How to Keep Shame From Messing with Your Finances

shame and money don't mixWhy Shame Is Our Default Response

During a tough time, a friend asked me how I was doing  and I deflected with my usual disclaimer. I said it was tough but I acknowledged that some people were suffering much more than me. There was hunger and there was death and disease.

I wasn’t saying this just to be polite. In fact, I was incredibly embarrassed by how difficult things were for me. I shamed myself often, telling myself, c’mon Lisa, get over yourself. People are fighting wars and running for their lives and you have stupid X, Y, Z problems. Anyone would be happy to have your silly problems.

My friend, though, saw right through me. He said, that’s a terrible way to look at it. Acknowledging that I have problems is not the same as discounting other people’s problems. We are not in a competition for who has it worst.

His message has stuck with me. I am not in a competition for the worst life. And when I think of things that are actually shameful, they are about doing bad things, not about struggling with our lives.

How Shame Messes with Our Finances

So why was shame my default choice? As a society, we are taught that shame is good. Shame is supposed to motivate us to better things – altruism, success, exercise. But shame is meant to make us feel bad in order to correct our bad behavior. If you feel shame all the time, or if you feel shame when you haven’t done something wrong, something is awry.

In fact, after I started letting myself wallow in a carefully regulated amount of self-pity, I finally got over it. I think discounting my  emotions as silliness held me back. I spent all this time shaming myself and not enough time figuring stuff out.

Sometimes I follow the same pattern when I talk about my financial journey.

I have a high income. I have quite a bit of savings. So when I feel inadequate that people younger than me have saved so much more, have higher incomes or have already bought multiple houses, I tell myself, well there are people who are worried about losing their house or their job or their kids. My worries are inconsequential, I think. But that’s the wrong approach.

It’s the wrong approach because you are entitled to have your feelings and to the extent that shame keeps you from acknowledging that you have emotions and struggles, it’s counterproductive.

It’s ok if your problems are really hard for you.

I don’t have to have the biggest problems in the world for them to be valid. I don’t have to have the best story in the world to own my story. Being honest about my floofy problems and my true story might be helpful to someone else. But nothing good is going to come from me tamping down my problems and my story.

I don’t have the biggest problems but they are my problems and I’m figuring out how to deal with them. I don’t have to compete on problems with anyone else.

But won’t treating my small potato problems like big problems indicate a lack of self-awareness? Isn’t that the kind of thing that should be ridiculed? Look, if someone is trying to diminish or one-up you on your problems, then let them diminish or one-up you and then find some other people to talk to. If someone is telling you your problems don’t matter, then they don’t care about you. My friends, who are all saints in my opinion, still care about what problems I’m going through even when they have their own setbacks. And I care about their problems so why can’t I care about mine?

This will sound very unproductive, but I hereby give you all permission to wallow in your problems. Don’t be obnoxious about it but don’t be dismissive either.

Shame isn’t the answer.

I heard this story on a podcast. This woman slept around quite a bit and she was ashamed of herself for doing so. But, she figured, at least she felt the shame. If she didn’t feel the shame, then she knew she was really far gone. Later, however, when she learned to accept herself and her actions without the shame, she found she didn’t want to sleep around anymore. So paradoxically it was the shame over doing the things that she didn’t want to do that kept her doing them. In fact, rather than preventing her from doing something worse, it was the shame that was the instigator of it all.

It’s a bit funny that all of us can feel ashamed of our finances, of where we’ve come from, of where we are or where we’re going. And maybe we justify all of it by stating that at least we know we’re wrong or privileged or a spendthrift and we feel badly about it. Maybe that’s not the right approach at all. Maybe the first step in everyone’s financial journey is saying, this is how I feel and that’s ok. I’m ok for feeling these things.

And maybe what follows is that we need to forgive the past and everyone that played a role in the mistakes that were made.

Of course, forgiving everyone includes forgiving ourselves.

Forgive yourself for having privileges that others didn’t have. Forgive yourself for not having the privileges that others had. Forgive yourself for not saving as much as you wanted, making investment mistakes, not making a high enough salary, making too high a salary for what you do, for anything unethical you’ve done, for anything unethical done to you, for any jealousy that you’ve harbored against anyone else.

