Episode #35: My Money Story
Sometimes we get exactly what we asked for. And sometimes we have to live through things we didn't know how to live through to get to the other side. From the time I was no longer able to work in 2015, I have known I was exorcising some of my demons and fears around money even as I lived through the most harrowing financial journey of my life. This episode reflects back on that journey, and what I know now that I didn't know then. Brene Brown says that if we do not own our story, it will own us. I believe her.
Welcome to the Freedom from Empty Podcast: Building Strong, Effective, Resilient Leaders and Humans. My name is Booth Andrews, and I am your host. Thank you so much for joining me for this episode.
This episode talks about MONEY. One of those things you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company. But I am going to tell you a little bit about my own money story, and what I have learned over the last few years.
My father went bankrupt twice; the second time when I was a senior in high school . . . actually, my parents divorce was final, my father’s bankruptcy was final, my cat died and I got in a car accident all in one week in the Fall of my Senior year.
In between bankruptcies seemed we lived in feast or famine . . . in a 10,000 square foot house with 5 leased Mercedes in the driveway . . . but without certainty that our individual needs (physical or emotional) would be taken care of. I remember when the third party caregiver in our home got her first credit card--a Sears card--and starting buying us clothes.
Money decisions were based on my father’s values which seemed to be primarily focused on outward appearances but definitely not fashion--private schools, cars, trips, expensive restaurants. And golf. When I was teenager and growing like a weed, I had custom golf shoes and the “best” golf clubs of the time, but no pants that were long enough.
I don’t have much direct memory of this, but it also seems that my father used money to try to control my mother.
And when they divorced, at least my understanding was that her name was on all of the debt but none of the assets.
I started working at age 13 and by 16 was buying my own clothes.
When I went to college I had a monthly allowance . . . around $750 per month . . . A LOT, RIGHT . . . but that was to pay for everything . . . tuition, books, housing, gas, food, even having my wisdom teeth removed . . . just my tuition and books would wipe out a few months worth of allowance. . . . . . it turns out that wasn’t enough to live on . . . and I am present to the fact that some people . . . MANY people . . . have received less financial support from their parents . . .
I think the dissonance for me was the very dichotomy I lived with every in every aspect of my life . . . from the outside everything looked fine . . . even when my father went bankrupt, he was able to move us into a new 4 bedroom home (owned by one of his developer friends) . . .
EVERYTHING LOOKED FINE BUT IT WASN’T FINE. IT LOOKED LIKE I WAS BEING CARED FOR AND PROTECTED. BUT I WASN’T. APPEARANCES WERE EVERYTHING. REALITY WAS. A SECRET.
I dove headfirst into the debt cycle when I got my first credit card in college. For the first time I was able to look beyond just basic needs and buy things just because I wanted them. And oh how I tried to fill the hole in my heart with that freedom. I got under water so fast . . . I remember selling the only nice piece of jewelry I had . . . a ring made from a ruby that was a gift from my grandfather . . . with a diamond on each side. And getting a title loan on my car.
I worked all through college and law school . . . from the library to the computer lab to retail and clerkships in the summers and on holidays. All the while racking up school loans.
My first job out of law school paid $24,000 per year plus commissions. My total school loan payments alone were supposed to be almost $500 per month. I consolidated my student loans in 1998 and locked in at an interest rate of 8.25% for 25 years.
When I married, my now husband had a job paying $40,000 per year and a mutual fund. He was the kind of conservative spender who waited until his car literally wouldn’t run anymore before buying a new one.
Just over a year into our marriage, he left his job over disagreements with management. I had never heard him sound so happy as when he called me to tell me. And I was white as a sheet and terrified. I went shopping and bought $500 worth of professional clothes. If the money was going away, I needed to prepare.
For some reason that I never explored (and wish that I had) our financial (or wish NOW that I had) our roles in the relationship flipped. I started paying the bills and tracking the money. We moved in with some friends because we couldn’t afford to pay rent.
As the years went on, his financial participation languished and I didn’t ask. Part of me was angry. I felt abandoned. And part of me wanted control. I was going to take care of myself dammit and prove to myself (and everyone else) that I could. I didn’t want him asking questions or telling me what to do.
We did not live extravagantly . . . but the debt always seemed to track just ahead of our income . . .
