Mathew: Hi Amanda. This is Mathew in Boulder, Colorado.
From Death, Sex & Money, this is Financial Therapy. I’m Amanda Clayman.
Mathew is 40--and also, that’s not his real name.
Mathew: And two years ago I left a job, um, really because of money and how it was being used against others that I just didn't agree with and didn't want to stand for.
So he quit...on principle. And he struck out on his own to start an independent consulting business.
Mathew: So for about a year and a half, I was under employed and brought in, um, about 90% less into the family than what I had in the years prior to that.
But there were bright spots. Mathew’s wife was still employed...and they decided to leave the Midwest and move with their three kids to Colorado. They bought a house. And eventually, towards the end of last year, Mathew’s consulting work picked up.
Mathew: And it was a great six months. And then COVID hit and everything stopped. So people that I had worked for were slow paying, going six, eight weeks between invoices. And I was back to the point of not knowing how I was contributing to the family while at the same time we were undergoing a major renovation that had spiraled out of control. So now without this earnings, we're dipping further into savings. I've had to take out additional loans. Um, I've tried to get unemployment unsuccessfully. Finally was approved yesterday for a PPP loan, which feels great. Um, but it's a point of real insecurity and not just today, but really like, what does it look like to recover? How do I get that control back that I felt like I had, but also feel like has just dissipated so quickly? And I think all of that is, um... all of that’s scary.
Coming up in just a minute...my session with Mathew.
This is Financial Therapy from Death, Sex & Money. I’m Amanda Clayman.
During this shutdown, money is top of mind for Mathew. And as we started our session, he told me that that's a familiar feeling. He experienced a drop in income two years ago...when he left his last job.
Mathew: I was one of the executives running one of the marketing divisions. And, um, I had been there almost a year at that point. I've really enjoyed the people I worked with. I enjoyed the level of responsibilities that I had. Um, and the only thing that I ever had as my concern was I didn't agree with the way that we treated the employees, and feeling that people were under appreciated and constantly had money held against them, um, or kind of like held over them. So low pay, but there was also a really high termination and turnover. And so it was a way to kind of control people, people that didn't feel like they had empowerment with money. Um, but I did. I had the benefits of the financial security. And as I stood up for them and fought for them, I went in one morning and the CEO essentially said, like, you know, you're too, uh, you have too much empathy. And that tells me you, uh, aren't a great leader. And I don't know if you're the right person for this. And I'm going to demote you. And in the midst of that discussion, I just said like, I can't-- I can't work at a place that doesn't act in a way that's consistent with my values of how we treat people. Um, so I think it's best that I just, that I just leave.
Amanda: It's really important to you, when you see people being hurtful or even abusive, especially with money, that that's something that really...it doesn't sit right with you.
Mathew: It doesn't sit right! And in my...for me, I've seen money be this...this... it's control. It's power. It is something that I too often have seen people in my personal life., specifically with my dad who was the breadwinner in our family. Um, and how he held money over my mom throughout our life. And then when they got divorced, he wouldn't pay her the alimony for the kids. He would only pay it directly to the kids so that we knew who, uh, who was in control and who the money was coming from.
I just watch money be this lever of power and when it's been used against me, I just feel so ugly inside that I told myself when I was in a position of having control and power I was going to be the advocate. And I got to that, and that advocacy has almost gone in the opposite way? Like I feel good about what I did, but nobody's better off as a result of that. It was like this emotional decision that I'm proud of and it was true to my character, but it's had no tangible benefits to it. I think about like where my family is now compared to where we were, and in a pure dollars and cents, we are not at all where we aspire to be at this stage. And that's a result of my, of my move. The people that were left behind at that company, some got fired. So then they're in a harder place. Like I...
Amanda: Like, what was it all for?
Mathew: What was it for? And so you never quite know the risks you're taking until you're...until you're down the path a bit. And I knew I had the regular safety net that they tell you to have and be responsible and have your six or nine months of earnings and all of that kind of stuff. And I was ready for that. I never expected it would go this long. And so I think there's a bit of, your best laid plans are still not something that you can control. And even when you feel like you're coming out of it, you, um, you can get hit--you can get blindsided by something that you would have never expected. And that's what this is. You can't--you can't predict the future.
