Category Archives: money

Being a Good Debtor

debt burdenPart of being in business is that clients owe me money. And part of being an accountant is acting for clients when they owe money.  So I regularly get to play on both sides of the debt equation: being both Creditor (they owe me) and Debtor (I owe them).  This piece is about how to manage  things well as a debtor – how to be a Good Debtor.

For most people being in debt is incredibly stressful. Our culture sees debt as bad: we talk about the ‘debt burden’, and the ‘debt trap’. Having a mortgage is seen as a kind of moral negation: signing the mortgage is to “sign one’s life away”.  Understandably in this cultural context, not being able to pay your bills brings up feelings of shame, anxiety, embarrassment and fear.  These emotions can make it really hard to act simply with self-compassion and clear communication.

Understanding Power

There’s several things, though, that can really help.  First is understanding power.  When you “go delinquent” on a debt, i.e. you don’t pay when you should, suddenly you have a lot of power.  In effect you hold someone else’s money, and you are saying you won’t give it to them.  You are, at one level, unilaterally tearing up the implicit contract you and your creditor agreed to initially when they agreed to supply you and you agreed to pay.

If your creditor is a corporation, then there’s not much emotional charge involved. But debt collecting for corporations is costly – staff, lawyers, communications resources, collection agency fees etc etc.  They’d rather not be doing it. Your power in the situation is forcing them to spend money on something that’s not actually their core business.

If your creditor is HMRC or any tax authority, the situation is slightly different. You have the added power of being able, potentially, to draw public scrutiny if you are creative and energetic enough.  HMRC is constantly (and quite rightly) under scrutiny, and is sensitive to this as an organisation.  It has a whole set of standards it is obliged to stick to in dealings with taxpayers – and you can at any moment publicly claim it is not doing so.

If your creditor is a small business, then your power is much more significant.  Your creditor may be sole operator – in which case it can easily seem personal to them.  They fear that you’ve just pulled a power move by saying you’re not going to give them the money which is rightfully theirs.  This power aspect is a huge contribution to the difficulty and very high charge around debt collection particularly for small creditors.

Actions

So far and away the most important thing you can do to be a good debtor is to clearly acknowledge the debt.

Because of the shame and fear which often comes up when you can’t pay your bills, it’s incredibly tempting to project your own emotions back on to your creditor by blaming your creditor in some way: their service wasn’t very good, or their invoice is wrong, or late. Or they didn’t give what you specified. It goes on and on.

If any of those things actually are true, then they need to be addressed as issues in their own right.  And they are not the same as the issue of acknowledging the debt.

Clearly acknowledging the debt makes it clear to the creditor that you are NOT unilaterally throwing out your mutual contract. Rather, you wish to honour the contract, and there is a much more specific and much smaller issue, which is that you just can’t pay at the moment.

By far the best way to acknowledge the debt in practice is to be proactive in your communication. Don’t wait for your creditor to chase you.  As soon as you know you can’t pay on time, get on the phone to them, email them, text them – whatever.  This indicates more strongly than anything else that you care about them, that you are aware of your debt and you want to clear it.

This works even with large corporations and government bodies.  Even though you’d only be dealing with a functionary with, in theory, no emotional investment in what you do, that person will be making notes on your file, which all build up a picture of you as a good debtor – someone they don’t have to worry about.

Even if your situation is dire, e.g. you’re not going to be able to pay for maybe a year or more, large organisations would rather put your file in a holding tank for a long time than take legal action against you – because legal action is costly, with an almost guaranteed eventual failure if you have no money. So why would they throw good money after bad.

The same is true of the small operator too:  their best bet is to try to accommodate you and support you to improve your situation.  But small operators get much more antsy, because they are much more vulnerable to your power.  If you and they have no personal connection or are not connected via community, then they have no information about your integrity.  There is the constant doubt in their mind that maybe you’re just having them on, or that you are not reliable.  So small operators need more frequent reassurance that you care about your debt to them.

What is incredibly reassuring here is that you do what you say you will do.  It doesn’t matter how bad your situation is, or how long you will take to pay.  If you say you will do something then do it.  This says “integrity” more strongly than anything else.  That’s why it is much much better to be realistic in assessing what is actually likely in the near future for you with money, and much better to be honest with your creditor about what you can and can’t do.

