In America today you're more likely to know how often your friends have lovers, flings, affairs or sex with their partner than you are to know their salary or hourly wage. Money seems to be the most taboo subject around, despite the frequent discourse about gas prices, sales and cost of living.
Do your parents know how much you make? What about your friends or children?
I get uncomfortable telling anyone I've had a financial break of any kind. It makes me worry that people will be less likely to give me things or do things for me. I worry that they might not want to be kind and charitable toward me, or even friendly, if they think I'm privileged, lucky or rich.
This worry has been subconscious and buried. I didn't realize how strong a hold it had over me until these past few months. The full significance of it hit me when I realized I was not telling my husband about various blessings, such as book sales or a friend giving us $100 to rent our place for a week while we're away. Why would I keep my husband from feeling relief and happiness?
When I notice things like this in myself, I use consciousness techniques to explore my subconscious for answers. When searching through my memories I landed on several poignant incidents, all of which I'm going to share with you today in this blog post.
I recall my mother saying, "Don't tell your father. He'll think we have a lot of money and we really don't." And at a different time, years later, she said, "Every time we have a little extra money your father finds a way to spend it all."
These statements, whether true or not, had a profound impact on my concepts about money. In introspection, I've repeatedly found a fear of showing others any abundance that I am experiencing. In a way, I wrote Living Big & Traveling Far on $8,000 a Year (or Less!) as part of an emotional growth process.
It took a lot of courage to fully disclose how much money I make, how I spend all of it, and how I spend my time besides. I was confronting my fear about flaunting my abundance as well as confronting my fear about disclosing my finances at the same time. I felt the internal tug-of-war every time I sat down to write or edit another chapter.
To be honest, I'm more comfortable talking about my sex life than my finances! Until this year, my friends really did know more about my romantic life than my fiscal one. Now, with the publishing of my book, I've flipped that around and disclosed my assets, my schedule, my lifestyle, and my budget to anyone who reads my book. And guess what? Most of my friends have now read it! What a turn around!
It is liberating and scary. To be judged for how much money you make (or don't make) feels terrible. (Which is why my real friends don't judge me for that of course!)
I cringe inside when acquaintances call me "privileged" for buying organic food. I use my low income almost as a defense. "Oh really!" I exclaim. "Well, I bet I make less than half what you do! So what is your excuse?" This snappy sort of answer is really a backlash from my own internal hurt. Of course, I've never responded quite like that, but I've been tempted to.
I'm like a child begging for approval by choosing organic, saying, "Look! I buy quality food and fabrics!"
And they're like a defensive child saying, "I'm not a bad person by buying what I buy! Stop accusing me! You're just privileged!"
And then I'm like a hurt and defensive child saying back, "I am not! Look I make less than you do! You're just stupid for not managing your budget better!"
And then they cry and run away. And then I look down and feel sheepish and then start crying too.
When you see the adult interaction, it looks calm and may even be masked with smiles. But now I'm beginning to see better. The idea of "growing up" is naive. We're all still little children inside, begging for approval and easily hurt by what others say and do. The dream of becoming mature is a lie.
Ever seen that meme that says, "Don't grow up. It's a trap."? There is wisdom in that.
Being "grown up" is about taking responsibility for your actions and doing your best to meet your own needs. You can do that by the time you're four or five years old.
After that, the rest is just domestication.
What do I mean by that? I mean that it is training to live in an artificial society that is not your natural environment. Just like the dog has to be trained not to bark too loud, not to pee indoors, and not to damage furniture, we too have to be trained against our natural instincts.
We're taught not to express when we're sad or angry. We're shown that tears are wrong, and that they make you weak and contemptible. We're taught to use "indoor voices" and not to run when we're feeling energetic. We're taught to "calm down" and "sit still."
Then we wonder why adults need counseling for their repressed anger. Then we wonder why men (and women) seem so insensitive and not compassionate. We wonder why so many people are shy and afraid to speak. We wonder why so many people are lethargic, apathetic and overweight. Is it really any wonder?
I'd like to share with you some more excerpts from my past that shaped my own personal understanding of how taboo the subject of money is.
When I was nine or ten I had the idea that I wanted to please my mother because she was such a good mother. Starting in May or June I began buying things in unusual places for her. One of those items was a hand-crafted dragon ring made of metal. I picked it out at a summer artist festival. I had carefully tried on my mom's rings so I knew exactly how the size of her fingers compared to mine, so I was able to have the artist adjust the ring exactly to her size.
I bought many other trinkets, but I don't recall what they all were. Likely there were note pads, small pens, a traveling sewing kit, small scissors, socks, a small doll, and another dragon statue or necklace. Those were all things I gave her at one point or another, if not that year.
