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Money Therapy 101

So you’ve got money issues? Is the relationship just not working out? It’s time for some counseling from the money shrink, Pamela York Klainer. Can money ever buy happiness? Only if you can learn how to talk about it with honesty and clarity. (That’s all the time we have. We’ll take this up next session.)

Back in the late 1990s, we had a lot on our minds. And since there was so much cash flowing around, a lot of it had to do with money: Would the next IPO pop higher than the last? Nowadays, that concern looks like a good one to have. The country, companies, and consumers have flipped from a surplus psychology to a deficit psychology overnight.

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Too much. Too little. When it comes to money, we never seem to reach the Goldilocks nirvana of “just right.” That’s because we’re so obsessed with getting money — earning it, keeping it, multiplying it — that we don’t get money on a deeper level, says Pamela York Klainer, founder of the Rochester, New York-based consulting firm Power and Money LLC. “Money is such a powerful, unexplored thread in our lives and work,” says the veteran career coach and financial planner. “The fact is that at a very deep level, our lives as successful people are about our experiences with money. That’s taboo to say, but it’s true. And it’s true whether we make a lot of money or an average amount. Yet few people talk about their experience with money honestly or with any clarity. Gaining clarity about the role that money plays in your life opens a unique window to who you are, what you value, and if you can allow yourself to be happy.”

A cross between a brutally pragmatic financial adviser and an empathetic life coach, Klainer worked as principal for a financial-services firm, where she advised hundreds of executives for such big companies as Bausch & Lomb, Kodak, and Xerox, along with scores of entrepreneurial leaders in fast-growth technology companies. Her new book, How Much Is Enough: Harness the Power of Your Money Story — and Change Your Life (Basic Books, 2002), introduces a powerful framework for unpacking individual and organizational “money stories,” along with a set of tools for tinkering with the age-old balance between money, success, and happiness. Here is Klainer’s advice on how to follow the money thread and change your life.

You argue that money and happiness are, in fact, tightly linked.

In my 20 years of working with successful people on leadership, career, and money issues, I’ve been hit over and over again with the question, “If I have all of this money and professional challenge, why don’t I feel better?”

The links between money, meaning, and happiness are amplified in a world where work has become the organizing center of life. The things that we used to count on as moorings — extended family, neighborhoods, participation in community affairs, membership in religious organizations — no longer carry the same sway in helping us decide what matters. Money rushes into those gaps with a clear and simple standard. In today’s culture of success, we — consciously or not — plug ourselves into this equation: “Money plus success equals happiness.”

A more honest model to pursue might be “Money, success — then happiness.” The problem is that we tend to confuse what money does well with what it does not do at all.

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Money does two really big things. First, money buys breathing room. It buys you the time and options that you don’t have when you’re working every waking moment to pay the bills. Second, money buys what I call “containers.” A container is anything that you acquire — whether it’s a consumer purchase, a new house, a job change, a sabbatical, or even a new fitness level — with the expectation that something will happen.

You tell people to “follow the money thread.” How does that turn those containers into vessels of meaning?

More often than not, money is the silent subtext at play in our relationships, our work, and our decisions. But this is what I hear from my clients, whether they’re technology entrepreneurs, intense competitors in a big company, or public servants: “I want you to know that the reason I work 50, 60, or 70 hours a week isn’t about the money.” They say the reason is about “shaping the global story of my industry and making a big footprint on the world.” Or, “it’s about the challenge.” Or, “it’s about making the world a better place.” Well, no. What you do 50, 60, or 70 hours a week is work — for money. Why is that so hard to say?

Plain talk about our experiences with money remains the last taboo to break in our society. We’ve learned how to have other difficult conversations: how to talk about safe sex, the influence of religious groups in national elections, or the role of race in society. Those topics are just part of responsible adult conversation. But we’re children when it comes to talking about the symbolic power of money.

The fact is, we begin storing up our impressions about money at an early age. When we talk about our experiences in other areas of our lives — whether it’s our understanding of sexuality or family dynamics — we bring them up to current reality. We don’t do that with money. Part of becoming an effective, happy person is making old money messages current and bringing hidden money messages out into the open.

Are you talking about money therapy?

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In most cases, it’s more like mental catch-up. We need to pick up the thread of money experiences and add it to the other story lines in our lives. That’s why I have all of my clients write a “money autobiography,” which is simply a truthful account of significant life events from the perspective of money. I ask a series of questions to get at each person’s central money drama. When do you first recall having money of your own? How free were you to decide what to do with that money? How was money discussed in your family? Can you think of a concrete image that illustrates the role that money has played in your life? Have you ever seen money used in a way that hurts other people? When you face money decisions, how do you usually feel? Challenged? Elated? Anxious? What is the most difficult experience that you have had in which money played a part — either openly or covertly? Inevitably, an organizing theme emerges: It could be about “having and losing,” “never enough,” or “pretending that money doesn’t really matter, even though it does.”

Once you have your money story straight, can you close the books?

Articulating the hidden money messages in your life is just the beginning. This isn’t about navel gazing; it’s about mastery. In this case, mastery is about making money ordinary. Making money ordinary is about accepting the power it always conveys and taking responsibility for your money choices.

Now, taking charge of your money story isn’t something that happens easily or automatically. To arrive at true mastery, there are four distinct stages of relating to money that you have to work through: denial, anxiety, exploration, and integration. There isn’t any set order or life schedule for these stages. There’s no penalty for regression or getting stuck in one stage. Integration isn’t a final resting place. It’s about a mindful progression from a state of relentless pursuit to living a life that is connected, vibrant, and meaningful.

Polly LaBarre (plabarre@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Visit Pamela York Klainer on the Web (www.powerandmoney.com).

Sidebar: What’s Your Money Stage?

Do you know where you are on the path to money mastery? Take this quiz to diagnose your money stage.

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Have you ever intentionally concealed a money action that you’ve taken, or the amount of money that you have, in fear of the way someone might respond?

Are you excessively timid about taking charge of your money because you fear making mistakes, or because you believe that doing money isn’t your role? If you answered “Yes” to either of those questions, you’re in denial, the first money stage.

Classic symptoms: You pretend money doesn’t exist or doesn’t matter. You distance yourself from your ambitions. You lack curiosity about money.
Prescription: Fess up to the role that money plays in your life. Start by writing your money autobiography — an account of the key events of your life from the perspective of money.

Do you often find yourself using terms like “always” or “never” when talking about money?

Are you driven by the pursuit of money, even though you have enough for your needs? A yes answer to those questions suggests that you are in the second money stage: Anxiety.

Classic symptoms: You have a constant undercurrent of fear that you or your money will never be enough. You experience paralysis when it comes to making financial decisions.

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Prescription: Take a small step toward getting hands-on with your money. Experiment with a small amount of money by making an investment or funding a project, or start putting your books in order.

Have you found that buying the things that you’ve always wanted hasn’t created the happiness that you crave?

Do you ever feel bored about your money? If this sounds familiar, you’re in the third money stage: Exploration.

Classic symptoms: You’re hands-on when it comes to your investments and financial management. You enjoy experimenting with money’s power beyond the ability to purchase things.

Prescription: Now try to tone down your involvement with money. Put it on the shelf with all of the other ordinary, daily conversations.

Is money an ordinary part of your life, not a mystery or a secret?

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Do you keep track of your finances on a regular basis? Do you discuss and agree on large purchases or decisions with your significant other? Do you learn from your experiences? Are you comfortable letting money just be money? Congratulations, you’ve reached Integration.

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