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Financial rejection: When wealth is uncomfortable

Some people just can't deal with having lots of cash

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This is part four in a five-part series about severe money disorders (click through the interactive below to see additional stories). Although most people's financial issues aren't serious enough to warrant classification, we all battle some unhealthy money behaviors, and these articles can help you spot and address your own weaknesses. Coming next week: financial denial, when you can't bear to face the realities of your financial situation.

It is, essentially, the American Dream: work hard, move up in the world and attain prosperity for yourself and your family. But for some troubled individuals, accumulating wealth isn't something to strive for, it's something to avoid. In the extreme, those feelings can develop into a serious money disorder that financial therapists call "financial rejection."

Do you lie to your spouse about your spending? Feel guilty about how much money you make? Constantly blow your budget? CreditCards.com talked to a new breed of expert -- the financial therapist -- about the top five money disorders affecting people today. You can find the stories below or you can navigate to the articles through the illustrations above.

Those with the disorder often believe the rich only get wealthy by exploiting others or by sacrificing their integrity. "They associate having money with being a bad person," says Mary Gresham, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta who specializes in money issues.

Here are some signs indicating you may have the disorder:

  • You make considerably less money than your skills, education and professional experience warrant.
  • You give money away because you don't feel entitled to it or don't want to be associated with it, even though it could help you and your family.
  • You turn down promotions and other opportunities that could expand your career and increase your financial security.
  • You work for free or undercharge for your services when there is no clear benefit to doing so.
  • You think there is spiritual or political virtue in not having money, and consider yourself morally superior to "rich people."

Detestation for wealth
Many people who suffer from financial rejection grew up in blue-collar areas and had family members who were constantly making negative comments about the wealthy, Gresham says. Others may have had a bad experience that shaped them for life with someone who was well-off.

Neil Ellington with CESI Debt Solutions, a nonprofit credit counseling agency, says he's working with a client who ran up $14,000 in debt mostly by giving to his church and paying for meals for the homeless.

"He has a version of the Messiah complex, where he doesn't want to keep any money for himself because there are people who are worse off than he is," Ellington says. "We're working with him now, trying to help him see that if he pays off his debt, he'll end up in a much better position to give to these causes."

Women are particularly vulnerable to financial rejection, psychologists say, because the parents of girls tend to emphasize charity and thoughtfulness over getting ahead. A 2009 study by Polish researchers found that men are more likely to perceive money as a powerful tool for influencing others and as a means of success, while women are more likely to view it as a root of evil. "Women are much more socialized to turn away from anything that smacks of wanting power, money or status," Gresham says.

When cash creates a bad connotation
Financial rejection can also manifest if you come into a large sum of money that you associate with a negative event, says Brad Klontz, a financial psychologist and author of "Mind Over Money: Overcoming The Money Disorders that Threaten Our Financial Health." It could be an inheritance from someone who sexually abused you, or a life insurance payout that's a constant reminder of the person you lost. "These people aren't rejecting all money, but a particular pool of money that's been associated with something bad or evil," Klontz says. They may fritter away the money quickly on inconsequential and bizarre purchases or simply give it away.

They associate having money with being a bad person.

-- Mary Gresham
Clinical psychologist

A classic example, according to Klontz: the Sept. 11 widow Kathy Trant, who burned through several million she received from the federal Victims' Compensation Fund in just five years buying breast implants and cruises for friends, remodeling her home, treating herself to 300 pairs of designer shoes and more. "I just wanted to get rid of the money," she told CNN.

Financial therapists say they can help those suffering from financial rejection recognize how their experiences tainted their perception of money and wealth. The goal, they say, is to help their clients see that money is simply a means of exchange -- not a symbol of something -- and can be used to do both good and bad in the world.

They also recommend the following steps:

  • Recognize your prejudices. Think about the messages you heard in your family about money and become aware of your tendency to reject wealth.
  • Figure out your core values, then make a plan to use part of any money you make to do good in the world. That will make accumulating money seem less distasteful.
  • Seek out and notice well-off people who are generous, grounded and who do good things with their money.
  • Never say "no" to money, especially if it's being given to you to reward you for hard work or a job well done.
  • Surround yourself with supporters who can remind you of your self-worth and encourage you to accept promotions, refuse to work for free and make other uncomfortable decisions.
  • If you come into a large sum of money, meet with a financial adviser and wait at least a year before making major purchases or commitments.

Stephen Goldbart, a San Francisco-area psychologist, said he once had a client who had inherited money from his father, who had made his fortune in an industrial business. "He didn't like the way his father treated his employees, the way he outsourced a lot of work overseas," recalls Goldbart. "The son was very upset; he felt like it was dirty money. He just wanted to give it all away."

Instead, Goldbart and his colleagues at the Money, Meaning and Choices Institute persuaded the man to think about how he could use the money to benefit his family and still stay true to his values. "He ended up getting really involved in groups that advocate for American workers. He now sits on a couple boards and gives them money," Goldbart says. "We helped him see that just giving it all away without a plan wouldn't help anyone."

See related: Is it time to consider financial therapy?, Money disorders: Financial dependency means losing self-worth, Financial enabling is help that actually hurts, When being frugal becomes an obsession

Published: April 15, 2011


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