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Ask Money

Money and emotions

Chris Farrell Sep 2, 2009

Question: You know how we often despise in others the qualities that are most like our own? Well, I have always been very critical of my mother for her spending habits, that she seems to spend to fill some kind of an emotional void or to feel secure knowing that she can spend (vs. times in her life when money was in short supply). I notice increasingly in my own spending habits, though, the same impulses, that spending money gives me a pleasure akin to eating a food that was forbidden as a child. Money is my Hostess snack cake. Growing up, we didn’t have any, and now I can have it any time I want. The question is: What advice can you offer – or what tools, books, etc. can you recommend – to better understand and reshape my emotional response to spending? Because while my husband and I are lucky enough to have the resources (and luckily I hate to shop), I want to be able to set and achieve spending and saving goals, and to get the same satisfaction from having done so. Thank you for any help you can offer. I have just discovered your program (after listening to Marketplace for years) and am an avid podcast fan. Sarah, Efland, NC

Answer: Whew, this is a huge topic. It’s also a wonderful question. I’d love to hear from listeners any suggestions they might have for you or personal experiences to pass on.

Looking at this question through a personal finance lens, I believe that giving is central to managing our money lives. Saving for emergencies and for retirement is central to any financial plan. But I would give primacy of place to giving. The mindfulness of giving forges connections with community and strangers. It reminds us that when you think about what matters most it’s usually relationships, experiences and making a difference, not things and money. We get to support causes with our dollars and recycle stuff we no longer want and get it to people who need it more. “Money is to be spent or given away,” says Ross Levin, a Minnesota based certified financial planner. “Planned, systemic giving to charity helps dislodge the hold that money may have over you. Sharing your experiences and hopes can have a huge impact on those around you. You get to choose to make a difference.”

You asked for resources. A practical personal finance book that grapples with our emotional responses to money in a consumer-dominated society is Eric Tyson’s Mind Over Money: Your Path to Wealth and Happiness. Another book I’ve found valuable isn’t directly focused on managing money, but its thought provoking along the lines of your question. It’s Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. A Harvard psychologist, Gilbert’s book is a quirky exploration of our imaginations. He confronts the issue of we do so many things that don’t make us happy and pass on the things that do. Hmmm, maybe I should take it off my book shelf and re-read it…

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