What’s a Money Story?

written by Bari Tessler February 23, 2016

Forest remembers that car ride like it was yesterday. He can still smell of the leather-upholstered seats in the white Volvo. He can still see that grim intersection out in Chesterfield, Missouri, a short drive from his childhood home.

In that car ride with his father, Forest made a pivotal declaration. One that would change his life — and his money — forever.

In the days and hours before that car ride, Forest’s parents had been fighting (again) about money. Forest was 16, and this fight was nothing new. In his mind, this-thing-called-money was the source of limitless volumes of angst and fear, anger and unhappiness. But there was something about that evening in the car with his father that felt like the last straw. Forest longed for adulthood, when he could call his own shots — and no longer be under money’s thumb. He craved freedom from the pain and arguing that he thought money was causing in his family. And he was determined to create that freedom for himself.

He and his father were stopped at a stoplight. He looked out the passenger window of the car, staring at the stream of traffic rolling through the intersection, and said “When I grow up, I don’t want to have anything to do with money,” Forest declared. “I want to live in a cabin in the woods, and just do my own thing, without money.”

Flash-forward about a decade. Forest is living in the mountains above Boulder, Colorado, in a tiny cabin. He doesn’t have electricity. Or running water. He uses an outhouse a few yards from his cabin. He lives almost entirely “off the grid.” The few necessities he needs, he pays for using funds earned from selling his handmade didgeridoos. He lives on about $7000 per year. He has created the exact scenario he sketched out in that car ride, back when he was 16. Down to the cabin.

Flash-forward another decade and change. Forest is married to me: the conscious money lady! He makes up one half of a dual-entrepreneurial household, running a  growing business with me and creating his own businesses as well. He was rapidly becoming an expert on all things that have to do with building online businesses…marketing, product launching, technology platforms, copywriting… and, yes, money.

Flash-forward to today. Forest has cracked the nut on how to make money. After purposely turning his back on it, he later decided to turn directly towards it, and figure out how to use money to make moments of joy, rather than moments of pain. He’s become utterly passionate about supporting other people (especially creative entrepreneurs) in creating more income and making peace with money. He has turned his bookkeeping practice (which used to be total drudgery and frustration — when he’d actually do it) into a fulfilling, meditative practice. He’s a whiz at financial apps and even researched the best tax breaks and options on our latest big purchase, our Nissan Leaf. Forest has ongoing, courageously vulnerable conversations with me and our son about money. Over the past years, Forest’s relationship with money has deepened and evolved tremendously — and he keeps stretching his edges, learning and growing, by small steps and large leaps, every day and every year.

I could go on and on about how incredible I think Forest’s money journey has been — but I hope this short highlight reel gives you a sense of his incredible “hero’s journey” with money.

So … why am I sharing this with you? Because this little montage of Forest’s financial life illustrates a concept I talk about all the time but have never fully defined for you: your money story.

What’s a Money Story?

Simply put, your “Money Story” is the entirety of your relationship with money. The pain, the joy, and the learning. It is as unique as you are. It includes all of the historical facts of your financial life. The emotional wounds and triumphs. The tough conversations. The beliefs and habits inherited from your parents and lineage, the ways you adopted them, and the ways you rebelled against or even transcended them. It includes your strengths and challenges with money, arising from your unique circumstances, wiring, and personality type. It includes all of the sensations and emotions and bodily reactions that money stirs within you.

Your money story … is the whole shebang. Past and present. The big plot points and the subtle moments that still linger in your heart.

The first time you got your allowance … and blew it all on butter pecan ice cream that gave you a tummy ache.

Those memories of your mother paying the bills at the kitchen table on Saturday afternoons … when you could feel her anxiety.

The moment on the school bus when you realized that your family had a lot more money than your friends’ families … or a lot less.

The pride you felt that winter break when you made $200 shovelling snow in your neighborhood — and opened your first bank account.

Listening to your father talk about investment strategies with your brother and wondering why he never talked to you about all of that “money stuff.”