Forgive yourself for having problems. Then wallow. Then fix it or get over it and then go help someone else.

The Huge Financial Privilege No One Talks About

When we think of the haves vs. the have-nots, we assume that the “haves” hold all the financial advantages. Obviously tons of money is a huge financial privilege, but having money is no guarantee for proper management. There is no amount of money that is so large that it cannot be lost. See, e.g. pro athletes, lottery winners, MC Hammer.

People who succeed in careers often have good mentors; people who succeed in finance often have good role models. So while I did not grow up with a trust fund, I did have a huge financial privilege that set me up for financial success:

I had the privilege of being raised by financially responsible parents.
My parents didn’t have a lot of money when they came to this country but I grew up in a middle class family.  In the years between when my parents emigrated and when they had children, they saved every penny to give their children a more comfortable life, and they continued to model this behavior as we grew up.

What did this mean for me?

Lifestyle inflation is a foreign concept.

Before going car-free two years ago, I drove an 18-year old Honda Accord. I also used a 7-year old laptop. This was a few years after I had started working as an attorney with a six-figure salary and after I had paid off my law school debt. Someone asked me once why I didn’t upgrade and I honestly thought, you CAN’T buy something new until the old thing falls apart.

When you’re raised by immigrants, you never let things go to waste. My parents kept the same threadbare artificial Christmas tree for 20 years. My nephews sleep in the bunk bed that I slept in until I was 22. I still sleep with the same comforter I received when I was 8.  This idea of upgrading for upgrading’s sake is new to me and it honestly seems like too much work.

In fact, lifestyle inflation makes even less sense when you have judge-y immigrant parents. People talk a lot about peer pressure to spend. In my family, it was peer pressure to save. My parents routinely criticize me for spending on some pretty “normal” things, but they never encouraged me to buy more than I need to. Thrift is next to godliness.

They taught me that money is not love.

My parents never gave us gifts for Christmas or birthdays. While it would have been nice to have some new gadgets and gizmos, I never felt less loved. And my parents weren’t stressed about buying my love through gifts.

There’s obviously nothing wrong with gifts but I think some families really do get caught up in buying gifts, thinking that without spending $X on their kids, then they would have failed. But what’s more detrimental to children is being raised by stressed parents and learning that bigger gifts mean bigger love.

Money is an important tool but it’s not a cure-all.  Money is money and love is love. Confusing the two can only lead to disasters for your financial accounts and your heart.

They taught me that money isn’t shame.

My parents, they weren’t perfect (let me tell you!). But they never used money as a bargaining chip. They’d always ask if I needed money when I went out in high school (In fact, they still ask. They know I don’t carry cash). And they’d just give it to me. There was no “what are you going to use it for” or “didn’t you already get a new sweater?”

As a kid, if I needed money, they just gave it to me, no questions asked. I mean, they’re lucky I wasn’t into drugs or big shopping sprees, but maybe I wasn’t into those things because I didn’t grow up ashamed of needing money or of having needs.

I know some other people are raised to think that earning a lot of money is shameful. I obviously wasn’t raised that way and, well, obviously earning a lot of money is a lot easier than getting by on very little. It’s also easier to save when you aren’t ashamed of having money. I would argue that shame is the biggest obstacle to proper money management. (Maybe in a later post.)

They make me optimistic about my future.

Everyday there are countless articles/tweets/memes written by Americans throwing America under the bus. And yes, I know there are a ton of problems in this country. I don’t want to get all patriotic on you (but I’m not afraid to) but I love America. I was raised to love America.

Were my parents lucky? Sure. There’s an element of luck. Did they also make a lifetime of hard choices that had a high probability of success? Yes.

My dad served in the Navy and then studied accounting, a very stable career. My mother worked at the supermarket and various fast food restaurants to pay for her degree in math. They took English classes at night. We moved when they got better jobs. They commuted an hour each way to get to work. They drove their cars to the ground. They packed their lunches. We rarely went out to eat, and when we did, we went to a Chinese restaurant, which is not as expensive as many other kinds of restaurant. We would vacation wherever we could drive to (which explains why I’ve been to so many U.S. states). When my mom got fired (she was probably the fourth Asian person in a row to get fired), she picked herself up and refashioned herself as a computer programmer in her 50s.