I had filled her stocking to the brim with things for her. Each item was selected with care, joy and love. I felt so delighted and pleased with myself. I was beaming with pride as she went through the items. She kept looking up and me and saying things like, "Where did you find something like that?" She was astonished.
I had come up with the money slowly and carefully. I had asked for ten dollars here, five dollars there. At one point a cousin had paid me $40 to babysit for her. Over the course of the year my mom had said a couple times, "What are you spending your money on?" "Where is all this money going?" She didn't understand it because no new Barbie dolls were appearing, which was my usual choice of purchase.
When she got to the ring at the toe of her stocking I was very eager for her to try it on. She did and it fit perfectly. It was perhaps a little tight for going over the knuckle, but that also meant it wouldn't fall off. I felt incredibly smart. Look at how happy I could make my mom!
In my prideful glee I boasted, "Remember how you asked where all the money was going?"
My mom didn't respond to this remark, and neither did anyone else. My Aunt, two cousins and my father were also present.
I repeated my question with slightly different phrasing. My mom gave me a look and said, "Yes, yes," in a sort of way that implied what I was saying or asking was inappropriate.
Suddenly I was highly embarrassed. I was reminded of an earlier lesson.
When learning to wrap Christmas presents when I was seven or eight I had asked my mom, "Why do you remove the price tag?"
"Well, I don't want them to see that it was on sale for so cheap. They might feel somewhat cheated, or like I don't value them," she said.
I thought about it for a while as the wrapping continued. She showed me how to cut the wrapping paper completely straight by carefully creasing the paper and then cutting it along the fold with a knife. She showed me how to make it so that no tape showed by using double-stick tape. She showed me how to get the wrapping paper perfectly snug on the box so that it didn't wrinkle or bubble up anywhere.
"What if the present was really expensive? Then would it be okay to leave the price tag on?"
My mom stopped and thought about this. "Maybe, but usually not. You don't want them to feel guilty that you spent so much, or feel obligated to return a gift of equal value. It might make them feel embarrassed. Or they might even feel that the gift wasn't worth what you spent on it, which would prevent them from appreciating it for what it was. It is just always best to remove the price tag, no matter what it says."
"Oh. I hadn't thought of that." As I continued to think about it, none of that seemed to matter to me. I just liked being given something nice. I didn't care if it had been on sale, if it was really cheap, or if it was really expensive. The only part that I could relate to was that I might feel more hesitant and more careful if I knew something was really expensive. (And at the time, something costing more than $40 was really expensive to me.)
My mom had explained to me why showing specific prices were taboo. But it wasn't until that particular Christmas a couple years later that I realized the subject of money being spent on gifts at all was taboo.
I fully internalized that it was taboo to the point where I stopped thinking about the cost of gifts as much. I stopped noticing how much money went into Christmas year after year. I learned to put up the same blinders as everyone else. Yes, I still had this sort of, "Oh, I don't know if I can afford to buy so-and-so this thing," that everyone has, but I had lost the overall money-awareness. The big picture had blurred.
Last year things came more into focus for me. It started when my mom said, "I don't feel like doing stockings. I just fill everyone's and you fill mine and that is that." It was obvious that behind these brave, solid words was a lot of hurt.
Gifts is a perfectly viable love language, and there if nothing shameful in desiring money spent on you. My mother was expressing her hurt that my father didn't speak this aspect of love very well. He spoke 'financial support' but not 'careful, well-thought gifts'. I saw that in her words, and I felt compelled to do something about it.
So I worked with my dad and husband to get them to make my mom a stocking full of presents. After one of the shopping errands where I had done the driving my dad remarked, "Well, there goes $80 on a lot of nothing."
I hadn't thought about it that way. After all, what is "a lot of nothing"? What emotional wounds was my dad hiding behind these words? Was that the inverse of my mother's pain somehow?
I thought of a parallel in grocery shopping. Sometimes I buy pre-bagged tea blends at $5 for essentially fifty cents worth of tea. Sometimes I buy packaged blends of green powders and pay $2 an ounce (or more) for ingredients that I could get for $1 an ounce (or less) online. Sometimes I buy a 16 ounce bottle of kombucha for $3.50 when I could fill up a growler (64 ounces) for $10, or make 64 ounces at home for about $7. (At $3.50 for 16 ounces it would cost $28 a gallon.)
Why do I do this? After all, I'm working with even less money than most people, and this is exactly the sort of thing I warn against doing in my book. So what is happening here?
I believe that the money is being spent on the pleasure one will experience, not on the actual item. The item very well is "a lot of nothing." Or even "a little" nothing in the case of the tag bags.