That summer in college when your job fell through and you lived on Ramen noodles and leftover scones from your girlfriend’s bakery job.

That triumphant moment when you raised your rates — and people actually said yes.

All of your ancestors who worked themselves to the bone, yet somehow remained cheerful and creative … who sing in your very DNA when you find the silence to listen.

Getting to know your Money Story is courageous, vulnerable work.

You see, most of us aren’t conscious of our Money Story — or at least most of it. But whether we look it in the eye or not, it is there: running like silent software in the background of our consciousness. Driving decisions, fueling fear, and whispering hypnotic truths we can’t possibly out-logic. That’s why this is some of the most foundational work I do with folks who want to understand, honor, and transform their relationship with money. It’s square one.

Many people, when they first start looking at their Money Story, feel a lot of shame. As we pull our Money Story out of the closet (and all the secrecy and silence), it’s easy to focus on the bad stuff, first. Yet we all have challenges and strengths around money — and our Money Stories contain traumas and triumphs, pain and joy.

Becoming intimate with our Money Story means looking at, understanding, and honoring all of this. Sound hard? It is. But the more we get honest about our Money Story, the more empowered we are in effecting real, lasting transformation.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that our past does not have to equal our future. Especially when it comes to our Money Stories. I’ve seen this too many thousands of times to ever doubt it again: in my own life, in stories from my dear community, and not least of all, in my dear husband’s own evolution around money.

You have the power to write new chapters in your Money Story.

It takes some work. But it is oh so worth it.

Get to know your Money Story.

If you want to create a new relationship with money — one founded on loving awareness, honesty, and empowerment — there are so many tools and practices that can help you to move forward.

But at a certain point, as you move forward, you must look backwards, too. In order to write a new chapter in your Money Story, you need to get honest about those previous chapters. (Or at least the highlight reel.) This doesn’t need to be tearful and traumatic. And it doesn’t need to take years on a therapist’s couch. If you’re ready and willing, you can take a few steps today, on your own, to get intimate with your Money Story:

1. Look back. What’s your first memory about money?

My dear colleague, Barbara Stanny, claims that if you look back to your first money memory, you’ll find a decision you made about money. Think back. Remember. What bubbles up? (Listen to us discuss this exercise here.)

2. What beliefs have you inherited?

What did your parents, grandparents, siblings, church, or community teach you about money? Are these beliefs or habits still guiding you, today? Are there any you’re ready to let go of?

3. How “grown-up” are you, with money?

Many of my dear community members admit, at a certain point, that they don’t feel like adults with money. Some feel like rebellious teenagers; others feel like toddlers; still others feel like nonverbal newborns! Where do you feel you are, within your own Money Story? Are you just getting started? Douse yourself with compassion, here — any answer you discover is truly OK.

4. Be present, present, present.

All of these insights, even if they’re about the past, can only come to you in the present moment. Do whatever you need to remain lovingly aware, as much as possible, around money. Do Body Check-In after Body Check-In. Journal. Dance out your emotions. Have honest conversations with trusted friends.

5. Forgive.

We all have pieces of our Money Story we feel shame about. That’s why forgiveness is so important, here. Forgive yourself. Forgive your parents — they were doing the very best they could. Forgive your community. Forgive that testy IRS agent. Forgive, forgive, forgive. This will set you free.

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I know Forest couldn’t have written these new, exciting chapters in his Money Story if he hadn’t taken an honest look at the old chapters.

So please: begin to make peace with your own Money Story. Say hello when it shows up. Share some cocoa with it and thank it for what it’s allowed you to do. Bless the hard times, honor the gifts of grit … and gently show those unhelpful patterns to the door. And always, always: celebrate yourself for showing up to this work. It is rare. And oh, so brave.

Own your Money Story, dear reader. Bless it. And realize: you now hold the pen in your hand.

Here’s to writing something beautiful. With as much love as you can muster.

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