And though my parents’ life hasn’t been that easy, and they get frustrated with certain things, they are incredibly proud of the life they have made for themselves. America is their home and they wouldn’t have been able to have this life where they once lived. They never speak ill of America and neither do I.

I know the “privilege” police would disagree, but I honestly think my life is the easiest life anyone could live. The hardest things in my life were minor medical problems, doing well in school and paying off my law school debt. And whenever I’ve thought even for a second “woe is me,” I just look at my parents’ life and think, this will work out. I’ll just work harder. So what if I eat ramen a few nights? My mom used to eat rice and soy sauce. (I also flippin’ love ramen and rice and soy sauce.) If my parents could be optimistic for so long, then what excuse do I have not to be? If my parents can make it, I can and will too.

Were you raised by financially responsible parents?


Unforgettable Personal Finance Articles that Actually Changed My Life

art-graffiti-abstract-vintage.jpgI’ve got the “earn money, save money” thing down. So why do I keep reading personal finance articles? Probably for the chance that they will inspire.

When we talk about money, we aren’t always talking about math. We’re really talking about how we view and interact with the world. We are talking about how our unique backgrounds shaped our perspectives on the worth of things, of people, of ourselves. We’re talking about how we expand our understanding of each other and the world when we encounter different stories. When we tell our stories about money, it can really challenge all our preconceived notions about morality, about politics, about disaster and redemption.Money is a story we tell ourselves. Money doesn’t have intrinsic value; the value is what we bring to the money, what we trade in exchange for it. How we interact with money is basically how we interact with life. So when I say these articles changed how I interacted with money, I mean, they changed my life.

I read this article over 10 years ago and it introduced me to coupon stacking and avoiding dryers. It also is a constant reminder of positivity (something you’ll see a lot of in these posts). What I learned most from this article was the idea of abundance. Freedman had $12,000/year to spend per year. To most people that would mean that she would be on the receiving end of charity but she gave to support her daughter and her church because she knew there were people less fortunate. I never have an excuse not to give now.

On the Road to Nowhere: The True Story of My First and (Worst) Job – Get Rich Slowly

J.D. Roth’s tale of his worst job reminded me of my own horrible door-to-door job once. I lasted one day before my mother picked me up and grounded me for life. The story is a reminder that we all have failures, we all have this shame about starting out in life and not being exactly where we thought we would be and we still have this hope that maybe we’ll beat the odds and make a million dollars at this crazy job and show them all wrong.

That never happens. But it was such a human story. I felt like I had been there watching my car go down a hill. And it’s also a constant reminder that I never want to work for a job that makes me feel sleazy. No amount of money in the world is worth that.
This article (ok it’s mainly a list) reminds me that we have so many choices that make up the lives that we live. Yes there’s a role for luck and privilege, but let’s not discount that we choose how much we smile, what thoughts we think and how we respond to the cards dealt to us.
I’ll tell you right now that I downplay the importance of luck and highlight hard work. But Sam’s article upended that and made me think about what we blame others for and what we blame ourselves for when we really may not have any control.

I always knew I would be thin. My dad was only 20 pounds heavier than me when I was growing up and my mom is currently around 110 pounds. We are not heavy people. Until last year, I was the exact same weight I was in high school (now I’m 10 pounds lighter).  I would eat more, eat less – weight never changed. Some years I would sit on my butt all day long and my weight never changed. I took up biking to work – didn’t lose any weight.

I know I have the cards stacked in my favor. In law school, I ate every single meal with my boyfriend, who was twice my weight. He never lost weight and I never gained weight. This was not based on hard work but completely, purely dumb luck. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of that and cut everyone (including ourselves) a break. Yes everyone should eat well and exercise – but your results will necessarily vary based on genetics, which you have no control over.

I think about this when I go shopping. I also think about this as I roam about my apartment. Everything I get rid of is one thing less a family member will have to get rid of if I die. Everything I don’t buy is one less thing for a family member to get rid of if I die. Everything I get rid of from my parents’ house is one less thing I’ll have to clean out later. It’s super morbid. But then again, death cleaning is the new decluttering fad.

