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The Money Series, #2: On The Compulsion to Spend Money

It’s an endlessly fascinating thing: the compulsion to spend money.

Last week, as I sat down and played a repeat of The Tommy Tiernan Show from RTÉ television recently (a friend had recommended I tune in for the Joe Brolly interview), I found the concept of money, and the compulsion to spend it, ebb and flow into my mind several times in half an hour or so.

Money is an emotional construct. Or at least, for many of us, money has become almost indelibly and all but inextricably linked with our emotions. When we have money, our emotions are joyful. When money is in short supply, or we have none at all, the emotions can be bleak: anger, bitterness, despair, depression.

Money itself is, of course, inanimate. The emotions arise from our relationship to it, the feelings coming from what money brings to our lives. If our relationship with money is mature, money can bring freedom, peace of mind, opportunity.

If our relationship with money is under-developed, however, money brings only fleeting feelings of joy, often quickly replaced by regret or guilt or shame.

Even these fleeting moments of joy that come from spending money on something can be utterly compelling.

While watching the Tiernan show, (the show is worth catching: Tiernan doesn’t know who his guest is until they walk into the studio, and while most of the interviews here will only be of particular interest to Irish audiences, the concept of interviewing without pre-planning and preparation allows the conversations to develop in natural and human ways) in almost every case that money arose in my mind, the primary sensation was the feeling associated with spending it impulsively.

It was money as a salve for a creeping feeling of ineptness, a balm for the sense of emptiness that threatened to grow up around me and suck me down. (I’ve got to know these feelings well. I’m fortunate to be able to recognise them now for what they are, as something that must be witnessed and allowed to pass on and through; if I respond to it, the response can send me into an eddy, and from there the only direction is down and under.)

Although I often don’t succeed, I try to console myself with these two statements:

  1. The feeling of ineptness is, I believe, a basic human condition. The state of thinking oneself “not good enough” is something many people deal with, and arises more from feelings than facts. Do I feel inept? Often. Am I inept? No. Without exception, I can improve in everything I do — from writing to being a father and husband, to running a business to running a half-marathon to learning leadership skills to the craft of negotiation. My skills might be lacking, but I myself am not inept. Being inept is a choice of perspective.
  2. The sense of emptiness is something I must channel and challenge. What is the base reason for the sense of emptiness that occasionally inveigles its way into my day? Whether it’s a disconnection from what’s meaningful that I can rebuild, or inactivity and rumination when I just need to make a start. The five-second, five-minute rule is helpful here. Five seconds: Count backwards from five and get moving. Five minutes: Give whatever I’m moving on at least five minutes. If after that I am still pushing water up a hill, then it’s okay to stop for a while. From my experience of the five-second five-minute rule, it is rare that I stop after those five minutes. For the most part, just starting was the most important thing.

While watching Tommy Tiernan’s interviews, money flickered into my brain multiple times:

  • With Joanne O’Riordan, a sports journalist with Tetra-amelia syndrome, a congenital disorder which meant she was born without any limbs, Tiernan asked her about the cost of her wheelchair and other equipment. (She joked that she saves lots of money on shoes and gloves. Tiernan, quick as a tack, responded that she probably has loads of hats…) Maybe this immediate reference to money caused the infestation that was to follow.
  • With Joe Brolly, a Gaelic football analyst, former footballer and practising barrister, I found my mind defaulting to thoughts of Brolly’s livelihood. A freelance barrister, he says he’s not duty-bound to anyone apart from the clients he chooses to defend. I found thoughts popping into my head. “Is it very expensive to have him in your corner in court?” “How much does he get paid for a Sunday afternoon in a TV studio?”
  • With Moya Brennan, the Clannad singer who hails from west Donegal, a part of Ireland I know well, I was rapt by her a capella renditions of two songs (an old Irish air about the Gweebarra river in Donegal, and “Theme from Harry’s Game”, another Irish language song which became the hit that catapulted Clannad to global fame), I had my phone in my hand to check the ticket price for their Belfast concert in a few weeks’ time and was already calculating in my mind the exchange rate to purchase them.
  • Mick Flannery closed out the show with a beautiful rendition of his new song “Come Find Me”, and almost of their own accord my hands again had my phone screen on, thumbing to his website to see whether his new album was available in vinyl (a retro record-player arrived in the house as a Christmas present…)

Where does this come compulsion to spend money from?

