The Shriver Report – How I Re-Shaped My Relationship with Money
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How I Re-Shaped My Relationship with Money

I grew up with privileges like private school, tennis camps and vacations in Florida. However, money problems are never about bank account balances. My dysfunction with money started early. I inherited my first job from my older sister, selling breakfast to parishioners at my family’s church. I had a terrible time resisting the allure of the money in the cash box. To solve that problem, I carefully devised a system of shopping for the church breakfast items at a store where my parents had a charge account and spent the cash on CDs. Also during high school, I developed deftly sticky fingers and got quite a thrill out of shoplifting clothes, gifts and teenage trinkets all over the country.

After college, my first job as an intern teacher paid a gross salary of $18,000 per year. Now living in San Francisco, I necessarily took on second, third, and fourth jobs tutoring, coaching, and leading outdoor adventure trips to supplement my income. I also mastered the art of transferring balances from one 0% APR credit card to another in order to buy time. I received some money from my family each year, but the mixed messages and emotional consequences of interacting with my parents about money grew increasingly difficult to deal with. My mom bought me plane tickets home on a moment’s notice, but visit after visit my dad scolded me, demanding to be included in the conversation. My mom experienced joy and celebrated life by spending. My dad was very frugal and worked…a lot.

Throughout my twenties, I had no money management skills, had never balanced a checkbook or been able to maintain savings, and had absolutely no clue how to set a budget. I didn’t lose control overnight, but my lack of attention eventually manifested in compulsive shopping (like the time I took a spontaneous trip to Italy by myself for three weeks as an attempt to break up with someone), overspending (like when I started an S-CORP at the random suggestion of an out-of-state accountant) and painfully blurred financial lines with roommates and friends (like when I discovered that my boyfriend had six digits of consumer debt). The worst part was being overly emotional about money – I’d burst into tears when anybody, particularly men, needed to discuss money with me. As a result, I had constant guilt, fear of impending catastrophe, and massive amounts of shame.

“The worst part was being overly emotional about money – I’d burst into tears when anybody, particularly men, needed to discuss money with me. As a result, I had constant guilt, fear of impending catastrophe, and massive amounts of shame.”

I had been getting healthy in other areas of my life through yoga, individual and group therapy, and various Bay Area transformational workshops, but I was still overwhelmed by money. Personal finance became the final frontier, and I literally woke up one day shortly after my thirtieth birthday and said, “I can’t live like this.”  I was determined to fix it. So began my quest for a financial education. I read innumerable books, tried Quicken, Mint, cognitive financial therapy (including a 30-day cash only diet and completing a wardrobe inventory before I was “allowed” to shop again) and even designed my own financial tracking software.  While these experiments were inspiring, each only lasted about 6-9 months, before left to my own devices, I would float back into the money fog.

Ten years after graduating from college and twenty years after getting my first job, a friend suggested I hire a money coach.  “What’s that?” I asked.  During the first phone call with Karen McCall, the founder of the Financial Recovery Institute, she explained, “Money coaching is a customized blend of financial planning and financial therapy. You’re in the right place and it never has to get worse than it is today.”

I felt cared for, seen, heard, and understood. Immediately upon starting the practical and emotional work of the money coaching process things started to change, however, I also saw that my life-long belief system about money would take some time to understand and reframe. For the first time in my life, I had access to essential financial tools and distinctions.

I had a financial accountability partner, someone I was not enmeshed with, to help me look at the psychology of money and be honest about everything. My money coach celebrated my money victories and compassionately listened while I confessed my resistance and past mistakes. Over time, I repaid each and every store I had ever stolen from, which took the form of mailing cash and anonymous letters to Traverse City, London, Carmel…and of course my family’s church.

One day at a time, I learned sustainable, practical tools like tracking my expenses and creating spending plans, a.k.a monthly and annual budgets. I addressed my under-earning issues by starting to believe in my worth and practicing negotiation skills. By acknowledging and learning to discern between needs and wants I found reprieve from feelings of deprivation. I stopped using credit cards altogether and started a periodic savings account.

“One day at a time, I learned sustainable, practical tools like tracking my expenses and creating spending plans, a.k.a monthly and annual budgets. I addressed my under-earning issues by starting to believe in my worth and practicing negotiation skills.”

I cultivated a sense of gratitude in a daily journal by focusing on being present, noticing what I have, what went well and what felt good. I faced my entire financial history without fainting and the grip of anxiety slowly lifted. With these newly cultivated tools, strength and a sense of awareness, I was able to participate in adult conversations about money again. I made changes in my work life to align my earning and spending with my values and, at long last, I became fully self-supporting.

The process of healing my relationship to money was so profound and life altering that I completed the yearlong intensive financial counselor training program at the Financial Recovery Institute and started my own holistic money coaching practice. I finally found what I had been searching for all of those years and was surprised to also discover a career that I absolutely love. I no longer regret the past, continue to grow and live for the future. I have a thriving coaching practice and have even started teaching other women how to build sustainable businesses themselves. Perhaps most importantly, I discovered that I am not, and never was, alone.

Carrie Birgbauer is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Money coaching is a customized blend of financial planning and financial therapy. Carrie Birgbauer, M.A. guides people on a path to financial freedom through a holistic coaching process, which includes developing a personal money practice. She helps professionals, families and small business owners take control of their finances and find lasting peace about money. With Carrie's mindful counseling, clients take a rigorous look at their income and expenses to create a flexible framework (a.k.a. monthly and annual budgets) for making smart and guilt-free financial decisions on a consistent basis.
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