Stories and our relationship with money

I know, I know; Thursday is a day for a book review. Or failing that, it is the day when I tell you about the lessons about money that I learn from books I read – any kind of book.

But this week has been really busy; I finished a very big report and I am in Sweden discussing the agenda for a very large research programme. I am really beat, so have no energy left for a book review. Instead, decided to tell you about something that has been going around my head for some time now and I could do with a bit of help figuring out.

You have probably already figured out that reading is my favourite pass time. I read anything – novel of varying virtue and quality, technical books, essays, philosophy, you name it. I am probably one of the few people that when visiting the Gulf was sitting in her hotel room reading about it rather than exploring it. Books for me frame my world view.

But let me tell you what I was thinking about.

I have almost pathological fear of debt. Generally, personal finance bloggers are not very keen on it and some hate it, others ‘love’ it, despise it or loath it. I really dread debt. When I first heard about the situation we were in I was mad; of course I was mad – I refused to take responsibility for it and blamed somebody else. Once having grasped the full extent of the debt I went to pieces – fear constricted my throat, robbed me of my sleep and threatened to become part of my general world view.

Even worse were the visions – of destitution, homelessness, unnaturally big eyes of starving children…

This passed; I got myself together and together we have almost crawled out of the situation. What stayed with me is the question where did all this stuff come from. Let’s look at some facts.

We live in the best part of town, in a large house; we have quite a bit of equity (this is an English understatement; we have loads of equity). I have education, a well paid job and John has guaranteed monthly income which is enough to live on even if we don’t bring in more money. I have property in Bulgaria – land, two apartments and a summer house. These are not really the conditions of someone who is likely to become destitute, homeless and hungry.

I have no family history of deprivation – my father was an officer in the army, we always had nice apartments, I had what I needed.

So where did this rather extreme emotional reaction to debt come from?

Then the answer just hit me: it is Dickens, the Little Dorrit. This was the first book ever that kept me up all night – I finished reading it and went straight to school.

Naturally, the Little Dorrit is a rather dark story in which a debtors’ prison features very prominently. William Dorrit has been imprisoned for his debt for so long that his three children – Fanny, Edward and Amy – have grown up there. Despite the fact that their fortune is restored and William Dorrit gets out of the debtor’ prison the atmosphere of deprivation, compromised dignity and hardship is so vivid that it affected me deeply. I remember the emotional reaction when I was reading the book.

Decades later, this reaction re-surfaced when I was faced with debt. My relationship with money, my financial tape, my pathological fear of debt links straight back to reading the Little Dorrit.

Is there a story that has shaped your relationship with money?

16 thoughts on “Stories and our relationship with money”

  1. It is weird how books can affect us so badly. With me, it was Nevil Shute’s ‘On the Beach’. I was much too young when I read it in one sitting and it gave me an irrational fear of nuclear weapons – or nuclear anything, really.

    Do you realise that you have actually kept to your Thursday posting of what you learnt from a book?

    Safe journey tomorrow.

    1. @Pat: I haven’t read this one. Will have to have a look. I am very interested in the process though, how reading a book can shape and/or change completely the way in which we see the world, or part of it.

  2. The previous comment-On The Beach-I cringe just to think of that book. I, too, love to read and always have several things going. Dickens does a wonderful job of bringing his characters to life and therefore making them memorable. My debt fears are not literature related, they are definitely due to my early years: how I was raised.

  3. This is very interesting. I definitely am not a fan of debt either. I agree that sometimes it is easy to focus on the principle rather than the actual finances. As you indicated earlier, you were not likely going to become destitute, hungry, or homeless, yet you have very strong aversion to debt. I think this aversion can motivate people to keep their finances in check.

    1. @Roshawn: It can. Similarly it can prevent them doing so – emotional responses are interesting in that we shy away from the unpleasant emotion. I suppose this is why I didn’t check our bank account for close to a decade. In fact, to start dealing with the situation rather than coping with it, I have to shift from emotional to rational response. It is like the difference between feeling down and changin g you life and feeling down and going in therapy.

    1. @Robert: Now this is getting very interesting; could there be some gender bias here as well? Something to do with women being responsible for the future?

  4. Terrific post. This really speaks to the power of the arts. Reading about, and imagining, other people’s issues helps us draw our own understanding the of the same issues in our lives.

    1. @Bryan: Thanks, and yes. This is why thinking only in economic terms (about ROI) will never cut it at individual or collective (government) level. We people, need more.

  5. I too have read some books that have left quite the impression. Last year I read Eat Pray Love and it really did open my eyes. I felt like a totally different person when I finished the book. I learned so much about myself- my strengths, fears, and viewpoints. I was really awakened to my own reality. Since reading the book I have made some very different decisions and am thankful that I got this new perspective.

    1. @Paul: Yep, particularly in our childhood – this is what fairy tails were for, to trasfer social values and offload some fears.

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