Is it the dangerous combination of a mind already susceptible to distraction and the unprecedented convenience of answering that tendency via the phone in my pocket?

Is it mere habit?

Or could it be coming from something deeper or more serious?

Could it instead be that there’s something going on in my mind and in my life that makes me so uncomfortable with being with myself that I’m compelled not just towards distraction, but past it, something unsettling that urges me forward to spend money on impulse?

That the very act of spending the money — that five-second high, and not, somewhat mysteriously, on the object or experience that I spend the money on — will fill the cracks that are appearing for now, will manage to paper them over for the time being.

This promise — that the act of spending money will momentarily fill the cracks — does not occur when the spending comes with careful planning, consideration, budgeting, saving.

No, instead it’s an impulse. An impulse that promises an instant injection of dopamine to the veins.

It’s an impulse that must be held at bay.

It’s the same impulse, I think, that starts the tumble towards addiction. The impulse to spend money can be the same as the impulse to gamble, the impulse to drink, the impulse to take drugs. It’s an impulse to take a short-term high irrespective of the longer term pain. (Gabor Mate, the great doctor and specialist in addiction treatment, defines addiction as “any behaviour that a person craves, finds temporary relief or pleasure in, but suffers negative consequences as a result of and can’t give up”.)

The compulsion to spend money, and putting a shape on the beast

However I am to hold these impulses at bay, hold them at bay I must.

This, here, right now — the act of writing through the discomfort of this impulse — helps in ways I find it difficult to convey. This act of writing is not done primarily so that what I write is read. (Although I’m very pleased and humbled that you are here, reading.) This act of writing is, primarily, an exercise in exploration and understanding. This act of writing helps me to recognise the foe I’m dealing with: it throws a handful of magic dust at the undefined, unseen beast before me and gives it a shape that I can deal with. I might not like it, but much better the devil you know, and all that. So much of our fear is the unknown undergrowth around the path, and not the path itself.

Writing helps me comprehend, but if comprehension right now is still too big a leap — and the journey of self-knowledge is lifelong, with mountains to climb and pitfalls to plot a way past, so comprehension can be fiendishly difficult to even attempt, never mind fully grasp — then finding any way to wait out the compulsion, without inflicting lasting damage, is a good thing.

For me, walking helps. Music helps. Cooking helps. Reading the right book or watching the right movie helps. Doing anything even remotely creative or productive helps.

My phone screen usually doesn’t help. Ruminating doesn’t help.

Staying in bed usually doesn’t help, apart from the very bad days when it’s the one thing I need to prevent an act of self-destruction and I must save myself. Staying in bed a while might save me from myself, but I know that there are quickly diminishing returns from this and I must recognise that point and stop myself before I reach it.

Life isn’t easy.

But I fear we make it harder for ourselves by short-term balms which rarely cure the long-term pain and often makes the long-term pain worse.

Life isn’t easy, but scattered amongst the inevitable hardships there are moments of real transcendent beauty, if we can keep ourselves alive and open to experiencing them.

Life isn’t easy, but it’s all we’ve got, and if we can keep going long enough, and resist the almost endless and often daily opportunities for self-destruction, we can in the end paint something arresting onto its vast blank canvas.

The Money Series, #1: Reframing the language of too much

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the last 2.x years of self-exploration, rebirth and expansion, it’s this.

We are, all of us, uniquely, breath-takingly different, and there’s a heartstopping wonder in the unparalleled uniqueness of our individuality.

And we are, all of us, so similar too; we share a need to be heard, and a need to be accepted, and a need to be loved, and we share deep truths, truths that go to the heart of each of us and to the heart of humanity.

[Yes, I know, that is two things.]

Things that are complex can be boiled down to simple facts. Things that are simple can uncover layers and layers of complexity. Between the black and the white there are a million shades of grey. The opposite of every profound truth is another profound truth.

But enough of the idle philosophy.

Instead let me get straight to the essential point, which is about one of the simplest and yet most complex things on earth: money.

Money, as in how it works.

Money, as in how it flows.

Money, as in our relationship to it.

Money, as in what it means.

Money, as a belief system.

Money, as in what it’s becoming, a technological phenomenon that will find itself out of the reach and perhaps even out of the understanding of banks and governments.

