Money and Shame


I enjoyed yesterday’s discussion on the taboo of money and our willingness (or not) to share financial details with each other and those close to us.

Readers generously shared long, insightful comments – it’s been a great discussion. The 50th comment on the post struck a chord with me:

“I think as evidenced by the level of dysfunction present in our society around money, most people have some shame regarding their circumstances, especially if things are tight. No matter what you bring in, you can spend it. Period. Advertising and conventional wisdom tell me you are only worth what your outside shows (hogwash, of course). It’s ingrained in us from toddlers on, buy this to be happy.

We all kind of think “everyone else gets this right but me.” We also think others who make decisions we wouldn’t are wrong. It’s human nature. As George Carlin pointed out, “Everyone driving faster than me is an idiot, and everyone driving slower than me is a moron.” So exposing what we make (our worth) and how we spend it (our values) opens us up to being wrong. Can’t do that, why? A sense of shame. Right or wrong.

There wouldn’t be a Debtors Anonymous if it wasn’t needed. If people knew instinctively that money wasn’t this magical substance that made dreams come true, as we’re all taught by Madison Avenue and Hollywood. If we all realized that everyone has these same insecurities around finances, and it’s not just me being incompetent. If it wasn’t reinforced that everyone who makes more than me is in some top percentage of people, like royalty, and torn down in the media and by politicians seeking the advantage of shaming the imbalances of life.

We’re all human beings struggling day to day to be happy. Whether I’m on disability or the Forbes list. Money is a tool, not a god. We all can use it better.


Thanks, Kay, for your thoughts.

Reading through yesterday’s comments, it does seem shame plays prominently into our fears about sharing financial details.

It reminds me of some ideas I read recently about shame from Brene´ Brown, a therapist whose TED talk on shame got a lot of attention. Paraphrasing, here thought goes like this:

“Shame says ‘I’m bad.’ Guilt says ‘I did something bad.’”

Now, I don’t want to get into a semantics debate on the “real” meanings of the words shame and guilt, but I think Brene´’s comments helpful to our discussions here on the blog.

I’ve made big financial mistakes over the last ten years. Lots of them. Although I do feel ashamed at times, I seem to have forgiven myself (as evidenced by the relative peace of mind and optimism I feel about my financial future).

In other words, I’m guilty of financial mistakes, but I’m not ashamed of myself. I haven’t translated my financial mistakes into a sense that I’m a failure or a bad person. I’m a good person who made bad financial decisions.

Acknowledging my real guilt (I actually did something wrong that hurt my and my family’s happiness) allows me to feel sorry for the mistake and look for opportunities to make restitution. My budget and my efforts toward frugality are my path to restitution, but I don’t have to be a perfect budgeter or completely frugal before I can feel like a good person. I’m already valuable.

If I chose the path of shame – where I decided my financial mistakes prove I’m a bad person – I wouldn’t be allowing myself the opportunity to make restitution. I’d be stuck in a cycle of feeling ashamed, blaming myself, and feeling anger toward myself. All these feelings reinforce my sense of shame and being worthless. Not productive.

If you feel shame about your finances, let me be the first to encourage to drop it. Acknowledge your guilt (you’ve made mistakes like everyone else), figure out how to you’re going to do better in the future, and always remember that you’re worthwhile whether you’re “good” or “bad” with money.

And that’s why it doesn’t matter what any friend or family member thinks about what you’re doing (or not doing) with your money.

If any part of this post resonated with you, I’d encourage you to check out Dr. Brown’s TED talk and her blog.