It’s Never Just About the Money

written by Bari Tessler September 28, 2015

Dear Community,

Exhausted and reverent, we lugged those three, precious paper bags through the parking lot to our little car. Forest and I had only been dating a short while, and were living in Sebastopol, California. Despite earning only a modest income, we both valued high-quality organic food so much, we made a weekly pilgrimage to Whole Foods.

Almost without fail, Forest and I would return to our car with three or four bags of food — and a couple-hundred dollar receipt. And before we could drive away, like clockwork, my dear, sweet man would spiral into a dark, terrible place. He looked out the window, his face cycling between numbness and abject terror. Sometimes I could reach him and pull him out of the fear — but other times, he felt utterly lost to me, entrenched in his “black hole” place. 

Spending so much money at once triggered a deep, childhood trauma for Forest. And while those grocery trips were certainly a financial stretch for us, it wasn’t just about the money. It went deeper than that. Those weekly freak-outs in the Whole Foods parking lot might have started with a financial crunch, but they led Forest directly and rapidly to a far deeper issue: his ability to feel safe: in his money relationship, in his body, and in his life. 

It’s about the money, but it’s never just about the money.

Just as Forest came face-to-face with some old, primordial vulnerability in the Whole Foods parking lot, we all encounter profound, sensitive places within ourselves if we push this “money stuff” deep enough. It’s never just about dollars and cents. Our money relationship brings us into direct contact with …

Our relationship to pleasure, abundance, and thriving.
How we access feelings of enoughness and safety.
Our capacity to feel worthy and valuable.
Our self-confidence, self-reliance, and resilience.
Our ability to get vulnerable, get intimate, and ask for help.

These themes are roiling just below the surface of so many of our interactions with money. Yet many people go their whole lives without recognizing how much these deeper issue fuel their money challenges (and successes). Before you know that money is never just about the money, working with it can feel like emotional quicksand: a “simple” evening of paying bills spins out of control into self-doubt, shame, and a volcano of unresolved family trauma. You might even feel like you’ll never resolve all this messy “money stuff.”

But simply acknowledging the deeper, oh-so-intimate issues that are intimately intertwined with money can help you relax into the process a bit more. Then, you can keep gently pushing against your growing edges (with big, big doses of self-compassion, of course).

When we give it our full, loving attention, money reveals itself as a potent psychopomp, leading us directly into an exploration of our own inner world and unconscious patterns. Money always mirrors our our unresolved issues, suppressed gifts, and growing edges. We can harness money as a sacred training ground: a realm in which to practice new skills, unravel old knots, and tango with tender, essential inquiries. And because these deeper themes of money healing are always present in other areas of our lives, as well (as the saying goes, “the way you do one thing is the way  you do everything”) — when we bring conscious healing to our money relationship, the benefits ripple out to every area of our lives. 

Money healing is incredibly brave stuff. And it has everything to do with everything.

This is the deep inner work that continually excites and fascinates me about money — and these deeper threads are why I believe it’s so incredibly valuable for each of us to engage with our money relationships.

Everyone has their own constellation of challenges and patterns, qualities and inquiries associated with money — and, like peeling back an onion, new and deeper issues reveal themselves the longer we work with our money relationship. Two of the most common and powerful “deeper themes” I’ve noticed in money healing are: safety and enoughness.


When Forest and I lived in Sebastopol (and had all of those freak-outs in the Whole Foods parking lot), we were earning barely enough money to cover our basic expenses. I know how frightening that is — and I want to empower everyone I work with to grow out of scarcity and into a comfortable or even “ultimate” lifestyle. But the truth is, in life, we will go through different phases and cycles. Ups and downs. Abundance and scarcity. 

You truly can find ways to feel and grow a sense of safety, stability, and sustainability, even when your bank balance feels like a roller coaster.

If you’re reviewing your budget and discover you might not have enough to make ends meet this month, your nervous system might spin directly into a fight-flight-freeze fear response (and take your heart and mind along for the ride). You can shift this pattern, though. As one of my community members recently described it: 

We can shift from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth.

Every time you feel triggered, unsafe, or anxious, you can practice being as gentle and patient with yourself as possible — and do whatever you need to  feel safe, on a deep, inner level.