A blog series about money: what it is, how it works and how we relate to it

This is the first in a possible series of articles about money, written by someone who knows only how much he doesn’t know about money, someone who in the past struggled to earn good money, was unable to talk about it, rarely saved it, never invested it, and typically splurged it whenever he found himself in possession of it.

Let me start in the middle, the here and now, because the past is too big an assignment at the moment and who knows what’s going to happen next.

The here and now, today, is early autumn in the east of Ireland, a few yards from a four-lane motorway (paid for at least in part, I assume, by European Union grants), from a newly-built Applegreen service station (paid for at least in part, I assume, by venture capitalists), sipping a coffee (paid for by me with €2.60 of my money), and logging into a public wifi (paid for by me with my personal data).

I’m listening to Spotify (not paid for, although the ads are close to succeeding, primarily because I hate the ads so much, which I suppose is the point), and one of my favourite playlists (“Writing Music.”) by Holly Glenn Whitaker (earns living as: CEO of The Temper, sobriety coach, teacher, writer, speaker, podcaster and Kundalini yoga and mediation instructor, amongst other stuff; followers on Instagram: 69,000; Twitter: 2,000; Medium: 194; Value to the world: Unquantifiable).

A little about me

Perhaps it’s your first time here, and perhaps you’re wondering at this point whether this is worth sticking with this (“It is!” / “I’m biased!”).

If so, allow me a very brief introduction by way of a one-sentence bio, and a one-sentence mission statement.

One-sentence bio: I’m a writer, speaker, life and business coach, podcaster, thinker, believer, doubter and former cynic.

One-sentence mission statement: I run the Life Well Lived Project, which is just finding its feet (so far it’s a podcast, and a series of regular free emails) and its mission is to provide support, guidance and inspiration so that people everywhere can explore, embrace and express the unparalleled wonder of their own individuality and discover a life of new energy, purpose and fulfilment.

[Bonus third sentence: I believe happiness is the driver of almost every decision we make, but for the most part we’re defining happiness wrong, and the redefinition of happiness as a combination of joy and presence now and peace and fulfilment over a lifetime is my life’s work, and for all that I love American values and American energy, I blame the f***ing American constitution for the grave misunderstanding of happiness as something that needs to be pursued, a misunderstanding which has made us hustle and grind and accumulate and horde, mostly because what we’re most afraid of is finding ourselves in a place far in the future where we’re not heard, not accepted and not loved, and all the stuff and trappings we’ve variously accumulated over a lifetime of accumulating might be some sort of balm against the overpowering loneliness.]

But let’s come back to the here and now.

Thinking about the way we think about money

I’m thinking about money.

Or rather, I’m thinking about the way I think about money.

For a long, long time, whenever I thought about money, my defaults were “I don’t have enough” and “That is too much.”

And it turns out that the jump from “I don’t have enough” to “I am not enough” is not a very big one at all.

And when this seeps into all the little brain synapses and neurological pathways, and resides there as the months pass into years and the years whizz into decades, and crackles back into life whenever a $ or £ or € hovers into view, like the world’s most invincible zombie that lives inside your head, well, the effects can be pretty damn big.

By pretty damn big I mean almost everything bad: frustration, resentment, fury, anger, hatred, loathing, withering cynicism, addiction to any self-defeating activity, actual self-harm (wilful or otherwise), violence against others and suicide.

All in all, not good.

But I’m experimenting with something.

An admonition

Last week I was encouraged to reframe my language. Encouraged is a friendly word for the way it was communicated. This encouragement/advice/admonition was nothing new or unexpected to me. I first became fully aware of my default negative tendencies about two years ago.

I used to joke that whereas some people are glass half full people, and some people are glass half empty people, I belong to a third set that doesn’t care how much is in the glass because it’s probably poison. So ingrained was this way of thinking, I think I might actually have made this joke in my short speech at my wedding. But of course, it was only partly a joke. Like all decent jokes, it touched on a deep truth. My deep truth was that in any given situation, I saw no possible upsides and many possible downsides, and included in the downsides I saw was the one that admitted that there were multiple possible downsides I hadn’t considered, because things can always get much worse than we think.

The inverse law of attraction

I thought this level of cynicism was a bulwark against the worst that life could throw at me, but woah I was so wrong. When you expect crap, you get so much more of it than you really expect. [Example: I believe deep down that when I find my way to a plaza in any strange city, there’s always going to be one crackpot somewhere close, and amongst the throngs the crackpot will seek me out like the crackpot heat-seeking missile he is. And it’s always a “he”.]