When I buy pre-bagged tea I get the ease of sliding a perfect little bag into my cup, letting it steep, and sipping a flavor I enjoy and expect. When I buy a bottle of kombucha in that way, I'm paying for the convenience of getting it right now, in just the flavor I want. It is the pleasure and ease that I am buying. It is essentially a service – an experience – not a physical item, that is the heart of the purchase.
It is very similar to buy nonsense gifts for someone (like cute socks, stuffed animals, greeting cards, colored pens, etc). You're paying for the experience of giving it, for watching them smile, for the novelty of the exchange between you and them.
Granted, it is much better if you can give a gift that offers real value to their life (something they will use in their day to day lives that is durable, beautiful, ecological, and practical), but let's face it: most gifts are not under that category. And we know it. So that means there are other motives are involved. If you really want to sink your teeth into the psychology of this, this video explains the motives we have for helping others, and these same motives apply to giving gifts.
But as a child, one doesn't understand all of the subtle aspects yet. One just learns that money is a taboo and conflicted subject. Yet instead of being able to sit with the contradictions and hold those conflicting beliefs in some modicum of peace, we're instead told that we have to have our own solid opinions about things. We're told, "you can't have it both ways," and "make up your mind," and "it's one way or the other way."
Yet that's a huge fallacy. Contradictory opinions are everywhere – especially within ourselves – and they all have a valid reason for their existence.
It would be easier to make sense of these contradictions if we were allowed to actually hold on to contradictory beliefs openly and honestly. If we could be transparent about our own internal conflicts, it would be easier to be transparent with ourselves! (And vise versa.) In other words, the social barriers to be authentic with one another also create barriers internally. We lie to ourselves to help protect our ability to lie to others. Because if we knew we were lying, then we'd have to feel guilty.
I learned, yet again, the taboo-ness of money when I was at my first job. I was working as a web design intern at a small, yet successful, company. The owner was supporting himself, his wife and two children with his business. He had five employees if you count himself, his wife and me. Both of his children went to a private school that costs roughly $5,000 a year in tuition. My own parents filed bankruptcy after having sent me to that same school for two years out of my childhood.
This small, successful company was able to support paying me minimum wage to poke around the office and not be particularly useful to them. The work was very useful to me, however. I was sixteen, and I learned key aspects of design, office conduct, type/text alignment/arrangement, digital file organization, and much more besides.
I had never earned money before, so the fact that I was only getting about $100 a week for 15 hours of work didn't bother me too much. I was mostly stressed at that time in my life because I was gaining weight, developing serious digestive issues, and repressing my authentic self to perpetuate a dysfunctional romance. There is more of my health story and how I recovered here.
I was curious about money. I was curious about the business I was working for. One day I asked the programmer who worked for the company, "How much are you getting paid?"
He looked at me oddly, and told me he couldn't answer that question. Later, the owner of the company asked to speak with me privately in his office. He reprimanded me for asking the programmer that question. He made some statements about how what I earned was unrelated. He made it clear that asking that question was inappropriate.
I asked my mom about it and she said something along the lines of, "Aho! Of course that was inappropriate to ask!"
I felt a little dense. I was slow to realize how taboo the subject of money is in our culture!
Do you experience the same thing in your life? Do you know how much your friends make? What about your parents, children, cousins, aunts and uncles? Even if you know their hourly wage, do you know how that relates to their monthly earnings? And what about their spending habits or grocery budget (or lack thereof)?
So what are the repercussions of the tabooness of money? What does it mean to us that income and expenses are taboo subjects?
It means employers can get away with paying men higher than women if they have a gender bias. It means they can get away with paying a pretty secretary highly and paying a highly skilled programmer hardly anything. Because we don't see these things happening around us (because nobody is being transparent about their income, business or expenses), we can't speak out or act out against it.
It means we're forced to make assumptions about other people's incomes.
Imagine walking by a store you're considering applying for work at and seeing the wages of those working at the store floating above their head. Imagine you see a manger with "$20 per hour" floating of their head, two guys who make $15 an hour going about their work and two women who make $8 an hour. Now you might think twice about applying there!
The lack of transparency about fiscal matters also impacts what we feel is and isn't possible. We're forced to make guesses about how much it costs to do and have certain things. People repeatedly assumed that I must be rich to live the life that I live. Such beliefs limit one's ability to make beneficial decisions.
When I realized how important this was, I decided to write my book, Living Big & Traveling Far on $8,000 a Year (or Less!). In it, I fully disclose what I've been able to do with my income, and how I've done it, including:
Click here to learn more about my book.
Or, read 15 Ways To Get Out & Have Fun For Free (Or Just A Few Dollars), because I go out and have fun too, even when living on less than $700 a month. You can too!