Many people arrive at this money work looking for safety’s trickster cousin, security. The way I understand this word, “security” means plenty of money in the bank, a comfortable place to live, a stable job, a pension, etc. It’s all of the external, surface-level markers. But even the most “stable” economy can crash, and the most luxurious home get swept away by a natural disaster.

That’s why I’m far more interested in a deeper, inner safety. This is about your ability to self-regulate and self-soothe. It’s about finding your own safety, from within, and growing it, from the inside-out. This deep, inner safety can be yours no matter what’s happening around you — and no matter what catastrophe your mind races to. It is a felt experience.

One of the first ways I experienced more safety within my money relationship was by tracking my income and expenses. I had spent so many years with my head firmly plunged in the sand when it came to my money (too terrified to peek at my numbers) that when I finally mustered the courage to look at my income and expenses, it was a huge relief. Even though I wasn’t making very much money at all, simply getting in touch with reality helped me feel more calm, safe, and grounded.

However, some people need to do the exact opposite in order to feel more safety in their money relationship. One of my community members used to compulsively monitor his bank balances — up to a dozen times a day. Tracking his numbers was an expression of his anxiety, not a cure for it. For him to relax into inner safety, he actually needed to spend less time checking his balances: I suggested once a day, at first — and then once a week. He benefitted most from spending more time in nature, deepening his breath, and learning to meditate.

Accessing and growing your own inner safety, then, is a task unique to you. Always check in with yourself and see what ingredients you need to add in to feel more safety in your money relationship.

I adore body-based practices for deepening a sense of safety. While our thoughts might race, we can always rely on our bodies to help us feel more safety, stability, and balance. The body is a reliable portal to more presence, and when we work with it, we can feel the full spectrum of our emotions without getting overwhelmed (or numbing out).

Start by adding in Body Check-Ins anytime you start feeling unsafe. And if you’d like to go even further, explore this wonderful article with even more somatic practices for increasing safety, including grounding, resourcing, titration, and more.


I stared wistfully at the long, lush display of chocolate bars. Dark, extra dark, milk; fair trade and organic; pure chocolate, popping with raspberries, swirled with caramel and sea salt, spiced with chili flakes. It was a gorgeous, clear day in Boulder, and I was making a quick stop at the market, looking for some treats to bring to my friend’s potluck. Everyone counted on me to bring chocolate to our gatherings — heck, I counted on myself for this! Chocolate has always been one of my primary “love languages,” one of my favorite ways to shower others with affection. That’s why my heart positively sank when I realized: I couldn’t afford to bring a single bar of chocolate with me that day.

I was in my late twenties, had just completed my graduate program, and was working a low-paying, “stepping stone” job. My budget was down to the bare bones, and while this normally didn’t bother me, I really felt the pinch when I couldn’t afford chocolate — for myself and for my friends. I could deal with forgoing a nicer apartment or new clothes — but not being able to afford a few bars of dark, velvety chocolate sent me spinning into feelings of “not-enoughness.” 

We all have our own triggers for feeling what I call “enoughness”: that peaceful, satisfied feeling where all is right with the world, and you have everything you need to be happy, healthy, and whole.

Usually, we assume that this feeling is directly related to how much money we have in the bank — and feeling “not-enoughness” is one of the most common reasons people begin their money work. For many of them, money feels like sand slipping through their fingers: they just can’t hold onto it, and never feel like they have enough of it. Sometimes, all people need is a little support to track their income and spending, plug a few “money leaks” in their budget, and shift from a “basic needs” lifestyle into a more “comfortable” bracket. But so often, these feelings of enoughness and scarcity go far deeper than our bank balances.