Perhaps all this is prudence and realism. Perhaps it’s a defence mechanism. Perhaps it’s fixed mindset. Perhaps it’s the law of attraction working in reverse.

Whatever it is, I decided a while back that I’d had enough of it, and when I was encouraged anew to consider the default way I was using language, I decided to try a conscious experiment. To snap out of negative thinking, and where better place to start than the thing that’s been my ever present negative thought companion since I was about six years old.

Money.

But you’d be forgiven for shouting “enough of the carefully constructed sentences [thank you for noticing!] and ditch the flowery language [ah…] what does this mean in practice?”

Here goes.

Invariably, I attach negative meaning to the price tag on almost everything.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.

When I see a pair of well-cut jeans with a €130 tag, I balk. “I could never justify spending that much money on a pair of jeans! Who does that?!?”

When I see a pair of good-looking jeans in a discount clothing store with a €13 label, I balk. “Clearly these jeans are of shoddy quality and the colour will run from the denim by the first wash and the waistband will expand by the second. And anyway, surely poor kids are being exploited in Bangladeshi sweatshops to get these jeans to me in Ireland for a price as ludicrously low as this, never mind the carbon footprint they’re leaving behind, and I want no part in any of that.”

This works across the board.

Conference tickets:

  • €50: “Well, clearly I’m the product and they’re going to try to upsell me something by pulling some emotional strings NLP shit about things that self-respecting men do, and any decision I make from there will be one I regret.”
  • €500: “It’s a two-day conference! How can they justify that? They might get 1000 people in the door. That’s 500 grand! Surely they’d have the hotel for a fraction of that. Somebody’s making a lot of dough in this transaction and it isn’t me.”

Coffee:

  • €2: “What’s wrong with it?”
  • €5: “What’s wrong with me?”

Food:

  • €6 for a spice bag. “Deep-fried in oil, and I’m paying for my own future heart attack in instalments like this.”
  • €16 for a vegan beetroot and bean burger and three large helpings of delicious and nutritious salads. “I’m sure I could make this at home for a third of the price.”

A practical thought experiment about money

So here’s what I’m starting to do, or trying to start to do.

I’m trying to deploy some techniques I learned in cognitive behavioral therapy, and catch my thoughts when the negative associations about money pop into my head. [It’s a substantial job and I wonder if I can find a VA for it, but I’d probably balk at the hourly rate…]

The easiest way I’ve found so far is to force a polar opposite thought to the front of my mind.

When the thought “It’s too much” comes into my head, I’m forcing myself to think “It’s great value”, and see how this affects things.

So far it’s threatening to be transformative.

And as I have aspirations of a six-figure-plus annual income for the next 30 years of my life, and because I fully believe that those aspirations are not at all unrealistic (especially once I can add value to others at scale over the magic of the Internet — thanks Applegreen!), and because that breaks down at approximately €60 per hour of my time given a typical working year, then things can suddenly become look beautifully different.

That €1200 for a family weekend trip to Florence in Italy is no longer unjustifiable because of all the little jobs-to-be-done, but becomes astonishing value, almost unquantifiable as an investment in the continuing development and lifelong memories of our two young children, as an investment in my marriage to a gracious, patient, beautiful woman who put up with me through all the years of torment, as an investment in the expansion of my own mind.

That €2500 for a ride-on lawnmower  is no longer ludicrous, but an investment in feeling great, saving time and avoiding the hassle of endless repairs of the little overworked push Honda.

It’s not to say there are no downsides to this, of course. Seeing every big expense as a valuable investment and acting accordingly is likely a one-way trip to financial bankruptcy.

But equally, occupying the other end of the extreme, as I have for so long and as I expect many people do without even considering that they’re doing it, is a one-way trip to emotional and psychological bankruptcy.

And the latter of those two outcomes might just be the more difficult to shed — particularly as it usually comes with dire financial consequences too.

Don’t miss the rest of The Money Series

I’m not sure when I’ll write another one of these. I know I will, but I don’t know when. I’m pretty good at “will” but not so good at “when”. Would you like to get notified of any future posts in this money series? The best place is to go here and sign up for my regular emails, which will include pointers to future blog posts like this and also updates on podcasts, other writings, events and all the developments of the Life Well Lived Project. If you’d like to get in touch on social media, I’m most active on Twitter here.