Summary

Being in debt is not a bad thing in itself.  At one level, when dealing with other small businesses, it is an opportunity to use your potential power as a debtor to strengthen community by drawing on the support of others. And, as in any power play, doing this takes attention and care and respect.

Being unable to pay your bills does not need to be emotionally dramatic. It can simply a situation to encounter – and it can be encountered with competence and ease with these basic steps:

  • Clearly acknowledge the debt.
  • Be proactive in your communication.
  • Be realistic about what and when you can pay.
  • Do what you say you will do.

Getting Help

For most people, dealing well with debt is a new set of skills.  So it’s great to get help while you’re learning.

You can talk with me about your feelings and attitudes, and we can develop possibilities and build concrete strategies.  And I can negotiate on your behalf in certain conditions.

And there’s loads of free help. Here’s four excellent starting points.

 

I’m so successful, my business is disappearing!

As my third tax season in London kicks off, I’ve just had a run of established clients emailing me saying “I’ve done my 2014-15 figures; can you just have a look over them?”

Success!

I’ve been working with these clients for 2 or 3 years doing Tax Coaching – working with them around their records, bookkeeping and tax.  And, hey – they’re really getting it together!  It usually takes 2-3 cycles of doing something to really learn it, and so it makes sense that my more established clients are building competencies and starting to stand on their own feet.

2015-09-21 12.47.02But also – oh damn!

I’m only going to get £60 out of them this season instead of a few hundred. The model I’ve had for my business has been to build up a stable of really great clients, everyone gets their needs met and we can all have a really great time as I devote myself to our gradually evolving working relationships.

I was getting close to that goal, but now my business is disappearing!

I hadn’t counted on the larger implications of my central guiding principle in working with clients: empowerment.

Empowering clients around tax, or Tax Coaching, is all about making sure they have appropriate SkillsKnowledge and Attitude to do their own tax. We work together in a circular fashion, cycling through all three areas over several tax cycles, with a mix of encounters with their feelings, practical exercises with records and numbers, and straight information on tax law. Gradually the client comes into a new relation with their tax return, as they build a new story about themselves as capable and confident to do what’s necessary, and have this story affirmed by their new experience.

I just love this process. I love being involved in the actuality of it.  I love the resulting change for the client.  And I really deeply love contributing these things to my community.  One of my dreams is to live in community in which money doesn’t represent power, or status, or worth, or legitimacy. Where money isn’t used as a stand-in for personal boundaries or a way to insulate us from our vulnerabilities. A community in which money is simply a tool, no more and no less important than other tools, and the majority of people feel easy and competent about doing whatever they do day-to-day with money.  A community in which, when a new project is conceived, people don’t go “what a great idea but, oh we can’t do it – we don’t have the money.” But rather people go, “oh yes that’s worth putting effort into. Now let’s get the resources together we need for it and create it.”

Moving towards this dream involves developing attitude, skills and knowledge, as I said.  But by far the biggest of these is attitude: the stories we hold and the feelings we have about money. Even when clients have the skills and the knowledge, what hangs around the longest is their story that tax is hard, money is hard, I’m no good with numbers, etc etc. I’ve heard several times in the last week from newly empowered clients “I was surprised how easy it was to do my tax.”

Every client who experiences this transformation of their experience with tax then carries that embodied knowledge with them as they move through their life and interact with others in the community. They no longer carry the tension of fear, shame, anxiety – or whatever it was – within themselves. And when they encounter those tensions in others they can say “ah, you feel that; yes – and you don’t need to you. It’s possible to become empowered. There is another way to be around tax and money.”

And maybe, too, having learned how to handle tax as just an ordinary thing like tying your shoelaces or doing the washing up, maybe their relationship with money might change in other ways too. They might feel more confident to track the money in their business more closely, and come into a more confident and affirmative relationship with how their business generates that money.  Through this they may feel more able to share their unique gifts with the community, and thereby enrich both themselves and the community.

In short, empowerment around tax can have ripple effects beyond the individuals who are becoming empowered. And this possibility excites me – hugely!  The more people I can empower around money and tax, the more social capital my community has. And the more ease, and pleasure.

