“Money is power.” ~ Way too many people
Sometimes, I’ll ask people what money means to them. Not in an academic, theoretical, highfalutin’ conceptual way … but in an intimate, personal, this-is-my-life-story kinda way. And one of the most common definitions I hear is that one up there. “Money is power.”
A teensy percentage of people repeat this cultural mantra with a genuine smile: they have good, positive connotations to this saying. “Money is how I provide for myself and my family,” they explain, or “Money is how I effect change in my life and the world,” or, as my dear colleague Fabeku Fatunmise says, “Money is fuel.”
But the rest of them — the overwhelming majority of people who I talk to about money and power — speak of this dynamic through sighs and gnashing teeth. They describe the dark, shadowy side of an unhealthy power dynamic. One wherein wealthy tycoons prey upon the average Joe and Jane and millionaire grandparents leave behind inheritances with a host of manipulative conditions and strings.
When most people think about money and power, they describe a devious dance of domination and victimization. Power, here, means power over and under.
I harbored this pejorative association between money and power for most of my early, teenaged, and young adult life. And while I’ve taken great strides to heal the money-and-power dynamic within myself and my life, I recently came face to face with all the unresolved, still-shameful remnants of this theme.
You see, a few months ago, my co-writer and I penned a gorgeous, rich chapter for the Money Healing portion of my book manuscript. We called it, “Money is Never Just About the Money,” and explored a handful of the deeper themes running just below the surface of our “money stuff.” Safety. Enoughness. Value. And more. It was one of the clearest articulations of my teachings, ever. It felt wonderful. And yet, a few weeks before the manuscript was due to my publisher, it hit me like a ton of wisdom bricks: I had left out perhaps the most important “deeper theme” of all. POWER.
I was gobsmacked.
How on earth could I have ignored this concept?! I talk about “empowerment” with my community on a near-daily basis. And feeling empowered is an ongoing inquiry for me, in my own life.
I was staring power right in the eye — yet a big part of me didn’t want to admit it.
After many contemplative hikes, I realized: my blind spot around power and money had everything to do with my personal money story. It was intimately tied to my middle class upbringing (and all the paradoxes that entailed), to my relationship with my father, and to my own evolution as a creative, empowered woman.
For so much of my early life, money-and-power was a painful, strife-riddled wound. I was one of that big majority who associates “power” with “power over,” when it came to money. And even though I was on a quest to feel more empowered (with money and everything else), this topic was so painful, I actually banished the word “power” from my vocabulary, entirely. For years.
As I’ve followed the threads of my own money healing journey, I’ve revisited some of the old hurts from my money story. I’ve soothed my wounds and found deep understanding and compassion for those I once thought had hurt me. I’ve taken responsibility for my own choices, made new, more honest and empowered choices, and discovered immense gratitude for all that I’ve been given in this life.
I still don’t love the word, “power,” especially applied to money — but I certainly enjoy pushing the edges of my own empowerment.
As soon as I realized I needed to talk about money and power in my book, a series of images flashed through my mind. These were the pivotal moments in my early life, where I learned that old, unhealthy and dominating dance between money and power. Remembering these moments was like flipping through the pages of an old journal: I could still feel the challenging poignancy … yet I also felt how much I’d evolved and healed in the years since.
Today, I’d like to share three of my personal “money journal entries” about power with you — along with the insights they triggered, years later.
We all have tender money stories like these. No matter what our personal history, socio-economic background, or personality type. I’ve personally held the hand of so many people, along the whole spectrum from working class to middle class to wealthy, as they shared their own vulnerable money memories and money shame. So today, I felt inspired to share with you a few of my own.
Truth be told: they still feel sensitive and a little raw. These moments were grist for my money healing mill. They provided the impetus and the material for my ever-evolving, ever-unfolding relationship with money. I feel pangs of embarrassment when I revisit them … yet also pride in my own evolution … and a deep compassion for my parents, who were teaching me the very best way they knew how, and for my younger self, who was so confused and conflicted about money.
Ready? Here we go …
1. Stupid, Boring Summer Jobs — Age 16
One of my very earliest money memories is from the summer I was 15-16, when my father decided: it was time for me to get a job. He instructed me to go apply for a minimum number of jobs (I think it was a half dozen), and report back to him at regular intervals. This was not up for discussion.
I’ve always been a strong-willed individualist. (I’m a 4 on the Enneagram, for those of you who speak that language.) I hated being told what to do. Especially when it didn’t feel aligned with my creativity and uniqueness.
When he gave me this “assignment,” my father never asked me what kind of job I might be interested in, what my unique skill set might be, or what sort of job might be fun or meaningful for me. I liked the idea of making my own money, but I couldn’t stand the idea of a perfunctory job, disconnected from my personality, my gifts, and what truly mattered most to me. I needed to align work with what I truly craved. But, as a 16-year-old, I wasn’t given space to do this inquiry. I was expected to obey my father — no questions asked.
To me, this felt like domination. In this moment, I connected money and power — but not a joyful, creative form of power. Power, in that moment, meant power over. In that moment, I decided: as soon as I was able to, I would create a meaningful career for myself. Work in the world that was connected to my unique gifts. This was a pivotal moment, in my money story (and my eventual career).
