Wealth and Guilt

"Don't let the troubles in your head / Steal too much time; you'll soon be dead."

-Dave Matthews

Let me tell you a story about a person I'll call "Ramona." Ramona's husband was a construction worker who died on the job. As a result, she was awarded several million dollars in a lawsuit. Ramona was a client of mine and by the time I started working with her, she had burned through over a third of her settlement money already. She couldn't turn down requests for money. She used to be someone who lived paycheck-to-paycheck. It's near impossible for her to say "no" to people. In addition to feeling guilty about being someone with money when none of her friends have it, she also carries around a lot of guilt over having this money in the first place. Her husband had to die in order to get it. As a result, she can't spend it fast enough.

Money Avoidance and Guilt

Money scripts are subconscious rules that we follow about money, and they are typically passed down to us as children. A money script can be any rule, but they fall into four categories. One category is money avoidance. People with money avoidance money scripts tend to push money away, either because they think people with money are bad, or that money corrupts. Feeling guilt because you have money when others don't is one form of money avoidance money scripts. It's worth discussing.

Guilt and Inequality Lenses

Inequality has somewhat of a negative connotation to it, but at its core, it means at least two things aren't equal. People will never be the exact same, which can be uncomfortable for some people. It can be helpful to understand with which lens you view the fact of inequality.

One lens is that the world is fair and if you work hard you can achieve success - whatever success means to you. Therefore inequality is a result of some people working hard and some people not working as hard. This lens helps offers a coping strategy to alleviate the guilt that can come from having money when others don't.

People who tend to view inequality this way don't think privilege helped them. In their eyes, privilege is getting a boost in the form of favoritism, nepotism, or some other kind of observable help.

This type of privilege happens, to be sure, but it's more common for it to show up in the form of not having barriers in your way. It's much more difficult to recognize privilege when it's the absence of something versus something you can see.

Another lens for viewing inequality is taking the view that the world is unfair, and it really sucks because you were the beneficiary of an unfair system. To people viewing inequality through this lens, anxiety and stress are far more common.

A third lens for viewing inequality is the belief that everything happens by chance. Guilt is quite common with this lens because of the fact that there are many deserving people who end up with less and some undeserving people who end up with more. It's random and it's not fair, the thinking goes.

Your Frame of Reference Matters

Your frame of reference can matter quite a bit when you think about the inequality of outcomes. Many of us are caught up in the happenings of our neighborhoods, our jobs, or schools.

Psychological distance is how close or far someone feels to you, based on space, time, relationships and probability. In a nutshell, you care more about what will definitely happen to you right here and now than what might happen in the future to a stranger on the other side of the world. It's how humans relate to the world around us.

Thus, it's easier to feel sorry for someone in your group of friends or someone in your class that doesn't have as much as you. At the same time, it's easier to think that your hard work was the reason for your rising to the top. It depends on which lens you use.

If you zoom out and take a wider view, though, you'll recognize that your poorest friend or the poorest person at your school isn't that bad in the grand scheme of things. You don't think much about the person who is the poorest person in the united states because the psychological distance is greater (note: I'm using the United States as an example because that's where I am. If you are in a developed country, it will be similar for you). There will still be people who are concerned about the people at the bottom more than others.

Luck and randomness play a bigger role here, but you can still attribute your successes to your hard work. Again, a lot of this depends on the lens through which you view the world - understanding that your lens is a money script.

Once you zoom out all the way, luck and randomness play a huge role. It doesn't matter as much how you play your cards if you're dealt a royal flush. Likewise, if you are dealt nothing but an 8 high, you need substantial luck to stay in the game.

After zooming out you'll notice that even the poorest person in the United States is really well off compared to the rest of the world. This is worth remembering on your bad days - that there are a billion people who would gladly trade places with you, even on the worst day of your life. Most of us don't think like that, though because the psychological distance is far too great.

A few years ago there was a group of people who were advocating for the "other 99%". There's no doubt that they wanted more equality. However, had they taken a bigger view they would see that they are actually the 1% if you consider the whole world.

All of this might make you feel lucky for being born in your country, or it might make you feel sad now that you're more aware of how great inequality actually is. Whether you feel guilty about it or not, it's real (note: I make no claim of whether you should feel one way or another, that's not for me to decide).

Helping Others is Admirable

What does all this mean? Quite simply, it's normal to feel a sense of guilt when it comes to inequality. It could be the guilt that comes from inheriting money or receiving a life insurance payout because someone had to die for you to get that money. It could be the guilt that comes from being born into a wealthy family and knowing that nobody else in your school has the same advantages as you. It could be knowing that 99% of the world would consider their prayers answers if they could trade places with you. Don't push your emotions away; sit with them (learning mindfulness meditation can help with this).

As a result of feelings of guilt and other reasons, some people have charitable inclinations. This is not only fine; this is admirable. Some people have personal values such as fame or status, and those people are less likely to feel guilty about having money. These might be the same people that make it easy to "hate rich people." But for others, charity, philanthropy, and volunteering could be their top values.

I give you permission to celebrate that. Give some of your money to charities. Start a foundation or charitable organization. Volunteer with organizations you think can make a difference in the world.

The only thing I ask is that you take care of yourself first.

Take Care of Yourself

Just like on an airplane, you have to help yourself before you can help others. If you are in debt and keep giving money away because you don't think it's fair, reconsider. If you avoid asking for raises are pursuing promotions because there are others less fortunate, consider taking a different view. Get your financial house in order before you start giving away your money to those less fortunate. That way you reduce your chances of becoming one of the less fortunate.

There are some exceptions, of course. Some people hold strong beliefs that you should always give a certain percentage, no matter what your personal situation is.

For the rest of us, letting money avoidance money scripts drive our financial decisions can make it either difficult to accumulate or keep wealth, or it can give you deep feelings of guilt. You can help by learning about the source of your feelings. Understand that it's okay to donate time and money to causes that are helping to alleviate inequality. Just make sure your mask is on before you go around helping others.

You only have one life. Live intentionally.

Related Money Health® Reading
References and Influences:

Brad Klontz, Ted Klontz: Mind Over Money

Sarah Newcomb: Loaded


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Thanks for stopping by. I'm Derek!
I help people make smart decisions with their money and their life.
I'm a financial therapist, coach, speaker, and writer who helps people use their money to live the best life possible. My number one priority is to simplify money matters and help you get past what's getting you stuck so you can live life on purpose.

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