So maybe my business isn’t disappearing after all. Maybe it’s morphing from an accounting service for individuals and small businesses into a community development project around money…

Money, relationships and physical survival

As children we are socialised into connecting money with physical survival. This is culturally specific – other cultures connect physical survival with the community and/or the land or spiritual beings. But in Western cultures (and many other cultures too) having no money brings up deep fears about not being able to survive.

In the West money is a key index to the distribution of physical resources. In many cultures, people live within networks of gift and obligation, where physical resources are distributed according to the web of obligation relationships which ensure the whole community’s wellbeing. In contrast, Western culture sees people as “individuals”: atomised entities which have no necessary connections with each other, and whose interactions with each other are arranged as contracts between two “parties”.  Fulfilling the contract i.e. supplying the goods and receiving the money, finalises the relationship – it “cleans out” any obligations between the two parties.

Money is also something you can “have”, can accumulate and store.  Physical resources and social participation are accessed by “having” money – money is a gateway or entry condition for these things.  So in the West access to basic physical resources and social participation are highly conditional – they are not seen as a birthright by virtue of being alive.

Even though this is horrifically harsh at one level, at another level this commercial or “contractarian” approach was historically a massive step forward.  The benefit of inserting money into the community web is that it allows radical freedom i.e. it allows people to pursue life paths outside of the community’s norms. It means that individuals are not obligated to participate in the tightly woven kinship networks which are “traditional” i.e. they work by maintaining large areas of shared values and perspectives deriving from what’s worked in the past.

So in the West we have the freedom to do anything we want, as long as we are prepared to “govern ourselves” i.e. as long as we are prepared to comply with the basic game of generating money for ourselves (and some other things).  The 19th and 20th centuries saw this ethos gradually become established as the Western cultural norm.

Two quite unrelated developments in the last 30-40 years are now prompting some new directions.  Firstly, the dawning of “aquarian consciousness” or the “New Age” has seen the development of a wholly new set of technologies of selfhood and relationship. Building on the prevailing emphasis on individualism, these new technologies support us to become increasingly anchored in a self which is more internal and less reliant on external anchors such as marriage, job, money, and family.

Secondly, the rise of neoliberalism and globalisation has stripped away the last remaining vestiges of the pre-modern fabric of community, and thrown us in to the fully contractarian neoliberal “free market” in which “choices” proliferate as long as they are economic choices, and we must engage with these “choices” because there is less and less social security.

Increasingly people who are working with the first (i.e. a more internally anchored self) are questioning the amoral and impersonal basis of the second, and are asking “how can we do things differently?”

The opportunity is clear:  it is possible to reduce our need for money if we involve ourselves more in community relationships.  This is not to say we can do away with money entirely.  Rather, we can reduce how much money we need each week by sharing more, co-operating more, and being involved in more community activities.

But this goes against our Western heritage as individuals with radical freedom – and as a result increased co-operation and sharing challenges us at a very deep level.  We can meet these challenges and go through a profound transformation of self by becoming adept with the New Age technologies of self which enable us to successfully engage in relationships by being even more “selfish” or self-anchored than is customary in the modern West.

The change specifically around money which is enabled by this transformative self-work is to gradually loosen our socialised deep emotional connection between money and physical survival, and to harness some physical survival needs to relationships and community.

An example of how this can work is in house sharing. Many people share housing because they can’t afford to have a place on their own. In other words, what most people really want is their own place, their own home.  Sharing is largely seen as a necessary evil or a step on the path to something “real” i.e. their own home.

This view is based in the belief that it’s not possible to really feel “at home” with people who are not “family” (or perhaps not with people at all). Most people in house shares “put up a front” when dealing with housemates, and of course this takes effort.  But what if we could be “really ourselves” with our housemates? What if our housemates also wanted to do that?  What if we used these new technologies of self to build relationships with housemates which are not “family” in the conventional sense but are nevertheless intimate enough that we come to feel deeply “at home” i.e. safe to be our real self in their company?