Amanda: Well let’s try dropping down a level, and pulling back a little bit from, from trying to understand what's happening, and be in the experience of what's happening. So can you, like, why don't you just describe for me what this, uh, shelter in place or this quarantine period has been like for you and your family.
Mathew: So we have three kids, um, of, uh, different ages from, um, early elementary into late middle school. And, um, we're all home. Uh, so the kids have adjusted and are doing the homeschooling. My wife and I, she, um, has been working out of the home, um, since we moved out here. I actually have been working in the basement in our guest bedroom and she's maintained the office. And then, you know, for the few hours a day that school is happening, the kids are there. And they've been, they've been great, but you know, they finish school so fast and, uh, it's amazing how much they accomplish in such a short period of time. But suddenly they want to be entertained! And, you know, my job as a consultant is I only get paid when I work, and I only work if I can find clients and when business is down, um, money is down. So it is my job to sit there and without a regular committed salary, I have to go earn it. I have to go find it. I have to, um, I have to--I have to make the numbers work. So there is that level of stress that I feel when, uh, when we're all in these spaces and trying to not be at each other's throats in any way, but trying to be supportive and, uh, at the same time accomplish things that are hard to do.
Amanda: And what was it like for you when you first noticed that your income was going to go down for a period?
Mathew: Umm... it was almost a, can we just call it a shell shock, I guess? Um, and a real disappointment. You know, have I, have I put the efforts in the right place? Have I protected the family in the right way? Have I done what I could do in order to to withstand this, and do we have enough there to withstand another hit? Um, which we've definitely taken financially over the last couple of years as a result of my decision.
Amanda: How do you usually make decisions? Like you've had some big pivot points in the last few years. And, and I'm curious about the process. You know, everybody sort of navigates uncertainty in their own unique way. So if you were trying to bring me inside of understanding how you make decisions, like can you walk me through that process?
Mathew: I'm pretty methodical, typically, especially on major decisions. Um, you know, I am definitely the type that has a budget for the year. And my wife and I sit down and we talk about all the types of expenses that we're expecting, not just in this year, but in the years to come. And I do a monthly, you know, cashflow, uh, management of that, and building in a bit of, you know, um, I'll call it the "oh no money." Just like, didn't expect that, didn't see that coming. Didn't realize somebody was going to throw a ball through a window and have to replace that. So we, we, you know, we, we've had the luxury of being able to plan in that way. The first time I've ever really taken--that WE, I guess, have ever taken such a big risk and jump was when we decided to move. And that came really on a whim. Uh, we were on a vacation and just kind of said like, what are we doing? Why, why not shake things up? Why not make a move? And we've been fortunate to be working with a financial planner for a number of years and, um, you know, went to them and just said like, "This is what we want to do." And they said, you're okay. Go, go take the risk. If you want to go, go. And, that kind of gave us the confidence. We almost needed somebody else to validate whether we were going off emotion or, um, the cognitive, like the analytic part. And once we got that green light, then we jumped and we went, um...
Amanda: Have there ever been any decisions that you've made that were unusual for you? That were not methodical?
Mathew: [laughs] The, you know, the day that the most, the biggest emotional one that I've made is, is when I left that job. That was such...that was one of the more emotionally driven decisions I made. Cause typically I would try to step, you know, step away from that and just think about it and try to handle it in a different way.
Amanda: Mmhmm. One of the reasons I'm so curious to know more about the time when you acted sort of more outside of your general way of navigating your life--like, you described yourself as as more methodical, you like to look at the long term, um, you even said when you were describing the decision to move that you wanted to make sure that it wasn't an emotional decision. Um...and I'm going to take a minute with this question, so I'll beg your, your patience here! You describe an experience where emotions were so present and what you needed to do in that moment was so emotionally clear to you that you overrode your more methodical, wanting to, to sort of plan things out, nature, which is, you know, prioritizes safety and being able to make sure that a decision makes sense before you move forward with it. Um, and now one of the ways that you are describing the experiences is like, this descriptive list of what's happening. But when I ask you questions about how you're feeling about things, then I hear you switch into a different voice. Like when I asked you about like, how was it when you first looked at your income dropping and you said, um, "It was a shell shock. It was a disappointment." As opposed to a different way of saying that, which is, you know, "I felt shellshocked. I felt disappointed." It's like there's an analytical filter that the experience goes through before you will sort of let it get into the emotional piece of it. And that when you are struggling to feel more sort of grounded and present in this moment, I think one of the like key functions, um, that's not being really tapped is that emotional experience.
