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  • Márcia Fervienza

What your behaviors around money may be saying about you and how to change that

It may seem unrelated, but the way we deal with money says a lot about some of our hidden issues. It is not surprising though: money is a powerful social representation that carries different meanings within different cultures. How much money we have, how much we earn, how we earn it, and how we spend it are all behaviors embedded with social significance that will determine our public image within our context and, therefore, will be a representation of our core values, our beliefs – about ourselves, about others and about the society – and about how we want to be perceived in the public domain.

Because the statements our behaviors make about ourselves in a social context tend to be unconscious processes that earn a life of their own until we bring them to awareness, let’s take a look at what some of these behaviors may be revealing about deeper issues.

1. The one who is generous at giving away money to others, even if they are short on cash.

Contradictory, right? But this behavior is more common than you can imagine. These may be those people who are always short on money, or whose financial life is always going through ups and downs, but whenever money is affluent, they are quick at sharing and giving it away to others. They claim that money is of little value to them, showing pride of their apparent generosity, but then they can show resentment when they are in a shortage and others fail to come to their rescue. What does this behavior may say about the person?

a. Reaction formation: This is a defense mechanism usually motivated by an attempt to hide a feeling by showing its opposite. In this case, this person who claims to put so little value on money could be unconsciously trying to disguise the opposite feeling (they, in fact, place a lot of value on having money but, because they usually don’t have it - or because they fear social judgement, they claim that they don’t care about it). Or this may be a reflection of a poor sense of self-worth. Because the way we handle the money we earn and the money we make tend to be associated with our self-esteem, this may be a red flag about the (little) value we place on ourselves.

b. Hidden desire to be cared by others: This person would, then, either be trying to model for others the behavior they would like to receive (others financially caring for them) or it could be a misdirected attempt to create "favors" that can be collected in the future. Since money is something that we need in order to navigate the material world, why would anyone (especially those whose life is made of financial ups and downs) quickly give away any money that comes in?

c. Fear of money: This person could be trying to hide a fear of money (or of what having money may say about them), probably due to money misconceptions learned throughout life.

d. Concern about the public image: Lastly, it can be about the image one wants to project: of a generous person, of someone wealthy, or of power, regardless of whether this generosity will be reminded in the future when the generous giver claims favors in exchange or not.

What is the healthy way to deal with it?

Vicious attachment to money isn’t and never will be something good. Anything that we relate to in an enslaving manner is unhealthy. But caring for money is good, healthy and desirable. If you believe money to be evil or immoral, why would you want it in your life? And if our beliefs drive our behaviors, as we know they do, what do you think that believing that money is bad will generate? Not abundance, I can assure you. Plus, only that in which we put our attention grows. You remove your attention from money because you believe that it is something that must be controlled or avoided and you are in for a life of lack.

2. The generous money lender

It is always good to have that close friend that we can go to when are going through tough times. Good friends hardly ever will refuse to help us if it is within their means. But some people are good at lending money even to those who are not as close to them, or when it is beyond their means. Some are actually proactive at offering financial help to others, even before being asked. And some lend without any expectation of receiving the loan back, regardless of their financial situation. What could be driving them?

a. Power: a hidden desire for exercising power over others may be the case, depending on how the one who holds the debt behaves after the actual transfer of money happened. Some people become overly present at asking for the money back: they may come up with excuses why they need the money earlier, they may want to assess the other person’s capability of paying back based on their present life’s circumstances and spending behavior, or they may act as if they were feeling that they are being taken advantage of. Others may never ask for the money back, just to have a pending favor to claim at some point in the future, thus holding power over the person who borrowed the money.

b. Need to please: some people want to be loved so much or crave so much closeness and intimacy, that they may be quick at lending money and terrible at asking for the money back in due time. The driving reasons vary: they may not want to displease others or they may feel unsure about whether it is right to ask for their money back. This is because people with a heightened need to please may believe that by saying no to other people’s requests or by setting boundaries they will not be loved or valued. And that may be reason enough for them to set aside their own needs in favor of the needs of others. However, the inability to set boundaries usually reveals a failure to identify what is one’s job/responsibility, and what isn’t. Do you notice that in other areas of your life as well?

What is the healthy way to deal with it?

Being a resource to close family members and friends is a virtue that must not be overlooked. But it is important to note that many friendships are broken up when money comes into play. Therefore, clear rules are of extreme importance whenever a financial transaction is to take place between you and someone you care. Lending money does not have to be a problem, if the ground rules are clear, preferably including payment options, terms, and deadlines. Plus, it is also important to make clear for all parties involved that no one should be ashamed of saying or doing anything related to the transaction – not the borrower or the lender. If shame, resentment or any other negative feelings are expected to be involved, you are better off staying clear of the deal altogether than getting into something that will be hard to get away of in the future, and that may leave undesired consequences.