This transforms a house-share situation from a burdensome or awkward arrangement which must therefore be only temporary into something which is deeply nourishing and therefore sustainable indefinitely. “Home” is neither “family” nor an onerous necessity through economic lack.  “Home” segues into “intimate community”.

What makes this possible is technologies of self which enable us to expose our vulnerabilities to a far greater extent because we are also able to set boundaries when we need to.  For most of us most of the time, personal boundaries and ours sense of safety are maintained by a collection of common social arrangements which are part of the structure of our lives. We live in spaces defined by physical walls which cut off interaction; we move between episodes of social interaction which have clear endings; we engage in contractarian exchanges which are completed; etc.

Rather than relying on structural aspects of situations to maintain our personal boundaries, a deeper connection with our inner world enables us to detect our safety needs “on the fly” and to communicate those to our companions in ways which enable us to stay safe AND stay in connection.  This means that the episodic nature of interactions which is currently largely organised for us by the structures in our environment no longer need to occur for reasons of psychic wellbeing or personal integrity.  Episodes of interaction end for purely physical reasons – you want to go to place X while I go to place Y.  Or I want to spend 1-2-1 time with you, then you, then you.  Even though we are physically separated the sense of connection can continue, the openness to that person or people continues internally, and thus psychically we stay in relationship.

In this context, sharing physical resources becomes simply a matter of practical organising rather than coded negotiations around personal boundaries.  Financially this is an enormous benefit since in our affluent society there are vast quantities of physical resources available around us all the time which are inaccessible to us simply because of relational difficulties.  But in practice the vast majority of those physical resources lie idle most of the time or are used for only a short time before being discarded.

There is a huge world here to explore.  House sharing is only one example – obviously it can be applied in many areas of life.  Of course there’s many reasons to explore what’s possible in relationships – not just to do with money!  And there are many doorways into it.  Our relationship with money is just one doorway in, and the questions I ask in relation to money are: how do you organise your physical survival? And how do you arrange your social participation?  Making shifts in either of these areas brings up our “stuff” about money and about relationships and, ultimately, our “stuff” about self.  And that’s where the work begins!

Tax coaching: how it works

My guiding theme with clients is empowerment: supporting the client to move beyond negative and even crippling stories about money, and come into a positive relationship with managing their money where they feel they are steering things from a place of confidence and pride.

Often people are prompted to come to an accountant for their tax.  But more and more of my clients don’t want me just to do it for them. Many people for whom their business is their spiritual path recognise that their growth requires them to address their difficulties with money.  One area which is often difficult for people is tax returns.

The shit with tax returns

The most immediate and obvious difficulty with tax returns is a deficit of information.  Often people simply don’t know what the rules are about tax, or how those rules apply to their situation, or the meanings of specific terms. And these things are often incredibly difficult to find out.  Not knowing what the rules are means most people are operating in a situation in which they don’t know whether they are complying with them or breaking them.  In behaviour research, this is widely recognised as the most stressful situation possible.

Another common deficit of information is what you need to tell HMRC, and what you don’t need to tell them.  Related to this is not knowing which numbers to add up, so it’s impossible to collect the necessary numbers in an ordered way.

Also with tax returns is the added concern about whether one has the money to pay one’s tax bill.  Once the tax return is done then the tax must be paid.  But of course we don’t know how much tax we have to pay until we’ve done the return.  A vicious circle! Add to this the common shame about not having enough money, and many people simply put off the whole thing.

DearHMRC_snoopyFinally, and most complex, is a very common inner process about authority figures. A tax return in essence reports your money activities to a government authority.  So our “authority issues” can readily come into play – often a potent mix of anger and fear which undermines our confidence and can cloud our capacities for mental activities like dealing with data, sorting and categorising, and so on.  The combination of authority issues and shame around money can be sufficient to entirely freeze a client and prevent them from taking any action, sometimes for years.

There’s several things I do to reduce the tension for clients around all this.  I know what the rules are, so the rules-conflict issue can be readily dissolved simply by sharing that information.  And I can also work with the client to estimate their tax bill without them having to file a tax return.  Then we can talk about them budgeting to pay their bill, or negotiating a payment plan with  the tax authority.

