Reflection 25: The Vise of Money

Money is rivetingly important. What topic is more shrouded in secrecy, or more fraught with emotion? Some years ago Madonna had a filmmaker record her life. She told him everything was fair game. He could film her having sex. He could film her going to her bathroom. But when she met with her financial advisors, no cameras.

In our tell-all world, ask yourself this question: How many people tell-all about their finances?

One experiment I used to run with groups was to ask them to reflect silently on two sets of questions.

  • The first: Who do you have sex with? How often? How do you do it?
  • The second: How much money do you make? How much do you spend? What is your net worth?

After silently contemplating their answers for a couple of minutes, I would then ask which set of questions caused greater anxiety as they thought about sharing their responses. Typically, 80-90% of participants chose the money questions.

The obvious lesson? Our most pervasive and powerful taboos are around money.

Introducing this exercise to one of my men’s groups, events took an unexpected turn when one of the participants, unprompted, simply answered the money questions. Influenced by his example, the others followed suit. The conversation that followed was fascinating. Financially undressed, every man confessed to an area of marked shame or fear: One about over spending; another about his income; still another about unwise investment decisions.


None of this is happenstance. The values that predominate in our culture are compete and win, dominate and control – and money is their single most compelling measure. Why? To begin with, it is so quantifiable. An $80,000 income is, unquestionably, more than a $60,000 income.

Money is moreover wonderfully fungible, providing a universally applicable measuring stick that judges all of us without regard to our interests, passions or disposition. Artists, academics, and religious leaders – just like business people – are typically honored in proportion to their ability to sell the “product” (books, paintings, etc.) and to command large audiences and fees. And stay-at-homes moms – who offer leadership in raising our children and organizing our family and social lives, but don’t make money – struggle with issues of self worth far more than, say, accountants and lawyers.

In the movie Inside Job, academic department heads at Columbia and Harvard were asked if they perceived any conflict of interest in the extraordinary fees they and their colleagues received from the industries they studied. Their almost identical response was a disingenuous “no.” The lesson? Even in this supposedly more principled world, making money trumps other competing values – even academic integrity.


This obsession with money is chillingly effective in locking us into lives that condone and promote the culture’s mainstream values. The prospect of economic instability pushes the vast majority of us into a lifetime of indenture to mainstream jobs for which we feel little or no passion.

Indeed, in my psychotherapy practice, I am shocked at the number of clients who don’t even dream of something better. Even contemplating a choice that might place the mortgage and health insurance at risk – and, possibly, consign them to society’s bin of financial losers – is, it seems, too scary or discouraging. Since there is no way out, why even try? Just play the game and do best you can to make peace with it.

The sad part in all of this is that almost no one wins the money game. Since it is a comparative sport, someone is always doing better. And today’s “winner” will, in the great majority cases, be tomorrow’s loser.

Moreover, even when the comparative aspect of the money game is ignored, there are few winners. The person that said “we live up to our means” was right. In Bonfire of the Vanities (written over 20 years ago) Tom Wolfe explained how a bond broker making $900,000 a year was just getting by, what with the expense of private schools, a Park Avenue condo, and a summer home in the Hamptons.

Closer to home, I will always remember a young law partner in the 1990s – with a wife, kids, and house in the suburbs – who explained to me that he could give nothing to the United Way because he was “broke.” His annual income: $125,000.


An important first step in coming to grips with money’s vise-like hold on our lives is to challenge the culture’s conspiracy of silence. We need to move beyond the idea that it is unseemly or impolite to talk openly about what we, and others, make and accumulate, and how these assets are used.

This social taboo has a serious purpose, and it is not good manners. To the contrary, it is designed to shield all of us – but particularly the wealthy – from virtually any personal responsibility around money. Who in our midst is committing meaningful resources to the needs of the disadvantaged? And who is doing nothing? Beyond occasional bits of information – usually volunteered for a self-interested purpose and seldom critically examined – we simply don’t know.

This silence spares all of us from any extrinsic pressure to examine our behavior when it comes to money. And while it is easy to take comfort in this escape from responsibility, the price we pay, individually and as a society, is far too great.

At a macro level, here is the shell game that this conspiracy of silence has made possible: First, we have progressively privatized the programs that support the disadvantaged; starving governmental programs and, then, relying on donor-supported nonprofits to fill the void. Celebrating the virtues of volunteerism and individual initiative, we leave the financing of vast parts of the safety net to the whims of individuals who, cloaked in anonymity, feel virtually no social pressure to step up to the plate.

The results are utterly predictable. Wealthy people – with statistically insignificant exceptions – invest either nothing or a grotesquely tiny proportion of their resources in programs for the needy.

In truth, rich people have been given license – even encouragement – to abdicate any sense of social responsibility even as, in their quest for ever greater wealth, they tighten their grip on the levers of power. Unchecked, this is a prescription for an unraveling of society. Lacking a larger sense of responsibility, what is to stop them from relocating their assets overseas, to better maximize profits? And, indeed, this is happening every day, at an accelerating pace.

Our secrecy around money also inflicts an unacceptably high price in our personal lives. If we hope to live differently and better, we need the support of intimate communities than can help to move us through and beyond our paralyzing fears.       But doing so is an impossibility so long as money and the pressures and fears that surround it – the very issues that lead to so many of our sleepless nights – are enveloped in a cone of silence. Thus, at a personal level as well, a frank and open discussion of about money is a vital.


Another key step toward improving our unhealthy relationship around money is to ease its hold on our sense of well-being. We think that we will be safe if only we have “enough” money. And yet, the opposite is actually much closer to the truth: No amount of money, reasonably within our grasp, will ever make everything ok. Given the risks and uncertainties that are at the very center of our competitive economic system, almost no one is immune from financial peril.

Embracing this hard reality can, in fact, be empowering and life changing. Doing so, we are in a much better position, psychologically, to wean ourselves from the reflexive tendency to view financial security as life’s unquestioned priority.

And what should replace it? An approach to living that, while tending to financial realities, makes our hopes and dreams the central focus.

Beyond that, we need to persistently experiment at the edge of our fears around money: Foregoing a work opportunity to attend our daughter’s swim meet; increasing our charitable commitments beyond a place of comfortable tokenism; considering a new, lower paying job that more closely reflects our life’s passion.

The work is hard but, with focus and persistence, it has the potential to make us far more effective agents for change – in our lives and in the world.