3. The friendly borrower who never reciprocates

This is the person who always forgets their money/wallet/debit card, the one who is always committing to paying back later (for their share of the dinner, the pizza, the cab, etc.) and never fulfilling their promises, or the ones who unashamedly claim not to have money to be part of the program and who openly says that they will go/do/be there if you pay for them. Just like that, with no embarrassment whatsoever. What is at stake here?

a. Sense of entitlement: we are all special in our ways. But some people feel that they deserve special treatment from everyone. It doesn’t matter if when someone invites us for dinner, he or she is being gracious and we should act thankfully. This rule may be valid for others but won’t stop them from feeling entitled to say “yes” to any invite along with “as long as”, stating a condition to you having their company. Here they may say something like “as long as we eat X food”, “as long as we go to Z place”, “as long as you take me to Y afterwards”… anything can be a stipulation. And that is what is difficult to deal with: how can someone that is being invited for something be rude enough to stipulate a condition to their presence, as if an additional bonus was needed on top of the invitation you are already making?

b. The victim: there are people who, for reasons beyond our understanding, just feel that life owes them something and you, being part of what they call “life”, should be “paying your debt”. How will they expect you to pay your debt? By considering any expenses that their presence may incur as your own. How does this show up? More common in close relationships or with family members, this can be the person who invites you to lunch and, when it comes to paying her/his share of the bill, won't even reach for their wallet, because it is already understood that, if you accepted their invite, the check is on you.

c. The lack-er: this is the occasional smoker who never has a cigarette on them because they don’t smoke, but whenever they are with you (a regular smoker), for each cigarette you smoke, they smoke one too because, well, seeing you smoking makes them feel like smoking. Or that person who will not order a drink when you order yours because they don’t drink, but when yours come, for every sip you take, they take one as well because seeing you drinking makes them feel thirsty – only not enough to order a full drink for themselves because that will be “too much”.

What is the healthy way to deal with it?

I can tell you the healthy way to deal with it, but it is not going to be pain-free or easy because these people lack self-awareness, which means that you will have to set boundaries. Unfortunately, you will have to say no when asked for a smoke or a sip, and you will have to let an awkward situation surface when the check comes and the person who invited you out just sits there looking at the tab, not reaching out for their own wallet – of if they leave to go to the restroom at the exact moment that you both order the check. There is no way around it, other than to confront him/her in an assertive but non-aggressive way if you want to move the relationship to healthier grounds. Another way to deal with this issue (most vastly used, I admit) is to start refusing invitations or anything that involves that person’s presence. But be mindful that, by doing that, you are not only preventing the person from getting honest and constructive feedback on their behavior (something that may not be aware of), but you may also end up as the villain of the history who dropped a good friend for no good reason. Which is best? You will have to pick your poison.

4. The cheap-o

Do you know that person who has a reasonably comfortable life but is always saving money on the smallest things, or who is never capable of allowing themselves to use their money for anything that is related to their pleasure? How about that person who is always negotiating a discount on every product or service they want to buy, no matter how inexpensive it already is? Or that person who is always questioning the cost of the service that others provide to them, regardless of their means to pay for it or the needs of those trying to sell it? Well, I think we all know someone like this. We can’t wrap our minds around what drives them to have such a cheap relationship with money. Here are some clues:

a. An unfulfilled sexual life: I will never forget a scene from the movie Hope Springs, with Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. They play a middle-aged couple, empty nesters, with a comfortable but emotionally unfulfilling life. Meryl Streep, the unhappy wife, decides to look for professional help. Because the therapist she chooses is based in another state, the husband books a place for them to stay for the weeks that the therapist will be giving the workshop they want to attend. When they arrive at the hotel, it is actually a small, cheap, nasty road motel, that is way beneath their financial capabilities. Well, not coincidently, at the end of the movie, when they can rescue their sexual libido and start enjoying one another in bed, they start spending money staying in nice hotels. Why is that? Because both sex and money are symbolic representations of (and associated with) the same things: power, relationships, desire, etc. It is not uncommon for men to start having erection problems when they are going through some financial uncertainty or difficulty. It is also not uncommon for money problems to bring along other relationship problems – beyond sex – because money (and the power to make it) carries a lot of meaning, both for men and women alike. As a couple's capacity to produce or manage money comes into stake, other aspects of each other's personality are also examined, which can make deeper relationship problems surface.

