Today’s Top Stressor

Ted Klontz grew up dirt-poor on a 500-acre farm in southern Ohio in the 1940s. His family raised its own food and sold meat, eggs, and butter for cash. He had one pair of shoes and two changes of clothes, and he didn't go to a dentist until he was 16.

So his wealthy uncle's visits made a big impression on him—and on the rest of the family. Ted's uncle had left Ohio and gone into construction in Florida, where he eventually became a real-estate developer. The mere fact that he could afford to fly home and rent a car at the airport drew the ire of his relations, who assumed his money came from exploiting the poor.

"I grew up listening to them vilify him," says Klontz. "The unstated message was, if you want to be thrown out of the family, be successful like him."

In his adult life, that hidden message shaped Klontz's every financial decision. Even with stable employment, his fortunes cycled between boom and bust, and he found it almost painful to put aside money for retirement. His struggles would eventually lead him to become a financial therapist—a psychologist who specializes in money issues. "I knew somehow my unconscious thinking about money was sabotaging my finances," he says.

These days, of course, finances are being undermined by more than just thinking, and Klontz's uncle might well be hitchhiking back to the family farm. The economic downturn that began last year has left the well-off nearly as vulnerable as the worse-off. Financial worries are keeping Americans of all income levels up at night: In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association in September, as the recession was gathering steam, money ranked as the top stressor for 8 out of 10 respondents. Almost half reported growing concern about the ability to provide for their families' basic needs.

But psychologists and economists alike say that much of this stress results not from actual material circumstances but from hidden fantasies and fears, such as Klontz's. Steeped in his family's attitudes, Klontz grew up equating material success with exploiting the poor and being ostracized by loved ones. That association kept him in a state of self-defeating ambivalence about accumulating money, reflected in roller-coaster ups and downs of his finances. Whenever he found himself flush and began to save, an unwillingness to appear exploitative and a fear of abandonment would kick in and he'd find himself squandering earnings. Then he'd have to scrimp to get out of debt.

Even in prosperous times, such unconscious beliefs distort our financial dealings. In hard times, where there's no margin for messing up, they can wreak havoc on our budgets, our relationships, and our peace of mind. To find our bearings in the new economic reality, experts say, we need to expose and explore our implicit attitudes about money. Typically, that means reexamining ideas about value, necessity, success, and security. Those who do it stand to reap more than financial stability. There is a huge psychic dividend—discovering that self-worth is wholly separate from net worth.

The cash-poor have as much to gain as the better-off, says Ed Jacobson, a psychologist and business coach based in Madison, Wisconsin. Realistic budget-conscious living can have a salutary effect on how we find meaning in our culture. "If you're operating on fewer financial assets, that doesn't mean you have to operate on fewer emotional, spiritual, interpersonal, or familial assets," he says. "It's a good time to take inventory, to look at what the sources of wealth and abundance in our lives really are."

Money is laden with subjective associations that have accrued over decades, typically originating in the childhood mind trying to make primitive sense of the world and operating thereafter below the level of conscious awareness. Klontz calls these "money scripts," assumptions about "how things are" when it comes to money. Some common scripts go: "There will always be enough" or "There will never be enough." "The fat cat will get away clean and leave you holding the bag" or "Hard work always pays off." Sound familiar?

Money scripts can also stand in for complex feelings that people are either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge. Klontz's parents, for example, raised to distrust outsiders and to stick together as a clan, may have resented his uncle's independence. They may have felt that he abandoned them by leaving Ohio, and in their rejection of his lifestyle they sought to return the slight. Recognizing and expressing these feelings may have required a degree of insight and honesty that was beyond them. So they condemned him for his money.

Even in the best of times, money scripts rarely lead to realistic or healthy appraisals of financial circumstances, Klontz says. Too often they present a rigid vision that leads to blaming others for one's financial problems or denying that one has problems at all. Negative scripts can be fatalistic, fostering a sense of helplessness and victimization: What's the use of poor old me trying if the fat cats always get it all? Positive ones can be dangerously simplistic or naive: If hard work always pays off, and I get into trouble, then all I have to do is work harder—when, in fact, it may be time to switch strategies.

Periods of economic instability, involving sudden gain or loss, invariably challenge money scripts. Then, all one's implicit beliefs about money can give rise to feelings of panic, anger, and betrayal, very primitive feelings related to one's upbringing concerning money and the stories around money absorbed unconsciously.

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