Mathew: Um, you know, it's really funny. Like, I, I don't, maybe I've got a wall up against some of the emotional pieces because the truth is, it was so draining for me leading up to this, and I needed to continue to find this energy to get up every day and to not fall into a level of depression and to be engaged and happy and not make my kids feel like, you know, the world was ending because their dad, um, wasn't able to get a job. And you know, they, they, all of that, that it was just, that was so hard on me that I think there's a bit right now that I don't know how to--I don't have more of an emotional feeling other than the unknown. I haven't necessarily tapped into the fear that's out there. I haven't tapped into the, um, the uncertainty, I guess, too much. Um, I don't feel anything other than, we have a problem that we need to solve it. And this is the thing that we have to do to try and get through it.
Amanda: What if we were to just take a look at the fear that you just mentioned and, and try to give it a little bit of, um, a voice or, or at least hear what it is that fear wants to say.
Amanda: Because that's one of the, the first things that, that you have expressed in terms of a feeling really, really clearly. Um, so I just want to, to follow that. And just to sort of see if, if there's anything when we sort of open up that piece, um, that might help you feel a little bit more like, life makes sense. Because not everything, you know, one of the lessons may be that that life throws you curve balls, right? And you have a really wonderful way of coming up--I mean, literally, I bet your plans are beautiful. I bet you're good at spreadsheets. Are you a person who's good at spreadsheets?
Mathew: It's possible I may have a few in front of me. [laughs]
Amanda: Of course you do! I'm sure your spreadsheets are lovely. But I am feeling like, there's so much clarity and even power that can come from being able to integrate the two sides,: the analytical side, and then the emotional side. Um, because right now, now there's a lot of feelings stuff that I suspect is coming up for you, um, and it's going through the analytical processor and it's not making a lot of sense. So with all that in mind, we can listen to what our emotions are saying, um, and feel them without letting them run the show to the extent that we just act out on them.
Mathew: You know...like, I'm, I'm hearing what you're telling--like, I'm hearing what you're saying. I'm hearing your words. And I'm trying to internalize that and then see if I can turn that lever in order to figure out what that emotional feeling is. And honestly, the only one that, um...the only one that I can kind of tap into in the moment is this...um...this, this feeling of like what good am I? And what abilities do I have to help get us back to that place of safety and security. I felt like we were making these decisions that were allowing us to finally recover and to feel this level of stability and get back to what I would say is our normal. And it was just like starting to come out of this rut, um, that COVID hit. And this kind of throws that back in the air and some of the risks that we took--and I'm relatively risk averse when it comes to financials--now all feel like they're blowing up. And so there's a part of me that feels like, you know, I had this chance to take a risk, and things were, um, were failing. Like, you know, I wasn't able to get hired by a company and I have applied for so many jobs that I'm qualified for and I can't get hired. And then I couldn't earn consulting business. And then I'm draining, uh, you know, savings. And then we go and we make this decision to buy cause we're feeling bullish again. And we start to do a renovation and then this happens and now we have like less and less and less...and it boils up this place of insecurity with me? So I guess in some way, there's a feeling that I have right now of this uncertainty that I just don't have any control--I have so little control. And the things that I need to do to get us out of the place that I put us into is, um, is to force myself out of my comfort zone. But yet...can I? Like, is there anything special or capable in me to get us out of it? And that's the sense of responsibility I have as a husband and a parent and a colleague that I hope that people that I've worked with respect. And are probably confused by where I am at this point. And a bit of shame I guess, that I also have in that.
Amanda: And, and I don't know if you can tell, but like you are right there. Like, like is it okay if I repeat back to you what I hear you saying to me in different language?
Amanda: Like you said, um, "I feel like I have little control over what happens next." And I wonder what it would feel like to just say, "I have little control over what happens next." Just like that to me, how would that feel?
Mathew: Um. I have little control over what happens next.
Amanda: Anything at all?