b. Insecurity: some people may feel so overpowered in every other aspect of their lives, or may fear being overpowered so much, that they focus all their attention in accumulating money and controlling spending. Not only that may be the only area of their lives where they exert some control but, as said earlier, money has a strong social representation (which varies according to the cultural background) that is usually associated with power and status. Thus, some people may feel that in order to maintain status or power or to be worthy of social respect, they need to stay in a place of holding (and controlling) money.

c. Weak sense of identity: for some people, you are what you have. When the link between who you are and what you own is that strong, you have to do everything within your means to save as much money as you can, because spending it may be equivalent to slowly losing yourself and everything that you are. The problem here is that when your sense of self is based on something external, it can be easily lost or shaken by things that are beyond your control, which can make us extremely insecure about our values and paranoid about control and accumulation.

d. Need for power: Of course, we can’t forget to mention the dimension of power that being cheap may give to those who are in control of the money. If I measure every cent that you spend from our shared money account, for example, and if I can restrict your spending in any way, I am exercising power over you and I am maintaining you under my domain somehow. The issue though is that this behavior hides a deep fear. So, it is worth asking: what do you fear so much that makes you feel that you need to do that? Because this brings along a lot of worry for the controlling person as well, which is far from comforting.

What is the healthy way to deal with it?

Sometimes it is easy to be mistaken about who is controlling who in our relationship with money. Those who are cheap and who spend most of their time controlling every single cent spent (by themselves or others) are usually being controlled by money, even though the initial perception may be that they are the ones in control. But those who are in control are usually free, and these people spend their lives worrying (about how much they earn, how much they spend, how much others spend, how much do they have left, etc.). Being enslaved by your thoughts or behaviors is never healthy, emotionally or psychologically. Finding out the reason why money drives your life is mandatory to regain your freedom and become the master of your life once again.

5. The compulsive shopper and the generous gift-giver

Does shopping make you happy? Or do you frequently buy your loved ones presents “just because” and blow the budget at Christmas and birthdays? You could be a compulsive gift-giver, which is someone who makes purchases (either for themselves or others) to boost their self-esteem. For some people, this behavior is so extreme that they may be like hoarders. My grandma, for example, was a shoe-hoarder: she had an entire closet full of shoes that she had never worn before, and she died never having the chance to wear a lot of them. In theory, this could be simply labeled as consumerism, but some other (more interesting) drivers can be behind this behavior:

a. Using money as a proxy for love and affection: do you feel that you are loved when people bring you unexpected gifts? If you answer yes to this question, you may be trying to show others your affection using a language that you understand (gift-giving). You may also be the type of person who feels that a gift is a symbolic way of making yourself present at the life of others, which is often a caring way to act. But for some people, the value of the present states the value that the person holds for the gift-giver, which in itself can be a big problem, especially if your bank account balance doesn’t allow for expensive purchases. Then you will either go into debt to show your affection for others, or you will feel a lack of love and affection from others when you receive modest gifts. And neither is a nice place to be.

b. Spending money to compensate for emotional pain: if you are the type of person to whom shopping has an uplifting effect, this may be why. For some people, treating oneself well means going out and making (big or small) purchases. For others, when they feel sad or depressed, they go to the nail or hair salon and spend money on making themselves more attractive, desirable. And this would be fantastic if the “high” provided by these behaviors lasted longer than a few hours. The problem? The money is spent and once the purchase is put to use, or the hairdo is undone, the emotional uplifting usually goes away and what is left is the pain that will have to be dealt with regardless - on top of any possible outstanding debt left by the impulsive purchases made when you were feeling down.

c. Spending money to compensate for emotional emptiness. I bet you know someone who spends money when they are bored. I know, it sounds surreal, but it is quite common. Why? For some people, it is hard to make big changes in life. So, they try to compensate for that by making small changes: the shoes or dress they wear every day, the color of the lipstick, etc. Shopping is fun, no one is denying that, but associating shopping and entertainment can be a dangerous combination for your credit card.

What is the healthy way to deal with it?

Giving gifts and pampering yourself are not negative things in itself. But, as with anything, the whys matter more than the whats. In other words, it is not what you are doing, but why you are doing it and whether you are being reasonable about it. Are your shopping habits compatible with your needs and your means, or are you going above and beyond impulsively and inconsequently? If the latter is the case, what could be a healthy substitute for the damaging behavior? Maybe you could go out for some exercise, so you can raise your dopamine levels in your brain and feel better? Or call a friend? It’s always easy to change behaviors when we replace it with new ones. Is there something healthier that you could be doing instead, that will both meet your needs and be contained within your means?

Do you know anyone with these behaviors? Or do you have others I didn't mention? Leave your comments below and I will make sure to include it!

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