For years, I would create a budget at the beginning of each year, realize it was upside down and after a few attempts to right the ship came up short handed, stick my head back in the sand . . .
For years, I would set financial goals . . . freedom from the debt, and the stress, and the anxiety . . . I would start the year with a clear(er) heart and mind, but would lose my way quickly enough.
My income continued to increase over time, but so did my desperation. I spent all of my time and energy on my career. ALL of it. I started paying someone to clean my house because if I was going to work 70 hours per week, I certainly wasn’t going to spend my time off cleaning.
I paid for convenience. I bought things to bring my anxiety down about all the things I didn’t or couldn’t have, but what I desperately wanted was to feel safe, and protected, and cared for, and valued. Ironically, overspending because you are feeling anxious and alone doesn’t help you feel safe and protected. Because as I made spending decisions rooted in my own fear and pain, I was inadvertently and compulsively torpedoing my financial well-being.
I don’t remember all of the details around this, but I do remember rolling coins to pay for formula for our second child and not being able to afford a haircut. The stress carried over into my work as well, creating a sense of desperation that permeated everything; particularly my interactions with my boss. These interactions were already fully loaded, but this dynamic made them even more volatile. I was literally working myself to death, and somehow, I STILL couldn’t take care of myself or my family.
When I re-organized myself out of this first career, my husband got shingles and his back went out. The pressure I felt to provide was overwhelming. And yet, I STILL was able to step out on faith that the universe would catch me somehow . . . I don’t know if I would have been able to do this at the time without my mother’s unwavering belief and support that I was not alone in the world and that the Universe had my back.
I became a CEO and was, ultimately, made more money than I ever had before. And somehow, we always seemed behind. Much has been written about the cost of child care. Between day care and the summer camps, our child care costs were more than our mortgage.
When my Mom died, I felt all alone again. My connection to her and my connection to the Spirit left with her.
I continued to perform, even thrive professionally in the CEO role. But by then, my mental health was declining. One of the things that I have learned is that one of the effects of chronic, then toxic stress, and ultimately poor mental health is lack of impulse control. As we spend our lives in fight or flight, our pre-frontal cortex, the part that supports executive functioning and allows us to manage and frame our impulses in a more constructive way, is disabled as the parts of our brain linked to survival take over. I am not suggesting that by blaming things on lack of impulse control we can escape responsibility for our choices. And heavens knows I have had to live with the results of the poor choices I have made.
But recognizing that there is more at work than a simple “lack of will or discipline” may allow us both to practice more self-compassion and also to consider how we might go about healing the parts of us that are at the root cause of the problem.
The pattern of feast or famine continued. I would contain my spending and anxiety for a period of time . . . often even for 6 months or more . . . and then I would open the gate a little (maybe to buy one thing that was on the perpetual list of needs and wants) and the flood would blow the door open. I knew how to buy nothing. And I knew how to buy it all. But I didn’t have any sense of middle ground.
I ordered $1000 in Nike gear the summer after my Mom died, the same summer my husband wasn’t bringing home a check from his business, the same summer that there were 7 raccoons in my attic and I was curled up on the couch in a depressed haze. I literally couldn’t decide what to get. So I got it all.
As my career progressed, we moved into a bigger house (in a better school zone) and I thought I would feel happy. I felt relieved for a time. But not happy. And I just didn’t understand why.
My desperate spending habits continued. I didn’t shop often, but when I did, I would try to get EVERYTHING on the list--from detergent to batteries, to the never ending list of things it seems you need when you have 3 kids. If I wasn’t able to get EVERYTHING on the list, I just felt exhausted and anxious. And yes, I was aware that even if I did manage to get everything on the list, within a few hours even, something else would be added.
Over the years, there were times that we paid down our debt, but it wouldn’t be long until we were back in the same position, or worse.
I vacillated between overwhelmed, anxious, desperate, angry and defiant about our financial situation.
I had a terror of getting to the check-out counter and not having enough money to pay. I am not sure where this terror came from . . . but it was powerful . . . oh the SHAME that would flood over me just from the thought of it.
And at the same time, my inability to make discerned choices in between all or nothing--the thing that probably would have been a real antidote to the terror about coming up short-handed at the check-out counter--continued to be a pattern. I took my daughter and her friend to Walgreens one time to buy the latest in tween chapsticks. We bought 8. Not one. Not two. 8.
