5 steps to fixing a money disorder

Dec 19 2017, 4:25 pm

Would you feel comfortable sharing your bank statements with a close friend?

Very few people would. Most of us carry guilt and shame around the way we handle our finances.

I used to be a bank manager, and the most unsettling part of the job was seeing behind the scenes of people’s finances when trying to resolve an issue for them. It was arguably worse than seeing someone naked.

I’ve seen men in tailored business suits crying as they went through the motions to divide assets after a divorce, single mothers coming in to get their overdraft increased two days before Christmas so they can buy their kids a present, and couples sitting side by side clutching hands as they realize that they are on the verge of bankruptcy.

The emotional connection that we have to our money has the power to destroy romantic relationships and shatter grieving families.

Here are five steps you can take to help address a money disorder.

1. Know what money represents

Security. Power. Choices. Buffer from pain.

The emotions connected to money can often be traced back to our childhood.

Some of us grew up in households where money was scarce. Some experienced money as heavy shackles that were rooted deep in family obligation. Some witnessed it slip through their parents fingers year after year and prayed that one day the resulting upheaval would end.

All of these experiences affect our current attitude towards money.

If you grew up seeing money as the ultimate tool for security, you will experience friction when in a relationship with someone who is determined to escape the crippling burden money became to their parents.

Worst of all are the dark secrets some of us keep about our money habits.

2. Acknowledge that financial shame exists

If you struggle having a healthy relationship with food, it eventually becomes apparent to the rest of the world.

Restrict your food intake too much, and your rapid weight loss and gaunt physique will tip others off.

Overindulge and the pounds that begin to creep on will become harder and harder to hide.

On the other hand, the unhealthy habits that we may develop with our finances can go unnoticed, even by an attentive spouse. Shopping splurges are hidden in the back of a closet, credit card bills are protected by electronic passwords, and bank accounts are kept secret by privacy legislation.

We can stand back and laugh it off as “first world problems,” but this struggle can haunt every aspect of basic human need: food, shelter, clothing, work, and relationships.

3. Recognize the signs of a disordered relationship with money

If you feel stressed when you start talking about money, this may be the first warning sign that there is something deeper going on. Try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have a series of rigid rules around your finances so that you can feel in control, and when you go to spend money you have major anxiety?
  • Do you spend indulgently and then follow with a period of excessively restricted budgeting?
  • Do you lack control of your spending habits, trying to numb yourself or buy happiness?

If you treated your food intake like any of the above examples, it is likely that you struggle with an eating disorder such as anorexia, bulimia, or overeating—respectively. Your loved ones would be encouraging you to get help to break free from these cycles.

Is it possible that obsessive approaches to our finances carry more shame than food?

4. Get to the root of the issue

It is not the behaviour that is the issue, it’s the motivation behind the behaviour.

For example, one person might be simply cutting back their spending because they are trying to pay off student debt in a reasonable amount of time. Someone else might be recessively restricting their expenses because they are afraid of being poor like their parents were.

It is up to you to determine if your behaviours are coming from a place of pain or fear. If so, it might be time to address this.

Just like food is necessary for our survival, it is impossible to avoid dealing with money. This can make it tricky to redefine your emotional connection to money, as you still have to buy essentials and pay bills while you work through your struggles.

5. Take the first steps to find peace

You may find it helpful to journal or talk with a loved one about their responses to the following questions:

  • What is your most vivid childhood memory about money?
  • Did you make any vows to yourself about money when you were younger?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how comfortable are you with debt? What factors contributed to this rating?
  • What is your biggest fear associated with money? Is there anything you can do to address this fear?

When you have finished reflecting on your responses, ask yourself what you need to do to feel less burdened by your emotional connection to money.

This might mean seeking the advice of a therapist or coach, talking with a trusted friend who has a healthy approach to their personal finances, reading a book that helps (Money, A Love Story by Kate Northrup is a great place to start), or to simply keep journalling until you have released some of the pain. Secondhand Therapy also offers a “Money & You” module as part of the Introducing You eClass series.

No matter which step you chose to start working through your struggles, congratulate yourself for being courageous. When you tackle the fear and pain that is setting you up for failure, you are being braver than most.


Join the conversation about money disorders on Twitter @2ndhandtherapy and grab your free 30 page eBook, Start Investing in Your Emotional Wellbeing.