All of our stuff is future trash. We shouldn’t value it so much.

This article is just insanely positive. Even after growing up in a tough childhood, Mr. Free at 33 has this amazing mentality of not blaming anyone and not treating himself as a victim. I would definitely not have been that strong.

What are your favorite personal finance articles?


2017 in Review: A Life Online and Off


The recurring themes in 2017 were Craigslist, art (consuming and creating), experimentation and failure. I picked up some good habits and some questionable ones. I read and learned a lot – mostly about relationships and love, which sounds froufrou but as I get older, I realize how important the froufrou is. I learned to make oil poached shrimp, creme brulee and homemade hummus and peanut butter. I lost 10 pounds.

I like reading articles that expose me to new ideas so I hope this is helpful to you in that way. Or at least is interesting to read. I change a lot about myself every year. I might not be consistently improving – but it’s not stagnant.


I remember January 1, 2017 pretty clearly. I had just downloaded the 1 second video app, to record 1 second videos of your day and string them together for a short video. But the Redskins lost in a stunner my first day. I couldn’t think of anything positive to record except the wine that I was drinking. And that wine represented disappointment. It was a memorable but negative start to the year.

I started doing Chinese language lessons every day, starting with Mango and Pimsleur courses through my library. This is a habit I was pretty happy I developed because it helped me from moving backwards in my language learning. Ever forwards, I say. Even if only by a few steps.

I tried to avoid the inauguration hubbub by going to Philly, only to bump into the Women’s March there and also in DC as I arrived in Union Station. Longest line for a women’s restroom I’ve ever seen. I got to see my friend in New Jersey and we went to a great real diner. The kind where they don’t care about organic vegetables or calories. We didn’t even check Yelp or anything.

Continue reading

Life Skill #58: How to Stay Married

how to stay married

Photo by Terje Sollie on

Let me get this out of the way: I’ve never been married. So I have no expertise at all on this matter. But, I will qualify by saying, just being good at something doesn’t mean you’ll be able to teach something. Also, this is the internet so take everything with a grain (or shaker!) of salt. I have no idea what I’m talking about – this is all conjecture. I’ll admit it up front.

What I’ve Learned About Marriage

My ex-fiance and I had read lots of books about marriage and taken premarital counseling. My parents and my ex’s parents never took premarital counseling. None of them were great communicators. They all argued and complained more than they perhaps should. My parents have been happily married for almost 40 years. My ex’s parents had an acrimonious divorce when he was a kid.

The same type of marriage yielded vastly different results. Granted, my parents’ marriage is never something that will be held up in relationship books as ideal but it works well enough for them. And for better, and likely worse, this is my model for a working marriage. I realized today, while refereeing a tiff between my parents, that this model is something my ex-fiance thought would lead to a very unhappy marriage. He wanted us to be better than our parents. Based on his worldview, this type of marriage would not end well.

Figuring Out How to Resolve Problems

I catch myself often when dating figuring out what are real dealbreakers and what are things that are just odd or novel to me. We can all understand that people face the world with their own preconceived notions of how things should work, particularly in relationships. We can all understand that we are ourselves colored by our childhood experiences. But coming to believe that my partner’s viewpoint is as valid as mine – that is not something I understand how to do yet.

What I’ve found to be the most meaningful marriage advice for me came from Will Smith, the actor, married 17 years.

If there is a secret I would say it is that we never went into working on our relationship. We only ever worked on ourselves individually. And then presented ourselves to one another better than we were previously.

How to Stay Married

So often in relationships, we think about what can be changed about the other person. We think about designing the perfect mate for ourselves. It’s a beautiful thing to realize that if there’s an argument, if there’s an obstacle, an impediment in their marriage, that the Smiths are focused on what they can actually change: themselves.

And then you just have to hope that the other person will stay. The more I think about marriage, the more I consider it to be quite a risky endeavor. This is not to say people shouldn’t take the risk. The advantages are sky high. But it’s like starting a business. You can put in a lot of work but the role of luck should not be underestimated.

But let me hear from you: what are the actual secrets to staying married?