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The Fear of Running Out of Money (Confronting My Financial Skeletons)

Updated: Apr 23

When I was a kid, money was like a magic wand. I would ask my dad for something, and he would reach into his pocket. Then, he would hand the clerk some paper (money), and the toy of my dreams would appear like magic. I know this sounds like an over-the-top description. Yet, through my childlike perception, this was the reality.

I also remember hearing "No" to many of my wishes for new toys. It was confusing. Sometimes I would get my dream toy and often I didn't. As I got older, my parents learned all sorts of creative ways to avoid having to spend money on my every whim. I heard the proverbial "money doesn't grow on trees," and of course I heard "we can't afford that." Which is quite a rational and realistic response from an adult perspective. To my child brain it was confusing.

One exchange between my dad and I stands out. When I asked him to buy me something he said "you don't need that" of course I argued. I explained to him why I needed and deserved it. Exasperated, I remember him saying "we can't afford that" to which I replied, "why not?"

I Shamed My Dad

I will never forget the look on his face, when I asked that "why not" question. His face went red, he looked away and got real quiet. I kept insisting we could and should get it. I will never forget what he said next, "Never mind, you won't understand," and "You're not getting it." I was crestfallen, confused and hurt.

As we drove home, I remember wondering what he meant when he said: "we can't afford it." It was a long, quiet drive home. We hardly spoke. Some time later I remember having a conversation with my mom. She attempted to explain what it meant when "we cannot afford something." All I remember is her comment, "If we overspend, we will run out of money. If we run out of money, we will have nowhere to live and nothing to eat."

Financial Trauma or Life Lesson?

To my young mind that seemed incomprehensible and very confusing. In my innocent, naive mind we would go out and get more money. Which I know sounds unrealistic. Hearing my mother’s description of what it meant to "run out of money," that felt like the end of the world.

I wish I could tell you that over the years I began to understand the value of money. I wish that I could say that I understood that "money did not grow on trees."

Our family never discussed money. It was either whispered behind closed doors, or there was yelling. I learned to be very careful when it came to talking about money. Better yet keep my thoughts to myself. Don't ask for anything because I didn't want to be the one causing our family to "run out of money." I didn't want to be the one causing us to be homeless and hungry.

That day the "fear of running out of money" was planted in my consciousness. Little did I realize how much that fear would affect my life. I married a woman who had an absolute mortal fear of running out of money. It didn't matter how much money we had, a lot or a little, she was obsessed with the fear of being an "old homeless woman." As an entrepreneur, I knew I could make more money, but that gave her no reassurance.

We Grew Up Different

She grew up in a home where her mother was a penny pincher and a father who was a professional gambler. She had stories of going hungry and her mother’s endless worry about her father's gambling. Yet, in my childhood I never experienced lack. My brother always said I was the "spoiled one" and I think he was right. I was the youngest child.

Very early I left being an employee to become self-employed. Eventually, I became an "employer." I wanted more opportunity and the ability to control how I made money.

Same Fear, Different Coping Methods

What I realize now is that we both had a fear of money. We each had very different ways of coping with the fear of "running out of money." Mine was to figure out how to make more money or make large chunks of money. Hers was to obsess about running out of money and save, save, save. I saw our savings account as a resource, as investment capital to make more money. She saw savings as a sense of security.

I never felt trusted for my ability to provide and make money. She saw me as reckless with money. No matter how much we had in our accounts, it seemed like it was never enough. It was not fun for either of us. We both had a fear of running out of money, but neither of us coped well. We couldn't discuss money without arguing. Because of this inability to discuss it openly, we were very haphazard in our approach to money management. Who am I kidding? It was a train wreck.

Lessons Gleaned Looking Back

This is what I learned writing this article. The fear of running out of money gets implanted early in life. It takes solid communication and the courage to talk about it to resolve differences. Money gives us choices to live life on our own terms. It is also a great mystery in how it plays out in our psyche; this requires great patience.

It is time to pull our money shame out of the closet and examine it, talk about it.

Money touches every area of our lives. We each have strong emotions tied to our money. I've found by talking and writing about them I feel less stressed. At least now I know where the "fear of running out of money" monster hides. It hides in plain sight, in every day, in every way and in every financial decision.

Confront Your Financial Skeletons

If you are still reading this, my hope is that you will bring your financial skeletons out into the light. That you will look closely at your beliefs, worries and concerns around money. Figure out what stories, beliefs and patterns about money are serving you. Throw out the ones that hurt you and maybe begin to feel a little more comfortable with your money.

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