A mortgage is said to be under water when a homeowner owes more than the house is worth. Calamity struck Wall Street and the federal rescue was praised and derided as a bailout, a term that brings to mind steel buckets of sloshing flood waters being passed from hand to hand. Lately I have been reflecting on how appropriate these metaphors are when it comes to my own bank account. I have been struggling with a personal financial crisis for nearly a year now and the all-consuming torrent, the undertow of frustration, worry, and shame can only be described as a kind of drowning.
Credit card debt, student loans, car payments, tax debt, cell phone contracts, daycare, home repair, and just generally living above my means; each dollar owed is a drop in a slowly, steadily-accumulating deluge.
But this post is not intended merely to be a confession. I want to pose a question: what is it about money, the abundance or the lack of it, that has such a profound affect on our state of mind? What – who? – gives it the power to make or break our mood, to shape how we view our self image, our potential, and our capacity to be generous in ways that have nothing to do with economic currency?
I’ve been following the weekly “Do-It-Yourself Bailout” series on NPR’s The Takeaway and one of the early segments asks: Why do we find it so hard to talk about money? Psychologist Stephen Goldbart offers a response:
People feel that when you ask about money, you’re asking them: do you have or do you not have self-esteem? Have you made it? Are you likeable? Are you dressed for success? How well is your life going? In effect in this country, money over-determines who we are, our self-esteem, and what we are as people.
Among the solutions that Goldbart proposes to distinguish “our financial worth from our self-worth” is to acknowledge the discomfort that we have when it comes to discussing money, to begin learning the financial basics, and to consider “the guiding principles that you want to have driving your life.”
The costs of failing to address these issues were brought home for me last month when the Insight Center for Community Economic Development released a study on wealth and women of color. (Wealth = total value of one’s assets minus debts.) Headlines prompted by the study seemed to suggest that single black women were “worth” five dollars. But after taking the time to read the Insight CCED’s study and its executive summary, I was more troubled by the finding that in all types of households, “prior to age 50, women of color have virtually no wealth at all.” The exponential impact of this wealth gap is rooted in multi-generational socio-economic policy and even cultural expectations that, according to the study, encourage women to neglect their personal financial goals in favor of family obligations.
In her forthright commentary on the Insight CCED study and black women’s spending habits, Kimberly Foster at The FreshXpress notes that “mental stability and health are inextricable linked to that of our bank accounts.” Which brings me back to my original question. How can we rise above the paralyzing silence in which we track our dignity in accordance with our debt?
Should we begin sharing facts and figures: our paychecks, our credit balances, our overdue notices? Should we form financial support groups and track our progress the way we count points at Weight Watchers? As convinced as I am that the seas of suffering can, indeed, be crossed “without pushing forward, without staying in place,” I am still striving to become financially literate in ways that unanchor material wealth from well-being.
How about you?
The images in this post are from the magnificent underwater sculptures by Jason de Caires Taylor.