Also in a sense I stand in between the client and the ‘authority’.  Because I deal with that authority every day I anchor and embody an attitude of confidence and and personal agency.  Even though the client may not feel that within themselves, when they are working with me that confidence and agency is in their field – and so it is there to draw upon to the extent they are able to.  I hold a space somewhat akin to a therapeutic space: bracketed off from the full range of day-to-day concerns, so that the client can find the internal space to identify where they are at for themselves around money and recording their money activities.

Tax Coaching

Once they have identified their current relationship with money we can start to change that within the practical activity of doing their bookkeeping together.  This is what I call ‘tax coaching’: gradually helping people to be able to do their own tax returns.  Actually, filing the return itself is no big deal – it only usually takes about 15-20 minutes online these days. What IS the big deal is doing everything beforehand leading up to the filing: collecting the info about your money, putting it into some sort of ordered format, and assessing the numbers that come out the end.

For many clients all this seems mind-bogglingly complex, or totally overwhelming at first.  As we’ve seen above, clients can lack crucial information, are short of money, and have authority stuff running.  The idea of then sitting down and learning something entirely new just isn’t anywhere on the board at all.

But it’s definitely possible! Anwar Ravjani, who runs the fabulous bodywork service Embodiment Works, started with me in September 2013. He was determined to grow his business by doing some quite expensive training in a new area, but he had no spare money.  He sensed that there was a way to do what he wanted – if he could get out from under the terrible tension he felt around money and dealing with tax.

First I worked with him to record what had been happening with his money in the previous financial year. He had to do this anyway for tax, so it killed 2 birds with the one stone. I showed him how to download all his bank transactions, and how to work with them simply using some spreadsheet tools, to separate business from personal, and add up the business numbers.  He had to do this bit by bit – I usually suggest giving yourself some weeks or months to do it in, and to attack only a month’s transactions at a time.  This is about breaking down the job into small bits, with time to relax in between. And I was holding a space that knows it is possible to do, and it’s like doing the washing up: a simple procedure that gets done piece by piece.

After some months we had a picture of the 2012-13 year.  Then we could see what his actual income was, which prompted him to reflect on his income flow more recently. He was surprised to find it was more solid and more reliable than he’d thought.  This then enabled us to look towards the future and do some numbers to see how he could manage paying for the new training.  We found that with careful scheduling and some leeway from the trainer it could actually be done.  Then we filed his tax return.

I didn’t talk accounts with Anwar for 6 months.  Then he contacted me in mid-April saying his work was going better than expected and he was worried he’d have a tax problem.  Again the first thing to do was to get some numbers for the previous financial year, which had just finished 2 weeks before.  Again this took some time, but it was definitely quicker than the first time now that Anwar was clearer about what was needed.

With the numbers to hand we were quickly able to estimate what tax he would pay. Then we worked out how he could collect that money before the deadline in 9 months time.  With this out of the way, we filed his tax return.

Again I didn’t hear from him for a year. Then a few weeks ago he contacted me to say he’d done all his numbers for 2014-15 and could I cast an eye over them; the numbers said this year he would pay no tax, but he didn’t quite believe that.  We got together, I did some minor adjustments and we filed his tax return – all of which took less than an hour and a half.

We were both surprised by how quick it was.  Anwar said he’d gotten into a pattern of doing his accounts once a month because it was so easy and it gave him a feeling of being in touch with his money.  He was delighted in his new-found sense of competence with money, and how that empowered him in his relationship with money in his life. The focus had shifted from tax as a set of fear-inducing unknown rules associated with a threatening authority figure, to tax as a relatively small aspect in a landscape of complete information about money.  He reflected that, when we started 2 years ago such a situation seemed impossible.

I’ve found it usually takes three full cycles of doing something to really get the hang of it. For bookkeeping and tax this means doing three years of figures. I’ve now been established in London long enough that several clients have gone through this sort of transition.  It is really one of my greatest delights to be on that journey with them and to celebrate yet another member of our community who is empowered around tax.

Money: some other possibilities

It’s very clear that money is entirely a cultural construct – it’s something that is created by society, it has no material reality in itself, and no natural or external force caused its existence.