Mathew: Um...my leg is shaking. I don’t like the way it feels. Um, I feel like this coward in a way. And I don't want to say a fraud cause that's not, it's not a feeling that I have, but, sort of! If I could find the right word, I mean, it's in that space. Um, you know my wife and I both feel this immense responsibility to, to show. And I know that there’s a show for the kids that is, um, they need to see their parents as real because they have feelings and they need to sense that as well. But I also recognize that they, they have a very strong reaction when they see me as having a vulnerability or a weakness. Um, and how much that shakes them more. And so like I, I want to get there and I hear like, I hear what you're saying. I'm, I also have--my instinct keeps me pulling back a little bit.
Amanda: Yes. I, hear the fear in that statement. I don't want to do the wrong thing and hurt my children.
Amanda: I want to protect them and be a good dad. So, so I think fear is actually...we want to give fear a new framework or a new job here. Um, which is that fear is, is telling you that you are showing up emotionally for something. Whether it's, it's thinking about how important your family is to you and therefore how much you want to support them. Whether it's thinking about how important it is for you to do work that matters and has impact. Like, maybe fear is showing up there, not as a sign that something needs to be controlled more in order to be safe, but in terms of sort of pushing out the boundary of what it means to be safe, such that you don't have to be in 100% control in order to know that you're okay. Does that make sense?
Mathew: Uh, it does. I mean, it, I don't know what it's--I don't know how to act on that. Um, other than just putting myself in a place where I recognize it and I overcome it, and then all of a sudden that, that, that boundary moves further away.
Amanda: I think it's truly beautiful that even as I'm describing this, you're like, "That's fantastic Amanda. Okay, but how can I control that, what's my plan for that?" [laughs]
Mathew: So it sounds like I’m doing a great job! [laughs]
Amanda: I mean, you get it, you get it. No, it's--I'm joking cause it's totally that silly. It was exactly great. It was exactly great. Um, so this, I just want to sort of pause and check in, because I feel like we, we kind of took off from a place and at the beginning of this conversation and we're in a different place than we started. It's not that scene from "Good Will Hunting," you know, in terms of like the breakthrough of your life. But I am sensing that there has been some kind of a shift for you in terms of your sense of, um, groundedness and where you are right now. And I just want to check in and say like, how are you feeling in terms of where you are and how grounded you are in this moment?
Mathew: Um, I’m fidgeting a lot here and I'm trying to find that...I'm trying to find the words to kind of, um...like, I want that control. So I still am fighting a bit of that shift. I think that, you know, you talked about the safety and you're right. And where I go to, and, I guess the best example, like as I sit there and think about even the last couple months, um, I've had a list on my desk of steps I needed to take to reach out to people for building of the business and kind of fostering relationships professionally and asking for business, and I've done none of it. I've done none of it. I want to know that I've checked all the boxes and I feel safe and ready and secure and well thought out and well planned. And that discipline is something that I do take a lot of pride in, and it aids me in the work that I do and the way that I come across. Um, and it, it's really hard for me to sit there and imagine that that is also the thing what holds me back. Um, but it does.
Most of us perceive our problems that relate to money as being solved by money. Especially in a time when we're super vulnerable, because, you know, right now there's just, absolute crisis all around. And for many of us it hits very close to home. And when more money is not easily available and we can't solve the problem that way, I think we become aware of some of the other parts that are there. Because if you think about it, a lot of us spend a lot of time distracting ourselves with, with feeling good about being a good provider or a good earner or a good caretaker. And when we can't fill those needs and step into those roles by providing financially, how do we see ourselves?
I personally really identify with this. I once had a therapist tell me that I had two categories in which I saw the world: one category were things I could control 100%, and the other category was disaster. So as Mathew is sort of wrestling with this idea of all the things he wants to do perfectly or all the things he has to do right, I’m trying to open him up to the idea that he doesn't have to be the one perfectly in control, making all of the money, doing everything right, in order to still be okay.
This special series was produced by the team at Death, Sex & Money: Anabel Bacon, Anna Sale, Katie Bishop, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Thanks to Krystal Hawes for her work on this episode. Additional editing by Jenny Lawton.
Original music by Isaac Jones.
I’m Amanda Clayman. You can find me on Instagram @amandaclayman, and on Twitter: @mandaclay.
For more honest conversations about money...and all the other things that are hard to talk about...subscribe to Death, Sex & Money wherever you get your podcasts.
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