You’ve probably read about the benefits of keeping a journal when going through a transition that uproots your entire world. You might write about your breakup to gain clarity, chronicle the history of the marriage to give you some perspective and remind you of what was good. You might do the “three good things” exercise from positive psychology—writing down three positive moments or achievements from the day. But there’s another kind of journaling exercise that those of us ending a relationship might want to do—writing story of our relationship with money.
As with other kinds of destructive emotions, examining your past can help you uncover emotional blocks around money. Writing an autobiography of your experience with money is a good place to start.
Los Angeles-based money therapist Sandy Plone has clients record their first money memory, and then significant events and emotions around money, up to the present. This helps people identify the emotional roots of what can seem like strictly practical problems, such not budgeting, not saving, or consistently under-earning. If you and your ex fought about finances, writing an autobiography of your history with money can be a hugely important part of not repeating these same conflicts in a new relationship. “If people don’t work on their issues, they’ll get into the same pattern with the next person. This is true for any characteristic, and money is no different,” says Plone. “A woman might choose someone who is frugal like a parent. That’s familiar and comfortable. At the beginning, with the lovely insanity of chemistry and falling in love, it seems great. But pretty soon he is just like the ex. He turns into the ex.”
Certified financial planner Brittney Castro, creator of the financial planning firm Financially Wise Women, also asks new clients to write down their very first experience with money, and then continue to the present. “Maybe there was an experience when your parents fought about money. Or was there a dress you wanted to buy in high school but couldn’t afford. Those things seem small, but they really shape your money history,” she says. "These kinds of negative, or scarcity associations with money can influence our attitude and decisions years later."
I did this exercise, and recalled a really empowering first experience of purchasing a stuffed animal in the menswear section of a department store in Columbus, Ohio. I saw the stuffed frog on top of a display, had some money of my own, and then proceeded to try to decipher the price of the frog from the other numbers on the tag attached to his leg. I wound up having exactly the right amount of money for the frog, and I felt lucky, and somehow smart, to have found this toy in an unexpected place.
I still like hunt for great “finds,” to discover that great dress or pair of shoes in an unexpected place. But other money memories for me are less positive. I have a backlog of experiences of not quite having enough or earning enough to do the things I want to do. I also identified with the "starving artist living in a garret in Paris" mythology gleaned from literature classes in college. Somehow earning money would make me part of some distastefully materialistic petit bourgeois.
Today, as a single forty-something mom with a child, living in expensive Los Angeles, I do not idealize the artistic starving-artist life. But it's hard to let go of habits and history.
How to get over the emotional hang-ups about money? “It takes practice, but having an awareness really helps,” says Castro. “When that feeling comes up, ‘Oh God, am I worth this?’ If you can just pause for a moment, and ask yourself, 'Where is this coming from? From growing up? From society?’ Then you get to choose what to do. 'I’m going to do it, and if I’m going to do it, I’m going to feel good about it.'
"I really had to practice feeling good about spending money," says Castro. "You have to notice when the negative thought pops up for you, be aware of it. If you think, 'If I’m making money, then I’m not an artist.' Or, 'It’s bad or greedy. I should be struggling,' then ask yourself, ‘Is that really how I want to live my life?' Then do some affirmations. 'I can have money and happiness.' It really helps."
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.