I met with my tax guy yesterday and walked away, once again, feeling as if I were incompetent and uneducated about money. It didn’t help that it was raining (still!) and I was getting nowhere with a project of mine that has me stumped. In all my wisdom, I came back home and watched the uplifting movie, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” with Melissa McCarthy. If you haven’t seen it, the movie is based on the life of Lee Israel, an alcoholic, failed writer, whose claim to fame was writing fake letters from famous people and selling them to collectors. If you haven’t guessed yet, it is NOT a comedy. As spectacularly as it is acted, it did not improve my mood one whit.
What both these events did was trigger deep catacombs of shame. Once triggered, the shame came back to the surface and temporarily overwhelmed me. The wonderful writer, researcher and inspirational speaker, Brené Brown, Ph.D., illuminated the difference between shame and guilt, particularly as it shows up in women. According to Brown, shame is the experience that we, ourselves, are bad. Guilt is the experience that something we have done is bad. These are important distinctions.
As a psychologist and a woman of some experience, my self-image is pretty intact. I believe I am a competent, effective, and productive professional. Until I see my tax guy. Or watch a movie about a lonely older woman. Then I believe that I am bad and incompetent. I retrieve a story line that goes: “If I had only tried harder or gotten the right advice, I somehow would have done better.” At its core, this belief is about being “enough”.
Shame and money were twins in my house growing up, . Although it was never stated out loud, we never quite had “enough”. Don’t get me wrong, I am talking about a belief here, not my experiencing poverty or lack. We never talked about money except when bills didn’t get paid on time. How to make, save, and invest money were mysteries to me. I knew we weren’t as well off as some of my classmates or relatives, but there was an implicit message that “those people” were somehow different, not better.
I remember my paternal grandmother telling me to “save my pennies”, which I dutifully did and still do. But she didn’t tell me what to do with them once I had saved them. I remember as a child joining the local bank’s Christmas Savings Club, where I would deposit small sums of money each week until just before Christmas, when I could take it all out and spend it on gifts. This was the foundation of much of my financial life. Put aside money until I get to my goal, then spend it on something. It is not, however, a sound investment strategy for retirement and living the lifestyle I have become accustomed to till I am 80.
I remember the first time I deposited a check that was over $1,000. I thought I was RICH! Of course, that ‘nest egg’, quickly was drawn down and dutifully placed into circulation by purchasing something or paying down a credit card.
One of my long-time friends is a very successful divorce attorney. She was always telling me how important was for me to get a hold of my finances and make sure I knew what money I had. She had seen too many wives in her office who had no idea about how their husbands made or invested their community property, only to be left high and dry when the divorce happened. I wish I had paid better attention.
My mother’s last years reflected the consequences of her not having made good financial decisions. While she owned her own home, she ended up almost losing it, because she had taken out home equity loans to cover her basic expenses. She had a small social security check, and worked at low-wage jobs for many years just to bring in gap income to cover bills. While I was able to provide some additional support, it was not sufficient for my mother to enjoy the quality of life she had when she was younger. When she was no longer able to work, she resorted to selling family heirlooms. I don’t share this out of an expectation of sympathy; rather I share it because it is becoming increasingly a way of life for many elder women in this country and around the world.
Having “enough” is both a concept and a way of taking inventory. More and more women elders are at or below the Federal Poverty Guidelines, which for 2019 have been set at $15,600 annually. Individuals who earn this (or less) may be eligible for additional assistance in obtaining housing vouchers, food (SNAP), or medical care. The average Social Security check (assuming you started taking it at 66) was $1,221 in 2016. That has gone up slightly in the intervening years, but will only just bring you to the $15,600 threshold. This means half of all adults over 66 earn $1,300 or less a month. Without the social safety net, these individuals (predominantly women), will never be free from financial insecurity.
So here I am again, licking my wounds for not having made sound financial decisions over the past year. My plan of marrying a rich man does not seem to be moving forward at a very fast pace, especially since I am not dating anyone at present. My “investments” reflect a patchwork of advice received from various financial planners, friends, and tarot readings and remain a mystery to me. I do know that I have no credit card debt, am able to make my mortgage payments, and have money in my savings account. I am still able to work at a profession that brings me income and a sense of accomplishment. At present, for me, that is “enough”.
FIVE PILLARS OF AGING
I am currently researching what “enough” means as we age. If you have stories, ideas, or insights and would be willing to be interviewed, please let me know. I can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org or via snail mail at P. O. Box 134, El Verano, CA 95433.