And now, so many years later, I can see what my father was trying to teach me during that hot Chicago summer. And I honor him and those gifts he gave me — profoundly. My father was an entrepreneur, and the ability to work hard had been incredibly important in his life — and he wanted to pass this work ethic on to me. I’m so grateful for the discipline and drive he taught me — and now, as a creative entrepreneur doing work that I love, I’m able to make beautiful use of these gifts.
2. Mailing Monthly Money Ledgers — Age 19
I was incredibly fortunate to have my parents pay for my undergraduate tuition — but, there was a catch. They insisted that I manually track all of my expenses (to the penny) and turn in copies of my checkbook register to them at regular intervals.
In a way, this made sense: they were investing a large amount of money in my education, and wanted to make sure I was spending my money wisely. But there was no financial education or awareness teaching attached to this tracking: we never discussed my expenses, and we never visioned how I might plan, shape, or budget my money. So I turned in my ledgers without ever understanding why I needed to track my expenses, let alone share them with my parents. Like my summer job applications when I was 16, this interaction with money felt pointless to me — and was another example of money giving my parents not just power, but power over me.
This was one of the paradoxes of my middle class upbringing: my parents were incredibly generous … but there were often strings attached. And while they certainly had their (good) reasons for tying those strings, we didn’t talk openly about them. Instead, I felt gratitude for the gifts my parents gave me … along with confusion, guilt, and frustration.
Looking back, I’m so very grateful that my parents paid for my undergraduate education. And I’m grateful for the practice of tracking my expenses. And now that I’ve come out the other side of my young adult rebellion, I can put these gifts to great use.
3. Broke and Stranded in Italy — Age 21
One year during undergrad, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Italy for a semester abroad. Again, my parents helped to pay for this: it was amazing, incredibly generous, and incredibly exciting!
Yet, once again, my parents gave me a big financial gift — without having a clear discussion about their expectations or parameters.
I wasn’t clear how much I could spend on extra things while I was there, like risotto, gelato, travel, etc. Now, looking back, I have deep compassion for my parents and myself: we simply didn’t know how to have the kind of open, honest conversations about money that I now have with my husband and son (which is the same kind of open conversations I support my community in having.) We were doing the best we could! But our inability to talk about money set the stage for a difficult episode.
My college friends studying abroad with me often took little side trips during our semester in Italy: weekend getaways to the coast or longer trips to other countries. After a few months in Italy, I decided to join them for one of these: a week in France. It didn’t occur to me that I needed to run this by my parents, first. (Whoops!)
When I got back to Italy a week later, I called my parents (on an olde timey device called a “pay phone”). When I gushed about my French adventure, my father became furious. How could you do this without telling us?! He instantly stopped sending me the money I relied on to pay for my food and other extras. But he never clarified with me why he was doing this. I had a few very scary weeks, there, eating on the cheap and trying to make my money stretch as far as I could. And, of course, I was deeply grateful simply to be in Italy. Yet this was another episode where I felt dominated by my father and money. He was incredibly generous with me — yet without open lines of communication, our financial relationship felt deeply confusing. Again, money was power … power over.
As I revisit these old “money journal” entries, I’m filled with profound compassion for my parents and myself. I see how my parents’ own money stories affected what they taught me about money and power — and even if these ideas didn’t feel wonderful to me, they had served my parents well. And, I can recognize the truly beautiful lessons my father was trying to teach me, underneath it all: to work hard; to learn to make my own money; to be responsible; to be tough.
I went through a period of feisty rebellion against these lessons (I didn’t like anyone telling me what to do!) but eventually came out the other side with a great appreciation for everything my parents had taught me — and my own understanding of money and power. But it’s been a long, winding road.
Today, I have a totally different understanding of how money and power dance together.
Now, I can experience power as something more than power over or power under. I can relax, soften, and allow creative power to surge through me.
In my own life, feeling empowered with money has been intimately entwined with claiming my value, more and more, in small ways and huge ones, every day.
Feeling empowered with money has meant many different things for me. It has meant forgiving my father for the sometimes harsh way he taught me lessons. It has meant choosing a husband who felt like my equal partner, around money. It has meant creating work in the world that feels deeply meaningful to me, and sharing my gifts in ways that serve others. It has meant charging rates that feel good to me and creating business models that provide a sustainable, joyful lifestyle. It has meant courageously sitting with my “money koans” as they arise, and listening to the answers that come. It has meant honing and trusting my own financial competency more and more. It has meant finding my own truth and establishing boundaries to honor what’s authentic and meaningful, to me.
Power is a journey.
It is made up of small moments, where we take action in our best interest. It is built, brick by brick, from decisions and choices, insights and intentions. I’ve seen my dear community members claim and fortify their personal power in countless ways, big and small, like:
- Checking your credit score on a free site like Credit Karma.
- Choosing a bookkeeping system and learning how to use it.
- Making that phone call to hire a bookkeeper or financial planner.
- Saying an elegant NO the next time someone asks to pick your brain for free.
- Having a new and honest money conversation with someone close to you.
- Creating a Money Healing Ritual to invoke and nurture your personal power.
- Spontaneously giving a donation to a GoFundMe campaign that you feel inspired by.
- Learning to negotiate better.
And on and on..
Here’s to claiming your own power, dear reader. In grand leaps and subtle shifts, inner and outer work, big ways and small…