There is an incredible freedom in this. It means we don’t have to be run by our culture’s familiar emotions of fear, greed, shame and anxiety – these are just emotions attached to cultural stories, which don’t give us useful or accurate information about money itself.

money-yin-yang-300x240Instead, we can create our own relationship with money.  Rather than simply be constrained in the tight space generated by those familiar cultural emotions, we can come to find meanings of money which resonate with us at a deep level and which help us become more and more aligned with our authenticity and our spiritual path.

The range of possible meanings is endless. All meanings are valid – though the most useful are those which bring us into a constructive and enlivening relationship with money.  As a start to this process of creative refreshment, here’s some images or archetypes that I am working with and find stimulating.

Being a bridge

A previous post talks about this in more detail, but the essence is this: Many people who bring a gift to the world are bringing something new – something which the world is calling for because it does not yet exist.  Because our gift does not yet exist it is often hard to tell people what we offer.  In such a situation it is helpful to see ourselves as a bridge – between what we know is good but is not yet manifest, and the current reality of social life.

A bridge has the extraordinary property of being anchored in 2 places at once. In our case our strong connection with our gift usually means one end of the bridge is firmly anchored in what we know is possible.  It is often very challenging, though, to get the other end of the bridge as solidly anchored in current social life – it’s hard to clearly say what our gift is and to connect with the people who want it.

But when we are able to make that solid connection to current social reality then people can easily hear and see what we offer, and they can readily feel whether it is for them or not.  And as a result energy can flow both ways: we get to offer our gift regularly and often. It is well received.  And money can flow easily.

In this scenario, then, money is a litmus test of how good a job we are doing of being that bridge – how solidly we are anchored both in the current world and in what is possible.

Standing on one’s own feet

Our fears about money tempt us to look outside ourselves for solutions: need to get a job, generate more clients, find a patron, work more hours, win that contract, be more focused.  All are action-oriented. So what if we turn that around and ask about not-doing?  What if I grabbed the emotional energy motivating those actions and brought it inwards?  What would that look like?

It might look like standing very still but very solid.  Solidly anchored in one’s own space, one’s body. Feeling the connection through feet to the ground, and from the ground up one’s legs and suffusing throughout one’s body.  Feeling the move and sway of Earth energy, like the sinuous movement of a giant beanstalk, or the elastic wind-swept movements of the branches of the trees.  Feeling one’s energy coalescing absolutely at one’s centre, deep in the belly, allowing firm rootedness to the Earth below and at the same time fluid adaptive movements in my pelvis and all my limbs as I respond to Life’s events.

In this image money flows along energy pathways from the ground, like a force field that keeps our feet glued solid to the Earth and then flows up our energy meridians and across our whole being.  This solidness then enables almost a complete opposite…

Debt as an act of faith

Debt mostly gets a bad rap in our society : being in debt is seen as bad, as a burden, being ‘trapped’ by debt, a constant source of anxiety. Credit cards are frequently seen as actively dangerous and credit providers as malevolent. Government deficits are seen as irresponsible.

At one level all these things can be true. But we don’t have to relate to debt in that way. Especially if we are borrowing money to fund a business which expresses our life path, we can see that act of borrowing as an expression of faith in our gift and in our path.  If we did not believe that our gift is needed and that we have the capacity to give it, then what are we doing in business?  Come to that, what are we doing at all?

This doesn’t mean we should just gaily launch out into debt willy-nilly.  We are a bridge between what we know is possible and what is currently happening in our society.  So it’s crucial that we are wise and sure-footed about bringing our gift to the world as-it-is: we need plans grounded in the realities of the world and in what our own capacities are and what they are not.

But such plans do not have to be gloomy or restrictive.  Nor does borrowing have to be a constant and unrelieved burden.  Rather, we can see borrowing money as a very tangible expression of our faith in our gift:  that our gift is true, that the time is right for it, that we can offer it well, and that we are willing to serve our gift in whatever way it needs, including taking risks.


These three suggestions are just a start – a stimulus for creativity around our relationship with money.  What works for you?

