Mind Over Money

Kristi Nelson says awareness of our thoughts about money can ease tension and allow us to be more creative financially. 

Photo © flickr.com/Darin House

Money is a loaded subject. No matter where we currently sit on the continuum of “enough,” our relationship to money is often burdensome. And for those of us committed to living mindfully, it is no less so.

Mindfulness helps us cultivate qualities of attention so that we can more fully greet and be available for what unfolds in our lives. And yet, when we come face to face with pivotal financial moments—a depleted checkbook, an investment decision, asking for a loan, coveting something we cannot afford, or riding the stock market rollercoaster—mindful attitudes we embody so seamlessly in other moments can disappear. At these times, we can be prone to unconscious emotions and behaviors that lead to suffering.

Fortunately, to the same degree that money is an area of our lives fraught with challenges or neglect, it’s also a pathway that can lead us to greater insight, agency, and ease. In the 25 years I have guided organizations and individuals toward a more fulfilling and effective relationship to money, I have learned that despite the vast differences between us, we have much in common in terms of why we struggle with money, and how we can experience greater peace about it.

Here is a three-part practice you can use to improve your relationship with money.

  • Look Inside

Each of us has a unique money story we carry around and express to the world in countless ways. These stories—our money baggage—can become the unexamined default settings that control our financial lives. Becoming mindful about money means, first, deconstructing the sources of the stories we tell ourselves. We cannot transcend what we cannot see. Consider the role of these influences:

  • Your “Inheritance”

We are products of our ancestors and immediate families, as well as our cultural and class backgrounds. Messages, maxims, and myths about money are overtly and subtly conveyed to us. Are there stories and messages you heard repeatedly growing up? What were you told is “true” about money? How much was “enough” in your family? What attitudes about money or class did you inherit? What were you taught about people from other classes?  How might you still be paying allegiance to this history?

  • Your Driven Self

We all have early beliefs about money that we unwittingly adopted. These beliefs can drive our behavior, filtering what we are able to see. A scarcity mentality keeps us from noticing sufficiency in our lives. Feelings of insatiability make us vulnerable to intoxicating dreams and promises of abundance. Deprivation can result in closeted forms of gluttony. How have desire and aversion played out in your relationship with money? Have you mistaken some of your drivers as your identity?

  • Your Hidden Self

What are you hiding in relation to money? What judgment do you fear? Wealthy people often hide their riches, just as those who struggle with money hide their debt. When we hide what is true, we become “class impostors.” How, in both small and large ways, might you misrepresent the truth about money in your life? How does this keep you from having authentic relationships?

Our money stories are powerful; they can either keep us arrested in illusion or direct us to insight. Let these unconscious places percolate up to your awareness. Once you understand the factors influencing you, you can begin to act with greater discernment. Wonder gently. We all sometimes mistake our story for who we are. Stories are meant to be convincing.

  • Look Outside

Our internal conditions create vulnerabilities that Western societies have set themselves up to “solve.” It’s hard not to be susceptible to the myriad financial remedies and prescriptions that bombard us from the outside. But these “solutions” can narrowly define us and reinforce the status quo rather than encourage us to question the assumptions behind them.

  • Your Plans

Traditional money mavens counsel us to set ambitious goals, create elaborate budgets, and develop long-term financial plans. Their guidance is heavily weighted toward trading away the present moment to prepare for—and protect against—an unknown future, and is based in assumptions: We mustall want to be wealthy, retire early, and have lots of luxuries…with no taxes. To be mature means having a long list of goals focused on “more.” Ends trump means. Security is measured as purely financial. Even some of the most “enlightened” advice owes its roots to these assumptions.

  • Your Spending

In our culture, few habits are as deeply ingrained as the desire to acquire, and few delights rival having scored a bargain, indulged successfully, or invested wisely. Our identities and pleasures become inextricably linked with where we put our money and what this says about us. We develop tastes that need to be expressed and fulfilled, and we reveal our unique fingerprint to the world through the choices we make, including our investments. Even yoga, meditation, and simplicity have been commercialized. We need to stay very mindful; consumerism is a favored domain of mindlessness.

  • Your Earning

We are not what we earn. Just because we can charge $100 per hour doesn’t mean we should, and just because it might be difficult for us to charge $100 an hour doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. If asked by a prospective employer for our required salary range, where do we place the bottom? Doesn’t a range imply a ceiling? Do you have a ceiling of “enough?” Money has become falsely bound up with success, worth, and entitlement. From this entangled place, we can rarely think clearly about what we truly need and value.

It takes very focused work to untangle the places where our thinking and behavior related to money have become convoluted. We may know, intellectually, that security is not “material,” that we are not what we own, and that our lives are not equal to what we earn. But this conditioning goes deep and is reinforced almost everywhere. We are under the weight of tremendous social pressures about money, and getting free requires an equally tremendous commitment.

  • Look at the Whole Picture

Time, energy, and love are forms of currency, as is money. What we do with these precious resources tells the hard truth about who we are and what matters to us. We claim and re-claim ourselves in the allocation of our currencies. Our clear intentions can form a touchstone for our financial freedom, just as the breath moving in and out of our bodies can be the touchstone for mindfulness practice.

  • Your Values

Much as our bodies align around the spine, our financial lives need to align with the template of our values. We must consistently explore, define, and check our values.

What do you truly stand for? What principles and beliefs do you want to express with your life? What commitments do you want to advance? How much is yourenough point? What difference do you want to make? What is the real cost of more/less than enough to your life, relationships, and the world?

Articulating our core values is not an idle exercise. It is powerful and humbling, and plants us on the cushion of self-responsibility and accountability. The work of our values is to be alive—how we do and don’t bring our values to life is our work.

  • Your Money

Choose to look very clearly at how money comes into your life and where it goes. The raw truth of our money trail tells an important story. Details matter. Hold every allocation against your values template and examine the degree to which it contradicts or advances what matters to you. How do your values show up in your income? How don’t they? Do you hold onto money out of fear? Do you give away more than you can truly afford? Do you have more than you need? Less than you need? Notice. Honestly.

Ultimately, the antidote to being susceptible to the pull of our internal stories and the lure of society’s money messages may rest in unequivocally knowing what we stand for, and aspiring to embody that in every single financial decision we make. As Cheri Huber, author of Transform Your Life: A Year of Awareness Practice, says, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Everything is a chance at freedom.

  • Your Choice

Prominently display some of your values: Write them on your checkbook, computer screen, wallet, and credit cards. Remind yourself what you stand for. Try bringing balance to your checkbook every month. Be generous—give something meaningful away. Start a sufficiency conversation every day. Express gratitude for all the ways you are rich. Be transparent with a friend. Nourish community. Express compassion by making a thoughtful donation. What else can you do to start a mindful money movement in your life?

If we commit to a mindful relationship to money as a portal to learning, we can befriend what we have been ignoring, release myths we’ve been harboring, and live more fully the life we want—and the world needs. Allowing money to be front and center in our attention, we can take a deep breath each time we face a pivotal financial moment, and explore new possibilities for having money illustrate what we truly want to embody in our lives.