Have you every had to break your family's rules? Today, I'm breaking mine, around money, secrecy and shame. In 2006, on my brother Keith's 40th birthday, he called. "Tam, I'm in dire straits. I wouldn't ask unless I had to. Can I borrow 7,500 dollars?" This wasn't the first time he needed quick cash, but this time, his voice frightened me. I had never heard him so beaten down and shameful, and it was on his 40th birthday. After a few basic questions that we would all ask, I agreed to loan him the money, but under one condition: that as the financial professional in the family, I wanted to meet with him and his wife to see what was really happening.
Weeks later, we met at the local Starbucks, and I started right in with the tough-love budget conversation. "You should sell the house, downsize to something you can afford, sell the toys. And Starbucks? Give up the five-dollar-a-day coffee."
You know, all the trappings that we do to keep up with the Joneses. Quickly, my brother and his wife went into a fearsome blame game, and it got messy. I vacillated between therapist and pissed-off sister. I wanted them to be better than this.
"Come on, you two. Get your shit together. You're parents. Grow up and buck up." After we left, I called my mom, but Keith beat me to it, and he told her that I wasn't helpful. In fact, he was hurt and felt ganged-up on. Of course he did. I shamed him with my tough-love budget conversation.
Two months went by when I received a call.
"Tam? I have bad news. Keith committed suicide last night." Days later, at his home, I went looking for answers, in his "office"—the garage. There, I found a stack of overdue credit card bills and a foreclosure notice served to him on the day that he died. My brother left behind his beautiful 10-year-old daughter, his brilliant 18-year-old son, weeks before his high school graduation, and his wife of 20 years.
How did this happen? My brother was caught in our family's money-shame cycle, and he was far from alone in this. Suicide rates among adults ages 40 to 64 have risen nearly 40 percent since 1999. Job loss, bankruptcy and foreclosures were present in nearly 40 percent of the deaths, with white middle-aged men accounting for seven out of 10 suicides. What I've learned is that our self-destructive and self-defeating financial behaviors are not driven by our rational, logical minds. Instead, they are a product of our subconscious belief systems rooted in our childhoods and so deeply ingrained in us, they shape the way that we deal with money our entire adult lives, and so many of you are left believing that you're lazy, crazy or stupid—or just bad with money.
This is what I call money shame. Dr. Brene Brown, a well-known shame researcher, defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." Based on this definition, here's how I'm defining money shame: "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of love and belonging, based on our bank account balances, our debts, our homes, our cars and our job titles."
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean. I believe that we all have money shame, whether you earn 10,000 dollars a year or 10 million, and it's because we give money all of our power. Here's what it would look like if someone that you love, or you, might have money shame. They play the big shot, always picking up the check, financially rescuing family and friends. They are financially secure, but they live in a state of chronic not-enoughness. They drive a Mercedes, but their budget really only can afford a Honda. And they're looking good at every cost.
I know that we can break free from the grips of money shame, because I did. Shortly after my brother's death, the Recession hit. I lost my business and faced bankruptcy. Secretly, I was terrified. I stayed in my home for a year, thinking I did something wrong, told myself, "What did you do? What happened?" I stayed silent, while all along, I went outside and smiled. Nobody knew. That's money shame.
So what I had to do was let go of the grip that I had on knowing all the answers. I was the know-it-all in my family, and I had to give up the idea that a new financial plan was the solution. And so just like everything in my life, for me, I was sent a human to help, and I accepted the help, but I had to do major self-inquiry about my family's money history and my money beliefs.
We have to start having this conversation. Money can no longer be a taboo topic. We have to get honest with each other that we're suffering with money issues, and let's get real—we have to stop numbing out our pain. In order to uncover the painful parts of your money story and your money history, you can't be numb. We have to let go of our past in order to be free. Letting go of the past happens through surrender, faith and forgiveness. Debt is the tangible manifestation of not forgiving. If you have debt, you've not completely forgiven your past, so it's our work to forgive ourselves and others so that we can live freely. Otherwise, our history will continue to repeat. This is not a quick fix, and I know we all want one, but it's a slow wake-up. This is another level of work. We have to go higher to get it, to get at it.
So try this: follow your dollars. Your money will show you right away what you value. Where's it going? And then ask yourself: Do I really value all this stuff? And get curious about what you're feeling when you're spending. Are you lonely? Are you bored? Or are you just excited?
But there's deeper work that needs to happen. How did you get all these money beliefs to begin with? I call this your money autobiography, and as a money coach, this is the first step I take with my clients. Think back to your earliest childhood money memory. What did it feel like when you got money? Were you excited, proud or confused? And what did you do with the money? Did you run with the candy store, or did you run to the bank? And what did you hear your parents say, and what did you see your parents do with the money?
My brother and I heard, "More money will make us happy." Every day. "More money will make us happy." And we internalized that into the money belief that our self worth was equal to our net worth as we watched our mom live in a state of chronic not-enoughness. And she numbed the pain with sugar and shopping.
So what did we do? Keith played out my mother's life. He was an underearner, longed to be financially rescued, and he numbed out the pain with alcohol. I did the opposite. I became a high earner, rescuer, and I numbed the pain out with self-help books. But what we had in common was our money belief. We both believed that our bank account balance was equal to our self worth.
Looking back at the Starbucks meeting with my brother...he didn't need a budget and my judgment. He needed a breakthrough from his suffering, and he needed my compassion. Keith was not able to be the one to speak up and break our family money shame cycle, so he left me to do the work and share his legacy. Change is difficult, but in my family, not changing is fatal.
So I did the work, and I have experienced deep and profound forgiveness, and as I stand here today, I am living on purpose, I serve, and money serves me. It only takes one person in your family to break through the money-shame cycle. I want you to be the one.