Photo credit – http://inspiringsuccess.com/blog/2013/09/balance-with-your-archetypes-creates-financial-ease/ Thanks Rosemary Cunningham  http://www.rosemarycunningham.co.uk/

Money: tales of disruption

bankruptcy-1Most of us in the West are socialised into a permanently conflict-ridden relationship with money, in which we often feel trapped by our conflicting emotions.

But beyond that narrow space limited by our habitual emotions is a whole world where other things happen.

Here’s just three examples.

Not paying your debts

The fear of not being able to pay our debts looms large in the Western psyche.  The English-speaking world has its legacy of slums, debtors prisons and workhouses horrifyingly described by Dickens and others.  But late nineteenth century liberal responses to these horrors changed bankruptcy from a very public shaming for moral turpitude to a benign legal and administrative device to forgive debts and allow the debtor a fresh start.

Like no-fault divorce, the attitude behind bankruptcy legislation is that things don’t always work out well despite people’s best intentions, and the wisest attitude is simply to set people free with no blame to start again.

Certainly most people who go bankrupt feel a great deal of shame, guilt, remorse and fear.  And credit agencies, friends, colleagues and family often subtly reinforce these feelings in subsequent years. Bankruptcy is not a small step.  But the point is that there is life beyond “going bankrupt”. It’s not the end of the world.  It’s simply the end of one phase of life and the start of another phase of life, another type of life, another style of life.

Two friends who have been through bankruptcy, both men, say that going through the process forced them to confront and dismantle their unconscious attachment to being a breadwinner, a ‘successful businessman’ and indeed their attachment to a narrow form of masculinity.  At the emotional/psychic level, for each of them their bankruptcy was an ordeal by fire – as we would expect given our tortuously conflicting emotions about money.  But each is now more free, with a richer and more autonomous sense of self. And – they are free of debt.

Being Homeless

Nichole Gracely became homeless after she left her shockingly bad job in an Amazon warehouse and was not able to find another one.  She started begging on the streets: “I did not simply perish when I lost all sources of income and could no longer afford to pay the bills. A survival instinct that I didn’t even know I possessed manifested itself. I learned to live without money and without a home.”

It isn’t easy: she’s “…learned that it’s best to keep moving. It’s not easy to start up anywhere with absolutely nothing. … It takes tremendous strength to get through a day.” But “There’s more respect for a homeless woman out on the streets than there is in a warehouse for Amazon workers.”

Gracely shows us that beyond what most of us consider to be a total catastrophe, the end of “life as we know it”, is a whole world – certainly a very different life, but still a life.

Being homeless is not necessarily a desirable goal, or necessarily an easy way of life. But the point is that there is life beyond our fear or shame about not having a home.  And especially that there can be more dignity in being homeless than staying in an immoral or soul-destroying situation.

 Throwing money around

The above two stories of disruption seem to support the cultural story that there is not enough money to go around – that we have to battle to make ends meet .

But despite our culture of fear and tightness around money (or because of it?), there is a very well-established pattern of people having money – huge amounts of money – thrown at them.

The apocryphal example is JK Rowling. Here is a single mum telling bedtime stories to her kids, and people start throwing hundreds of millions of pounds at her – all for telling stories that apparently hit the spot for millions of people.

The phenomenon of celebrity is based in this:  people can become famous, with the associated wealth, simply because they hold something on behalf of millions of people – often something quite ephemeral like a personality trait or a story line.

JK Rowling’s experience disrupts the story there is not enough money, or that it’s hard to come by. This makes it clear “not enough and work hard” is just a story – actually, one of our culture’s foundational stories about money.

Believe any of our culture’s money stories are true and you can find support for them everywhere.  This is how culture works.

And also, like all our stories about money, there is a whole world beyond it.

Our culture’s emotions around money

Money brings up strong emotions for most people.  Talk about money for any length of time raises feelings of fear, greed, envy, anxiety, and of lack or “not enough”.

boy goes to the cityAre these feelings just inevitable around money? Definitely not!

The emotions we commonly feel in relation to money are highly specific to our Western culture (and many other cultures too).  Some cultures simply do not feel these emotions around money.  For instance, this young man from rural Paraguay is indignant that money should be so closely associated with food:

“My family lives in the city, but I don’t want to go there. In the city you have to buy everything, even food. Here, whatever we grow is ours. We can eat whatever we want – but in the city, you can’t. If you don’t have money you have to search for food in garbage cans.”

