“It’s My Treat”: How using money to earn validation is a dangerous game

It almost never works out well.

Photo by John Moeses Bauan on Unsplash

I sat across the dinner table from two people who I knew casually from work. “Don’t worry guys, it’s my treat”, I blurted out. The bill arrived, between the 3 of us, it was $75. Without any hesitation, I reached for my wallet, and pulled out the new Capital One credit card that I got in the mail 2 weeks before.

“Oh, OK” they responded awkwardly. We’d just finished a meal at a new restaurant nearby, situated in the Chicago suburb where we worked for the same logistics company. I’d convinced myself that I was working towards a career in corporate America like I’d always wanted, but the truth was that I hated my job and I was really struggling with the daily commute from downtown Chicago.

Truth is, I was struggling with a number of things, money being near the top of that list, and I really couldn’t afford to pay for dinner. But this wasn’t the first time I’d done something like this, and it wouldn’t be the last.

“Here, take my card, I’m happy to impress you while this interest rate kills me” Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Time after time, I used money to seek validation. Whether it was dinners, jewellery, small loans, clothing or gifts, I spent tens of thousands of my earnings over the years, trying to play the role of “financial saviour”. Why was I playing this role?

I didn’t outwardly think that I was saving people or that they even needed saving, I just thought that I was being a good relative, a good friend, a good guy. After all, I was the smart kid, who went to university and got paid decent money. I SHOULD be paying for other people, who perhaps weren’t doing as well or at least to make their lives a little easier — I was earning, so I could bear the burden.

This was the lie that I told myself for years and years.

Reaching into my pocket became such a reflex, it felt strange when I wasn’t doing it. All the while, though, I knew there was something deeper going on, something that I needed to uncover. What was I really doing, by giving all my money away?

“Reaching into my pocket became such a reflex, it felt strange when I wasn’t doing it.”

And make no mistake about it, I was giving all my money away. By the time as I moved back home to The Bahamas, 2 years after graduating university, I was over $10,000 in debt and I had nothing to show for it. Oh, and I had collections agencies chasing me for overdue balances.

Over the next 5 years, that debt increased to over $25,000. All because I needed to prove to everyone that I was doing well. I felt this strong obligation to make sure that everyone around me could rely on me, even if it meant going to the bank and borrowing.

And that’s exactly what I did. I borrowed from the bank, and swiped my credit cards with regularity. But what made this even worse, was that I only paid the minimum on my card balances, oftentimes paid late and found myself in delinquency.

Again, I had my accounts referred to credit collection agencies. What was going on with me? How did I end up in this mess AGAIN? What would people say if they found out? What would my parents say? I was battling these thoughts of failure and despair, and desperately looking for a way out of this mess.

Here I was, in my mid-20’s, college educated (with a degree in Economics, no less) making around $40,000 per year and seemingly incapable of taking care of myself financially. I kept looking at my numbers (salary versus expenses) and couldn’t understand why I was still struggling, until I realised that my problem wasn’t my numbers, it was my behaviours.

Each of us has an emotional relationship to money, and I was no exception. Personal finance experts believe that fear, shame and anger are common emotions that we feel in connection with money, oftentimes associated with beliefs around self-worth or personal responsibility.

These emotions can be so strong and so inherent, that they drive our behaviours, even without any conscious decision-making on our part. For me, I was playing out some very strong emotions with my money:

Being the “Provider”

When I was growing up, we had periods of struggle, as my parents ran the family business and raised 7 kids. And although we never went hungry or felt unsafe, we knew that some things were hard to come by, like stumping up tuition money all at once. My parents worked hard to see us make the most of our opportunities, so I vowed that as soon as I started earning money, I would see to it that those days of struggle, and the feelings that went along with them, didn’t return.

What I didn’t realise was that my attempts to buy my way out of those feelings of lack and anxiety would only create ACTUAL lack and hardship for myself. I was trying to “provide” for everyone else, without making sure that my own needs were being met, and they definitely were not being met. What business did I have lending someone money, when I was behind on my credit cards? Why would I buy someone that expensive gift, when I didn’t even have the equivalent in personal savings? I was putting everyone else before myself and thought that there was some virtue in doing so. Which leads to my second revelation.

Being “Good Enough”

Ever since I was a little boy, I knew that I was different and that difference became much more apparent in my teens and young adulthood. I was a gay man, very much in the closet and struggling with feelings of shame, fear, self-hatred and internal homophobia. I knew that I couldn’t hide myself for much longer (and didn’t really want to) and that those closest to me were eventually going to find out. I just couldn’t deal with the shame of having to face this part of my identity and the disappointment that I would cause to everyone who saw a different life for me.

So, I made an unconscious decision to over-compensate for what I saw to be a huge character flaw, by being the one who always spent on other people. I thought, “If I was taking care of things, they would still appreciate me or at least, they would ignore the part of me that they didn’t approve of”.

Don’t get me wrong, I had no idea that I was doing this, and it has only been in retrospect, as I reflect about my evolution into the confident and proudly open man that I am today, that I realise the full impact of my emotions. Again, I was using my money to buy my way out of feeling less than and worthless for being gay. This has probably been the hardest behaviour to unravel, because it was very much linked to the biggest secret that I was keeping.

As soon as I started to live more openly and without shame, I began to recognise these habits for what they were: toxic attempts to prove that I was good enough to be loved and to be valued for who I was.

“What I didn’t realise was that my attempts to buy my way out of those feelings of lack and anxiety would only create ACTUAL lack and hardship for myself.”

It has taken me years of work, including introspection, meditation, affirmations, therapy and building support systems, to understand how powerfully our emotions dictate our financial situations. Make no mistake about it, we probably all have reasons that we are not achieving the kind of financial success that we want (even if that means just being able to pay the bills on time and save a few dollars), because of some undiscovered emotional reason that influences our behaviours.

Our problems with money have NOTHING to do with our numbers, and EVERYTHING to do with our behaviours. My life changed (and continues to change) with the realisation that my worth as a human is not determined by how much I earn or how much I can spend on other people.

Instead, I attract abundance and prosperity in all aspects of my life by being true to myself and truthful with others. It is only through authenticity that I have reclaimed power over my financial destiny and this is so essential for anyone looking to transform their lives as well.

What about you? What emotional behaviours have you noticed about yourself when it comes to money, and what results have they brought in your life?

I love teaching people about money, using my mistakes as what not to do. I want to help 1,000 people get one step closer to better personal finances!

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