On a recent trip to London, I paid my respects at the grave of the first financial therapist—Charles Dickens. You might roll your eyes at the thought of a 19th century novelist, no matter how famous, being a financial therapist. But his story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation from bitter miser to generous friend in A Christmas Carol is the basis for my own work in financial therapy. It is the framework for my second co-authored book, The Financial Wisdom of Ebenezer Scrooge.
Transformation is a big word for a big change that is not for the fainthearted. In her book The Edge of Wonder, Victoria Erickson writes: “Transformation isn’t sweet and bright. It’s a dark and murky, painful pushing. An unraveling of the untruths you’ve carried in your body. A practice in facing your own created demons. A complete uprooting, before becoming.”
That doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. No wonder so many of us choose to continue to bear the familiar pain of the present rather than risk the pain of transformation to do something unfamiliar and unknown. We typically only undertake transformation when we can no longer deny the need to change. This was true for Ebenezer Scrooge, who had no intention of embarking on a journey of transformation on Christmas Eve when he ate his tasteless bowl of gruel in front of his meager fire and went to bed.
But his sleep was interrupted by the ghost of his old friend and business partner, Jacob Marley, who warned Scrooge that he needed to change his ways or end up in dire misery for eternity. Something many people don’t realize is that this was not the first time Marley tried to get his attention. He had appeared many times before, but this was the first time Scrooge saw and heard him.
Isn’t this how awakening works? People close to us try to tell us what isn’t working, ask us to change, offer us help—and we can’t hear them. Then somehow, one day, the message gets through, often from someone other than our family and close friends. It’s like the saying that when the student is ready, the teacher appears. When Scrooge was ready, Marley gave him the keys to transformation: looking at the past, the present, and the future.
Transformation around our relationship with money means gently exploring the past events, usually in childhood, that shaped our extreme beliefs—money scripts—that we have erroneously believed to be absolute truths. These money scripts, which are meant to protect us and which are partial truths, drive our financial behaviors, often in ways that do not serve us well.
Bringing objectivity and understanding to our entrenched money scripts is not easy. Gaining the emotional intelligence needed to change your financial behaviors often requires the assistance of a very accomplished financial advisor, and probably that of a financial therapist.
After we have taken that difficult and essential journey into the past, we are ready to see clearly the reality of the present. This is a place of more unraveling of untruths and uprooting. Because we’ve gained understanding about the past, we now have the emotional and cognitive bandwidth to learn and apply financial skills in the present. Our guides in this step can be accountants, attorneys, traditional financial planners, and educational resources to give us accurate financial knowledge.
Once we gain that knowledge, we’re ready to look into the future to see where our previous burdened decisions were potentially taking us. That future could have been harsh, as Scrooge’s would have been. Yet we now have the capacity and the tools to begin to create a future that’s consciously and deliberately planned. We can take control of our money rather than our money controlling us.
A lot of us try to shortcut the transformation process by starting with the future. But without first taking those critical steps of exploring the past and learning what’s in the present, we often lose heart. We try to force and manipulate changes in the future that just don’t work. This is why New Year’s resolutions for financial change so often fail. It isn’t because our goals are flawed or unattainable. We’re just not prepared to make the changes we want.
At the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge was a transformed person, full of joy and generosity. He began to use the money he had previously hoarded to enhance his life and those of others. He gave to charities, he became a supportive employer, and above all, he built loving relationships with friends and family.
Unlike Scrooge, we can’t rely on the help of spirits to transform in one night. It might take us considerably longer. However, we do have guides and resources to help us accomplish it. This year, instead of scolding yourself over New Year’s resolutions that you are unable to keep, consider beginning a deeper financial transformation. It is a gift to yourself that will last a lifetime.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.