Clearly, he lives in a culture which simply does not equate money with survival or with obtaining food.  His experience of the world is that food is just there – even if it’s in garbage cans.  He does not link lack of money with lack of food: if he lacks money then food is still always available – it’s just in very grubby or inconvenient places.  But in the West one of the most common emotions raised by money is a gut-level fear about survival: for most people money is a life-or-death issue.

The young Paraguayan man makes it clear that this gut-wrenching fear is not about money itself.  Rather, the fear is an emotion which we have learned to associate with money. We learn this as children, along with many other ‘basic’ things about life in Western society.  This linking of survival fears with money is a cultural attitude – it’s not only something we feel as individuals.  We share this feeling with millions of other people in our culture.

Gut-level fear around money ties in with where money comes from.  Privately owned banks are licensed by the government to simply create money by entering numbers into their accounting system when someone takes out a new loan.That wouldn’t be a problem if all the borrower had to do was repay the money. But banks charge interest, and this interest has to be paid from the existing pool of money – so that there is never enough money to go around.

In other words our society’s supply of money manufactures a situation in which those who have it are obligated to repay it with money which doesn’t exist. In this situation, like in the game of musical chairs, someone has to lose.

One thing to realise about our fractional reserve banking system is that, like a child’s game of musical chairs, as long as the music is playing, there are no losers. Andrew Gause, monetary historian

Understandably, then, a very widespread attitude throughout our culture is of “not enough” in relation to money. This attitude is very easy to attach to gut-level survival fears – giving rise to emotions like anxiety, panic, jealousy, competitiveness, hoarding compulsion, greed, and so on.

Alongside this vicious game of musical chairs, Western culture is pervaded by an astonishing schizophrenic split around money. On the one hand money is the worst thing in the world: “Money is the root of all evil.”  Get that: “all” evil!  And the Bible teaches us that money is inherently un-godly: “Ye cannot serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6:24) – as though serving “Mammon” i.e. material existence, is diametrically opposed to serving God.

On the other hand our enculturation into the money-and-survival gut-level feelings tell us that money is central to existence. Our feelings here are supported by the news and by politicians: almost all high-profile public debate revolves about money. The common measures of a country’s condition are economic, while fluctuations in the stock market generate widespread emotions of optimism or gloom.

So we live in a culture which sees money as (a) immoral and not spiritual, (b) vital for existence, and (c) not enough to go around.  This is our Western culture – the emotional soup in which we live our daily lives. Is it any wonder that we have “stuff” about money!?

The good news is that there is no actual physical reality about money – it is purely a cultural creation, a mechanism legislated into existence, which our young Paraguayan speaker above clearly illustrates. This means that we can come into our own relationship with money.

Money certainly has a material presence in our culture, and so there is a level at which we have to practically engage with it, like following the road rules to avoid being run over, or using toilets to reduce disease and odour. But we don’t have to accept the significance of money which we were socialised into as children and which pervades the social world around us, in the media, and in the attitudes of people we commonly interact with.  We can recognise this material presence and weave it in to our lives via meanings we create ourselves and via emotions we choose to generate.

We can do this by coming into a conscious relationship with the money-related emotions we are familiar with – as with any personal growth process, a first step is to be able to recognise and name our internal patterns.  Through consciousness-raising – i.e. new perspectives like the content of this blog, more accurate information, and reviewing our own experiences in the light of this new data – we can come to recognise the extent to which we have learned our familiar money emotions, and that those emotions are culturally supported by those around us and are not actually giving us accurate information about money itself.

And we can intentionally open ourselves to many resources, both internal and external, to seed the creation of our own stories about money, our own relationship(s) with money, our own meanings and our own patterns of action and emotion around money.

There’s many possibilities as to what our new stories and new emotions might be. Some stories already circulating revolve around themes of “abundance” attitudes, prosperity consciousness, empowerment (my own favourite), the Occupy movement, and living without money. We can find our own relation with these – or make up more!

The vital step is coming to recognise our culture’s familiar emotions about money – and to realise they don’t have to be ours own personal emotions.