Over the years, I’ve worked with countless people who felt like they just didn’t have “enough” — from struggling single Moms to 7-figure earners. Almost all of them discovered, at some point, that “enoughness” is a matter of the heart. As the lovely Geneen Roth once shared with me — reflecting on “losing everything” in the Bernie Madoff scandal:

“‘Enough money’ isn’t a quantity. ‘Enough’ isn’t out there; it’s a relationship to what you already have. Unless you work on that, first (or simultaneously with how you’re making money) you will never feel like you have enough, and you will always feel poor. It’s possible to feel fat when you’re thin, and to feel poor when you’re rich. And the thing that changes is your relationship with ‘enough.’” ~ Geneen Roth


So … how can you tell if your feelings of “not-enoughness” go deeper than just dollars and cents? You may find yourself struggling with these same feelings of scarcity in areas of your life other than money: “I just can’t get enough sleep / when will I have enough clients to stay afloat? / He never pays enough attention to me,etc. Perhaps you have a hard time celebrating your accomplishments because they never feel like “enough,” or maybe you find yourself compulsively saving every last tablespoon of leftover food. Maybe, when you get really quiet and honest with yourself, you can notice an underlying, even overwhelming level of anxiety.

As Lynne Twist suggests in her wonderful book, The Soul of Money, we in Western cultures suffer from this lack of “enoughness” in a pervasive, soul-draining way that extends far beyond our pocketbooks:

“I see it in myself. For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time”. Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of. We don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough rest. We don’t have enough exercise. We don’t have enough work. We don’t have enough profits. We don’t have enough power. We don’t have enough wilderness. We don’t have enough weekends. Of course we don’t have enough money—ever. We’re not thin enough, we’re not smart enough, we’re not pretty enough or fit enough or educated or successful enough, or rich enough—ever. Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with the litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack.


The internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life, and it is deeply embedded in our relationship to money. In the mind-set of scarcity, our relationship with money is an expression of fear; a fear that drives us in an endless and unfulfilling chase for more, or into compromises that promise a way out of the chase or discomfort around money. In the chase or in the compromises we break from our wholeness and natural integrity. We abandon our soul and grow more and more distances from our core values and highest commitments. We find ourselves trapped in a cycle of disconnection and dissatisfaction. We start to believe the profit-driven commercial and cultural messages that suggest that money can buy happiness, and we begin to look outside of ourselves to be fulfilled. Intuitively, we know it isn’t so, but the money culture shouts down the wiser inner voice, and we feel compelled to seek even the most transient relief and comforts money can buy.”

Not-enoughness certainly shows up in our money relationships — but it goes deeper than that. It’s a mindset. A way of being founded in the illusion of deprivation, instead of in the reality of provision, gratitude, and sufficiency in the here-and-now. Enoughness is not a static accomplishment: it lives and breathes in you.

Back when I couldn’t afford to bring yummy, high-quality dark chocolate to potlucks, I found other ways to feel enoughness — in my life, and in my bones — without changing my financial reality. I went for long walks with friends and danced in parks. I soaked up the beauty of the Boulder creek and always paused to smell the flowering lilacs. I got creative, got present, and found ways to feel enoughness that didn’t cost a cent.

Remember: I’m not suggesting that you do this inner, emotional work instead of the practical, financial number-crunching and lifestyle design. I believe that you can cultivate enoughness by engaging with your numbers, by deepening your emotional and spiritual relationship with money, or (my recommendation) through a combination of the two. And if you’d like a few more mini-practices to cultivate “enoughness,” click this way.


So, dear friend: when you find yourself spiraling into fear, overwhelm, doubt, or any other powerful emotion when engaging with your money, please take a moment. Take a breath. Ask yourself: is this just about the money? And then, if you’re ready, listen to the answers. Breathe some more. Drench yourself in loving patience. Listen some more. The answers will come. And they just might lead you to some gorgeous places — in your life and within yourself.


P.S. Guess what? You just got a sneaky little peek of my upcoming book, The Art of Money: A Life-Changing Guide to Financial Happiness! That’s right! This article was adapted from a crazy-profound chapter in my manuscript.

You see: magical things have happened during this book-writing process.
Cosmic synchronicities.
Catalytic collaborations.
And profound ah-has that deepened my understanding of my own work.

The idea that, “it’s about the money — and never just about the money” was one of these transformational insights — and she came rushing through the book-writing process like a waterfall a few months ago. Putting pen to paper has forced me to articulate some profound concepts, hidden beneath the surface of my work, in a clearer way than ever before. I’m so excited to see my teachings take shape in my beautiful book — and I can’t wait to share more with you!

Look for pre-orders of The Art of Money: A Life-Changing Guide to Financial Happiness in the next few months. And in the meantime, stay tuned for a second sneak peek, adapted from this same chapter, in the next week or two.

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