My wife and I were driving in fairly heavy traffic when a car ignored a red light, whipped through the intersection, swiped a car a few cars ahead of us, and kept on going. I started to drive away when my wife encouraged me to pull over. I sat in the car as she ran out to the hit car and checked on the clearly shaken driver. Another person followed the hit- and-run car and came back with their license plate. And me? I stayed in the car.
That inaction of mine does not fit my personal narrative. I feel like I have helped people in a variety of circumstances, yet in this instance, I did nothing. My only explanation is that for some reason, I let fear win. I must have been afraid of getting involved, creating excuses to quietly sit in my car.
When we act out of accordance with our values, it is generally due to fear. And money fear is especially toxic. Money fear is a strange beast because it is so complicated. It usually involves either clinging to something that we are afraid of losing or grasping for something that we feel like we need in order to be happy.
After a nasty divorce, a client ended-up in a much different financial, as well as social, situation. Single and not working, she had a fraction of the money that she had when coupled. Socially, she could no longer afford to do the things to which she had grown accustomed. Her network changed as her old friends continued their lifestyles. As she tried to cling to what she had, she became more anxious and unhappy. We took her through a list of things that she wanted to keep in her life as well as the reasons why. Included in her list were people. She soon realized that some people in her life were more like possessions than real friends. They didn’t fulfill her. Compiling a list without the reasons is not a useful exercise. Through defining what we want to keep in our lives, we can see whether we are doing so because of our values or because of something else, such as fear around our image or fear of change.
Another couple keeps pushing their financial limits beyond what is reasonable. Their grasping leads them to being in a social situation they cannot afford. Their house is too big, their trips too extravagant, their cars too luxurious. They feel like impostors. This also wreaks havoc in their marriage.
Yet, they are still unwilling to adjust their lifestyle to match their capabilities. We have raised their awareness of what is happening, but they continue to be caught-up in this self-imposed chaos.
An effective, yet counterintuitive strategy for money fears is generosity. We grasp and cling because of scarcity — we don’t feel like we have enough or that we are enough. We are trying to control our often uncontrollable world. Generosity takes us out of our own world and into that of others.
Giving pays off
Generally, clients who are generous with their time or their resources have found it regenerative. These are clients who are giving without directly tying something back to it. We at times have all given when we are asked to by a friend. We have also given because we have felt an obligation. But generosity without a quid pro quo is transformative. I read an interesting quote from the Dalai Lama that speaks to this. “Compassion and generosity must be accompanied by detachment” he writes. “Expecting something in return for them is like doing business … When we love and help others, it should not be because we find a particular individual likable but because we see that all beings, whether we think of them as friends or enemies, want to be happy and have the right to happiness.” When we give our time and money to causes and people in which we believe, we are subtly moving from scarcity to abundance. We give because we believe we can, that we have enough.
A wealthy client’s financial involvement in a community foundation was a gateway to doing hands on work in that community. They had not been particularly philanthropic before and had a difficult relationship with their money. Once they became active in charity work, they recognized how financially comfortable they were and were released from the false imprisonment of clinging to their money. They’re not only better able to spend money on others, but it has freed them to be able to spend on themselves.
Another client generously helps their friends whenever they need a hand, be it for a move, a ride, or an ear. He didn’t hoard his free time like many of us do. When this client had some personal issues, the outpouring of support was overwhelming. The client was touched and surprised by it, because he never gave with the intention of some day expecting to receive. Generosity tends to be reciprocal.
Sitting in my car as my wife came back after tending to the driver, I was touched by her generosity and vowed to not let fear get in the way of mine.
Ross Levin is the founding principal of Accredited Investors Inc. in Edina.