Lonely Money

May 28, 2020 | Finance

Recently, we’ve all been experiencing isolation in one form or another. Some people are completely alone, while others are trapped at home with their whole family, trying to figure out how to find some space for solo time. There have been conversations on social media, and reports on the news, about loneliness – and many public discussions about our financial situation as an economy, and as individuals. This combination has highlighted for me that money is a vital part of our daily life, and yet we very rarely talk to each other about its emotional power.

As a business advisor to creative people, I talk about the emotional relationship to money with my clients all the time. Once that door is opened, many of them express a dizzying range of feelings when it comes to their finances – terrible fear, guilt, rage, panic, an inexplicable dismissiveness – the whole gamut of negative reactions. Sometimes this extreme emotional relationship has led them to ignore their financial situation, often to the extreme, but the COVID-19 crisis has brought a reckoning. So many creatives are now realising that doing their taxes (eventually) is not enough to maintain a degree of financial control in a very unstable industry.

This article was not inspired by that big professional picture, however. It was prompted by a conversation that I had with a close friend. She lives alone, she is not in a close romantic relationship, and she has no kids. She is also struggling financially. As a friend, I hadn’t previously pried into those struggles because it felt rude to intrude, but I could see she was getting further into financial trouble. When she didn’t ask for help, I approached her as I would a nervous client and opened the door to that tricky conversation about her money, and how I might be able to support her.

Now admittedly, we’d had a few wines when I brought up the subject of her financial situation, but the conversation was positive (or at least I thought so). We took out the paper and pens, uploaded the calculator app, and came up with a plan for how she could get her financial house in order. I must stress that I am not a financial advisor, but most of the things we discussed were fairly simple and practical activities that she could do for herself – track her income and her spending, work out how much money she needed in order to pay for her basic bills and small luxuries, figure out a savings plan and decrease her debt. At the end of the evening, I suggested that she work out her budget and, if she wanted to, we could go through it together on another dinner date. She agreed enthusiastically – and we have not spoken about it again. I think she’s okay, and I haven’t pushed the issue, but her inability to discuss her finances with me any further has made me realise something profound about the way money has always been addressed in my own family.

I am an only child, and my father died when I was young. My mother was essentially alone in her financial life. There was no one else to provide for us, and there were challenges associated with that (obviously), which I was always fully aware of. We were poor, and it was a fact that my mother and I talked about, just as we would discuss the weather or what to have for dinner.

I was in my teens when home loan interest rates in Australia hit 17%. My mother shared with me the battles that she was going through in order to meet our bills, not because she needed to offload her emotions, but because it was a fact of life that we needed to deal with together as a family. I’m sure she must have been incredibly anxious about our situation, but she didn’t offload that to me. She was as frank and objective as she could be, and I was very clear about our precise financial situation.

By talking to me about her personal money without layering on any guilt or anger or shame, Mum taught me how to experience my own financial life as a proactive participant rather than as a victim of my emotions. I was not at the mercy of a strange and malevolent financial force. I was an intelligent person inside a relationship made of numbers and consequences, with the power to overcome challenges and a fundamental belief that money is no more than a pragmatic means to an end. Although maths is not my strong suit, money management was never an issue. When I chose to become a freelancer straight out of high school, my Mum’s financial openness and practicality had already taught me everything that I needed to know in order to maintain my freelance financial life.

That conversation has continued, and we have been very open with each other about our financial situations into my family life and her retirement. I have been similarly open with my own children. I hope that, as my mother did with me, I have empowered my kids to understand that they have choices and that they are clever enough to figure out how to manage their money as best they can.

I now realise that my friend must be very lonely in her financial relationship with herself, especially during this time of crisis. I feel so sad when I read on social media about how many of my creative peers are struggling financially, and not always due to external forces alone. Many are just not financially well organised, or educated enough about their money or business to make the most of the benefits on offer.

Money is a means to an end. It’s food on the table, a roof over our heads, an education for our children, and clothes on our back. It doesn’t have to be an emotional tool that we use to punish ourselves, and others, especially now. We can’t do anything about the external financial pressures we are experiencing at the moment, but we can start talking to each other more about how to manage that situation. We can talk about our budgets, and our savings, and even our debt, without guilt or shame if we choose to do so. If you feel lonely in your financial situation, maybe now is the time to share that with the people close to you. Talk to a friend or loved one about how money is affecting you and what you can do to empower yourself in that relationship. I really do think that more frank and open conversations about money could help us all to feel more powerful, and help each other more effectively in this time of financial stress.

It’s never too late to learn how to do a budget, how to work out the difference between a necessity and a luxury, how to do our taxes, how to minimise debt, how to understand our own financial landscape. None of this will cure the external forces that are working against us, but maybe if we can cure our own financial loneliness and extend the hand of support to other people that we love to help them with theirs, we will all get through this with a little more ease and grace than we are currently experiencing.

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