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How to Think About Wealth and Guilt


feelings of guilt reduce our happiness around money
❝You can't pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.❞ -Unknown

Eric grew up in an upper-middle-class family. He attended private schools for most of his life, didn't have to worry about how to pay for college, never felt a sense of deprivation, and was given tens of thousands of dollars every year because his grandparents wanted to transfer money to later generations in a tax-advantaged way. Eric had no idea when he was growing up that he was rich by most people's standards. To him, it just felt normal. It wasn't until later in life that he realized just how much privilege he had. The idea that so much opportunity was given to him for seemingly no reason other than he was lucky to have been born into the right family made him feel undeserving. Eric feels guilty for his relatively easy ride through life.


Michelle grew up very poor. There were days in her childhood when she had to skip meals because there was no food in the house. Most of her clothes were hand-me-downs from her older siblings. When she finally got a job, she lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and sometimes the money didn't even last until the next paycheck. She married her high school sweetheart, and they both lived this way, struggling to get by. Later in life, Michelle's husband was tragically killed while he was working. As a result, Michelle received several million dollars as part of the settlement. On the surface, this seems like it would help alleviate some of her emotional stress. In reality, though, Michelle views this as blood money. Her husband had to die in order for her to get it. Michelle would give the money back tomorrow if it meant she could have her husband back. Michelle feels guilty for enjoying this money without her husband.


Sean and Candice have been working hard to implement a budget. They've done a lot of research, read several books, and downloaded all the right apps. Together, they implemented some household spending rules that would help them get ahead in the future. Sean enjoys going out to lunch with his work colleagues. Not only does this save some time in the morning not having to pack a lunch, but he gets to feel like he is part of the group. Going out to lunch is not part of their spending plan. Candice works as a nurse and sometimes comes home feeling stressed out from a long day at work. To help alleviate some of the stress, she finds herself doing some online shopping, or what she calls “retail therapy.” She knows that her online purchases are not part of their spending plan. Both Sean and Candice feel guilty for spending money in ways they know will help them in the long run.


Eric, Michelle, Sean, and Candice all feel guilty about their financial situations. These feelings of guilt weigh on them like a heavy vest. It's difficult to feel tranquility, joy, or happiness with guilt weighing them down.


HAVING MONEY WHEN OTHERS DON'T


One of the more common ways we tend to feel guilty around money is when we realize that we have money when others don't. There often are feelings of injustice or unfairness that come with this realization. These feelings of guilt tend to be more common among the children of financially successful people. This is because it feels more like a handout. When it feels like we didn't have to do anything to earn our standing in society, then it can feel like we got something we may not deserve.


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