When I resigned my CEO role, I had a lot of debt and no income. My husband and I had just divorced. And I had just fully stocked a four bedroom apartment with IKEA furniture after liquidating an IRA account. Within months, I was considering bankruptcy as I couldn’t afford health insurance for my kids. I liquidated my retirement accounts to pay down enough debt to stay afloat.
When I left my job, I had been driving a company car. I went to a friend and asked for help--he happened to own car dealerships--because now I had no job, no car, no income. He helped me get into a used Honda Accord.
My old boss came to my rescue and put me on a retainer for a project at his company. By the time he called to say the retainer had to end and my bank called to say my accounts were frozen, I finally qualified for long term disability coverage from my insurer. I only remembered that I had long term disability coverage when I filled out the extensive bankruptcy questionnaire.
My Landlord worked with me and I moved into a smaller apartment in the same building. I was in a car accident (not my fault) and the car was totaled; leaving me with a concussion and more debt on the car than the car was worth.
I borrowed a pickup truck for 6 months . . . it didn’t even have seatbelts for all 3 children . . . but I was so very grateful to have it. And when my friend helped me once again to get into the car I drive now, it felt like car heaven.
In the last 4.5 years I have replaced my sources of income 4 times; rebuilding from 0 twice. It wasn’t until 2017 that I got really clear that I wanted to use my experience to help other people, and I wasn’t able to fully invest in that vision until 2018. In the meantime, I have worked up to 4 different side hustles at a time while building my business.
Along the way, I have also known (wishing that I would have been a much faster learner) that I was removing the barriers to my ability to actually realize my financial goals for abundance and freedom from debt.
AND, as I shared more about in Episode 24, I have learned, frankly I was FORCED to learn to trust the Universe and others to hold me through what seemed to be impossible circumstances at times.
I was forced to give up consumer credit except for my auto loan.
I have been forced to learn to breathe through the discomfort of being able to have some of the things that I think I need but not all of the things.
I have learned to prioritize the things I need the most at the check-out line and to walk away without the other things--I still get anxious every time I wait for the total to show up on the screen or for my debit card to go through or--but the shame is not as powerful as it once was.
I have learned to breathe through financial anxiety and not to react with a spending spree.
I have learned that other people are willing to help--from cups of coffee to meals to tanks of gas--and I have learned to ask.
I have learned to say no and trust that whatever is supposed to be will be.
I have learned to get creative and spend less money to meet the need.
I moved back into the basement of my now ex-husband’s house when I couldn’t pay rent--and that has turned out to be a gift not just to our chances of financial survival but also because we both get to be there for our kids every single day.
I even learned just over a year ago that there was a PTSD component--I was grocery shopping one day; carefully tracking what I was putting in my cart against the amount of cash in my pocket; and I realized after getting to the check-out counter and having more cost than money--that somewhere along the way I had stopped tracking . . . like my brain had timed out right in the middle of tallying the total as I put things in my cart. And so, I was able to do some therapy work around that disconnect and start to heal it.
I believe all of this has positioned me for the next phase of my journey. Man, has it been a ride. I said I wanted to be financially free. I wouldn’t have knowingly picked this route. But I feel less and less controlled by my fears and pain around money and better positioned to thrive in the way I always wished I could.
I also have a greater sense of how close so many of us are to financial catastrophe. But for the grace of friends, and family and the Universe, I could easily be homeless.
It is going to take me a long time to dig out of the financial repercussions of the last 5 years, and frankly the 30 years before that, but I feel more equipped to do it in a way that supports my long-term personal and financial well-being than ever before.
While I wouldn’t recommend my particular path, I also recognize how many of us are living a life that is making us sick in part because of fear around money. I would never have believed that I could get by on as little as I have learned to get by on. I did believe that I was on my own and that proving my ability to earn would somehow assuage the pain of my childhood. When I was crashing, I still didn’t believe that I could afford to step away from my CEO role and to take care of myself.
All of those beliefs turned out to be false. Are there beliefs or fears around money that have hijacked your life? I encourage you to turn and look at them from a place of intellectual and emotional honesty. And if needed, to seek resources to support a new financial path forward for you and your family. I will link some resources at the bottom of this transcript.
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I look forward to being back with you next time!
Financial Well-Being Resources
Young and Scrappy (coach and financial planning)
Money a Love Story (book)
Money Love Course (online course)