Why can’t we come clean about money?

Our dys­func­tional re­la­tion­ship with money – and the shame we feel around debt – is stop­ping us from tak­ing con­trol of our fi­nances, says con­sumer jour­nal­ist Laura Whate­ley

Grazia (UK) - - Contents - Laura Whate­ley is au­thor of ‘ Money: A User’s Guide’ (£7.99, Fourth Es­tate)

BE­FORE AN AP­POINT­MENT with fi­nan­cial coach Si­monne Gnessen, you have to answer a few ques­tions about your cash. There are the ex­pected ones: how many bank ac­counts do you use? Do you have a will? Then there are some that may make you think dif­fer­ently about why you strug­gle with fi­nances: what are your big­gest fears about money? What is your first mem­ory of it? What stories most in­flu­ence your be­hav­iour with money?

‘Peo­ple pour their hearts out,’ Si­monne says. ‘ We never re­flect on our re­la­tion­ship with money, even though it is one of the most im­por­tant re­la­tion­ships of our lives.’ 

Si­monne trained as a tra­di­tional fi­nan­cial ad­viser but found that what most peo­ple need more than rec­om­men­da­tions of com­pli­cated in­vest­ment prod­ucts is the space to ex­am­ine the emo­tional blocks that are caus­ing them to feel poorer. Why, for ex­am­ple, are they al­ways in the red, even when earn­ing bonuses, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing more debt as soon as it is paid off ? ‘ We all have emo­tional blocks about money,’ she says. ‘But we rarely share them. Most peo­ple I see have never told any­one about their money wor­ries, not even their part­ners. I’ve seen peo­ple who’ve been in coun­selling for 10 years and money has never come up.’

Per­haps part of the rea­son money re­mains a taboo is be­cause sham­ing other peo­ple for mis­man­ag­ing their per­sonal fi­nances has be­come a pop­u­lar pas­time. That was ev­i­dent given the re­ac­tion to the re­cent Grazia ar­ti­cle in which Sian Teas­dale dared do some­thing so few women feel able to: ad­mit that she strug­gles to live on an above-av­er­age salary with­out help ( in her case from her par­ents, though oth­ers may turn to credit cards and pay­day loans). Peo­ple couldn’t wait to take to Twit­ter to de­nounce her feck­less­ness, ar­gu­ing that they were much bet­ter at han­dling their own salaries, bills and sav­ings. The re­ac­tion demon­strated that dis­cussing your money woes is still fraught and di­vi­sive.

Lind­sey Stan­berry, au­thor of new book Re­fin­ery29 Money Diaries: Ev­ery­thing You’ve Ever Wanted To Know About Your Fi­nances... And Ev­ery­one Else’s, was sur­prised that com­ments on on­line money diaries have be­come so pro­lific, un­til she re­alised that the com­ment sec­tion can be an anony­mous out­let for fi­nan­cial anx­i­ety.

But the rush to con­demn is only go­ing to make us clam up fur­ther for fear of sim­i­lar ridicule, and cost us more, warn debt char­i­ties. Half of those who seek help from Stepchange de­layed do­ing so for at least a year be­cause they were em­bar­rassed, but in just six months the char­ity says some­one with a typ­i­cal range of debts could pay an ad­di­tional £2,300 in in­ter­est. Some clients say that fi­nally be­ing hon­est about their fi­nances quite lit­er­ally saved their lives.

The Money and Men­tal Health Pol­icy In­sti­tute (MMHPI) was set up in 2016 to re­search the link be­tween two taboos that com­pound one another. ‘ There has been a lot of progress in ac­cept­ing that men­tal health prob­lems are not the fault of the per­son ex­pe­ri­enc­ing them,’ says Helen Undy, di­rec­tor of MMHPI, ‘ but there is still a per­cep­tion that be­ing in fi­nan­cial dif­fi­culty is be­cause of your lack of judge­ment or con­trol over your spend­ing.’

Naomi, 34, and her hus­band were in £40k of debt be­fore they sought help. Talking about it gave them a level of ac­count­abil­ity. ‘Peo­ple started to check in with us to see we were OK. They weren’t be­ing nosey, but car­ing. This gave us the mo­ti­va­tion to keep on.’ They are now debt-free and run web­site Sk­int­dad.com. Naomi thinks a lack of fi­nan­cial ed­u­ca­tion was partly their prob­lem. ‘ We grow up, move out and just have to get on with it. When I was 18, there was very lit­tle in the way of sup­port to know the pit­falls of not pay­ing off credit cards. Mis­man­ag­ing money can also come from the fear of be­ing judged by oth­ers. I com­pared my sit­u­a­tion to friends’ and won­dered what I’d done so wrong to not have been able to achieve the things they had, like buy­ing a house. Now I re­alise it’s just the hand we’re dealt, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change it.’

Au­thor and pod­caster Daisy Buchanan compares the shame sur­round­ing money to that around food and di­et­ing. ‘ There is so much guilt and anx­i­ety,’ she says. ‘I earned so lit­tle in my first job that I was in a lot of debt, but I thought I was “bad” and “ex­trav­a­gant”, rather than re­al­is­ing that I sim­ply wasn’t mak­ing enough money to live.’ Apart from a stu­dent loan, she no longer has debt. Earn­ing a bit more has al­lowed her to ‘ breathe out’, but it is work in progress. ‘I am try­ing to re­mem­ber that the num­ber in my bank ac­count is just a num­ber. It doesn’t mean I’m good or bad, but I still feel a stab of guilt about spend­ing.’

A lot of prob­lems with money boil down to an in­abil­ity to be­lieve that we are ca­pa­ble of de­sign­ing our own life, says Si­monne. ‘I have clients who aren’t over­spend­ing but un­der-earn­ing. We might be talking about money, but that is just the con­text for deeper things that are driving our de­ci­sions. Our self-es­teem and how de­serv­ing we feel can man­i­fest in mis­man­ag­ing money, in the same way that it might man­i­fest in us not be­ing able to com­mit.’

Her ad­vice is to stop mind­lessly fall­ing into pat­terns of do­ing what you’ve al­ways done. Work on say­ing no to the lure of, say, clothes sales or things like Black Fri­day ‘deals’. ‘ You are the one in charge of your earn­ings – not your fam­ily, not com­pa­nies try­ing to tempt you with mar­ket­ing. What do you want to do with your money, and what can you do to take con­trol?’

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