the „task“ of taking care of its content before it goes bad.
3. When I am in a state of abundance, I suddenly have to focus more on what I really want. I wouldn’t buy a pair of glasses that cost a fortune when I don’t feel like they’re „totally me“. However, I have probably spent a fortune on things that were not „totally me“ – just because they were cheap. Abundance then is not just being able to afford „expensive stuff“ – it is also being able to afford not buying something that doesn’t feel 100% right. In that sense, I can feel rich not buying something. It is about living in the awareness that I am provided for, always.
You may have noticed that my focus here was purely on the expense side. That’s because the income side has been even more „magical“ in the bewildering and confusing sense to me. I am in the process of changing that but not quite at a point where I have anything ready for sharing yet. If things keep going the way they are right now, that is going to change.
On control and powerlessness
When we don’t live our light, our shadows step in. One of mine comes in the form of eating disorders, which I have struggled with since I was 15. Depending on my life situation, they are a more or less dominant part in everyday life. I am only now understanding in what ways they have served me.
I have always been terrified of that part of me. Not only did it seem uncontrollable, it seemed to be controlling me. I used to try and fight that part, not understanding that it was no accident that that only made it worse.
What I know now:
1. The eating disorder kicks in when I feel like I am not in control of things – more specifically, when I cannot accept that feeling of not being in control. Suppressed fear of control results in actual (self-induced) loss of control. Sounds simple but I could not see that connection until recently.
2. There is no winning in fighting. I can only lose if I try to wage a war on myself (or anyone else for that matter). As long as I hate that part of me that seems so out of control and destructive, it will control me. That is not winning.
3. Only when I allow myself to see that this dis-order is the (misguided) attempt to serve an actual need, am I able to find ways to truly fulfill that need without self-destruction. When I started to search for a way to live with myself, to live with my eating disorder, that was when it started to loosen its grip on me.
That meant accepting two things: 1. I am not in control of everything (and sometimes of nothing at all), 2. I am terrified of that feeling. Yeah, it’s the second one that is the biggie. What happens when I binge-eat is that I try to suppress and mollify those feelings. At the same time, this creates (more) suffering. In that sense the destructive nature of this habit is doing the exact same thing that I am trying to avoid: forcing me to face my truth – the fact that I am full of fear of not being in control.
The fear of not being in control naturally comes from experiences where my own powerlessness seemed to threaten my life or at least my well-being. My childhood like many others was full of those experiences (I also believe this is a theme we all have spent numerous lives exploring). Who does not have a memory of a situation where you found yourself at the mercy of others who were unable or unwilling to use their power over you with kindness?
The truth is this: there is nothing we could have done in those situations. That is the real misunderstanding, the origin of this need for control: the belief that if only we had done this or that, things would have turned out right. When it comes to abusive relationships where one experiences being at the mercy of the other, there is in fact nothing one can do right within that relationship. As a child we can hardly walk away from that. That’s what second chances (karma) are for.
As an adult I drew a work situation into my life that gave me a chance to re-live that feeling of complete powerlessness, of not being able to deal with a person who did not only not care about my well-being but who was perfectly willing and capable of throwing me under the bus if it served her agenda. When the scenario in my mind was at its worst, I felt like Alice in Wonderland who didn’t know whether the Queen of Hearts was going to invite her to a round of cricket or call her henchmen to decapitate her. It took me a while to get through the panic and see that my life was not in fact threatened. That my mind was reacting to an echo from the past. That this time I could in fact walk away, and that that was the only thing I could do right.
As I wrote in my post on How to deal with conflicting emotions:
Our ego is a lot less in control than it likes to make us believe. When I look back at my life, I was hardly ever aware of the significance of the events that really shaped its course. The things that seemed important, which I worked myself up over, turned out not to be. The things that were, were never entirely up to me. In fact, I could even “mess them up” and “somehow” they worked out anyway – because that was the way things were needed to be for me to stay on my path.
For the most part of my life, I have poured my energy into all the things I had no power over: the milestones that were already set, the situations and people I could not change. It’s only in the recent past that I began to see where my power is truly effective and needed: that it’s all the little things in between, the ones that aren’t the game changers but the ones that „fill out the space“ between the big events. I’ve come to believe those are my life. Or rather, they determine what kind of life I am leading, whether it’s happy or not.
With all that in mind, I’d like to re-adjust what I said about acceptance of not being in control. I don’t want to accept the fact that I am not in control of parts of my life. I want to embrace it. I want to enjoy the fact that a burden has been lifted from my shoulders – because that is what this really is, when you walk around thinking that you have to fix the big stuff all by yourself. One false move and you’ve ruined everything! Who wants to live like that? Not me.
So what to do with all that freed up energy? Put it into making sure all the small stuff in between is as light and happy as possible.