I met Oliver in one of my workshops. He is a wonderful, warm, and caring man. He is one of the happiest people I know. Oliver had to do a lot of work uncovering some painful childhood memories before he could discover his money baggage.
He was one of nine children from a poor family living in Austria. They lived mostly off of their garden and wild mushrooms and berries they gathered from the forest. His father, a Jew in war torn Austria, got what work he could, often working at night for a friend at great risk to both of them, for, as Oliver explained, it was illegal during World War II to hire Jews.
My first memories about money are of my parents going over their monthly grocery bill. We had a monthly charge account at the grocery store in town. There were two little hardcover books in which every item would be written down. One book stayed at the store and the other we took home with us.
At the end of the month my mother would pick up the book at the store to compare it to the one at home, and my parents would go down the list. It always started very civilized. After a few items my dad would find something that he would question. He would always find something!
My mother would explain things, my father’s voice would get louder, his face would turn red, and he would start to yell. My mother would begin to cry, and then my grandmother would give a big sigh and carry me from the room.
Outside the closed door I listened to my father yelling and mistreating my mother despite her pleading to stop. I wanted to protect her, but I didn’t know how. I was three years old, scared, alone, and helpless.
This scene, to varying degrees of intensity, happened regularly all through my childhood. I saw that people got angry and upset and fought about money. It was scary, because there was always something wrong. I decided this is no place for me. I’m leaving.
Oliver’s money baggage became: We don’t have the money, something is always wrong! I’m out of here! This was not a conscious thought, as an adult might have. It became part of his subconscious imprinting, his inherent idea about how the world works. For sixty years Oliver did everything he could to avoid dealing with money, because as a child, he decided money meant pain.
We have all followed the same process that Oliver did. We took a thought about money and we built our life around it. The messages we got might have been different but the process was the same.
Oliver began to uncover his money baggage at age sixty, but it was not easy. He had to remember a lot of difficult memories. And he had to look at how his attitudes about money had kept him in painful situations for most of his life.
Money baggage has such a hold on us because the power of association is at work inside our brains. We associate money with the emotions we had around childhood experiences and the wounds caused by difficult times or traumatic events. Over time we forget the experiences but not the associations; as adults we continue to react to them.
Maybe we saw someone mistreat another person over money or dominate them and we concluded that money is bad. Well, money itself was not what was bad; it was that person’s actions. But as kids we were unable to make that distinction. We were discovering the world for the first time. And in that world we decided that money caused pain. It was a bad thing.
What shaped your childhood? What conclusions and decisions did you make about money that are still silently driving your life today? What have you heard about money? What are your earliest memories of money? What did your parents say about money—whether out loud or not? Did they fight about it? What do you say about money today? The answers to these questions are going to give you clues about your own personal money baggage.
Write down your earliest memories about money. Ask your sister or brother about what it was like growing up and what they learned about money. If your parents are still alive, ask them to talk about their deeper beliefs about money. Try to remember the first time you wanted money or you earned it or spent it. Take a trip back to your childhood home if you can, or look at old photos—anything that might give you a clue or stimulate your memory about the conclusions you made about money. Even if it doesn’t come at first, keep at it. You’ll find it—everyone has money baggage—and you’ll find it by exploring your childhood.
Next week we discuss how Our Money Baggage Affects Every Aspect Of Our Lives.