#23: The ghosts of money... and how to bust them

22nd February, 2021

Welcome to the Idiot Money newsletter. The newsletter that is still waiting for Christmas.

This week: becoming wiser with money by understanding that extraordinary, instant change is possible, but it requires an extraordinary change of view.

Stop being frightened about money… start being haunted.

Behaviour change is a puzzling thing. It’s everywhere in talk, and nowhere in action. No one’s said anything new about habit-making since William James’s 1890 Principles of Psychology, and despite a million more people saying the same things in a million different ways since then, this only makes the gap between intention and action even more ridiculous.

There are many intriguing sides to this problem. The one I’d like to focus on here is why it often takes being truly terrified to bother making a proper stab at changing behaviour – even when that change, as it so often does – boils down to doing nothing other than choosing to see the world in a different way, and can thus (theoretically at least) be done instantly.

Because money is so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, worldview-change is far more important than isolated behaviour-change. Not only do all your important behaviours change themselves if you see your world more clearly, but the non-important behaviours become just that… non-important; pesky imps to be ignored, rather than vampires sucking money, time, and energy out of you.

Because worldview changes are an effortlessly sustainable energising dance, rather than a constantly fatiguing fight, potentially the most powerful behaviour-change book of them all is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Ebenezer Scrooge goes, overnight, from hating himself and others to loving them both. And he does it because he sees his relationship with money differently when he wakes up to when he went to sleep.

You can read A Christmas Carol as a great novel. You can also see it – and use it – as a symbol. As explained here:

Becoming wiser with money presents us with a quandary. The skills you are trying to acquire to transform yourself are those possessed not by the person you are, but by the person you are becoming. How does the person you are now know what it will be like to become what you could be? How do you know that becoming that person is even a wise move? We need a way of testing before we can’t turn back. Leaps of faith are terribly exciting, but sometimes it’s better to build a bridge.

We need a philosophical bridge that tempts us with an inkling into a more illuminated world, shows us how to get there, and which, when we have travelled across it, becomes part of our expanded, wiser, self. A bridge that allows something to contribute to and inspire our current experience without actually being part of that current experience. This is the function of a symbol – an aspirational spark that illuminates the path of becoming.


Money Blind is about systematically overcoming self-deception around your finances, to see your relationship with money more clearly, so you become capable of improving it, rather than floundering around in the dark, flung from one unacknowledged and remotely controlled addiction to the next.

It’s not a scary message about how you probably aren’t saving enough for retirement. It’s shining a light on the haunting idea that how we use our money is expressing someone we, in some sense, would rather not be, and that every time we use it in an idiotic way – one that doesn’t make our life better – it’s not a minor blip, it’s a vote for making it even less likely we’ll make a wiser, more conscious decision next time.

As psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz explains:

Scrooge doesn’t change because he’s frightened – he changes because he’s haunted. We can be frightened of gaining weight, but that alone probably won’t cause us to change our diet. Haunting is different. It makes us feel – makes us alive to – some fact about the world, some piece of information that we’re trying to avoid.

Haunting makes us alive to whether we really know what we believe we know. The stories we are telling ourselves about ourselves… are they true? Do they have to be true? What would the world look like if they weren’t? If they didn’t have to be? Are they something that fulfils us and helps us face our fears? Or something that we hide behind?

What knowledge is Scrooge trying to avoid? […] Ultimately Scrooge changes because the ghosts unpick his delusion that you can live a life without loss. They undo his delusion by haunting Scrooge with the losses he has already experienced, the losses now being endured around him, and the inevitable loss of his own life and possessions.

A large part of our resistance to change is clinging to comforting, but disabling, beliefs that ‘that’s just how I am’. If we weren’t so desperate for certainty, it would be a lot harder to sell it to us.

If the world woke up one morning and decided to believe en masse for just one day that money maybe didn’t need to be an impossibly scary, boring, complicated thing, then all the shysters and financial snake-oil salesmen would either have to get an awful lot better at explaining the value of what they actually do for clients (and actually doing it!), or they’d be out of a job.

Dickens’ story teaches us another lesson: Scrooge can’t redo his past, nor can he be certain of the future. Waking on Christmas morning, thinking in a new way, he can change his present – change can only take place in the here and now. This is important because trying to change the past can leave us feeling helpless, depressed.

This will to delusion is, I believe, stronger with money than with anything else. Sometimes, even £10 million isn’t enough to take a few hours to grasp the relevant lessons about personal finance.

On the one hand, money is high on everyone’s lists of things to get a better grip on, to behave better with. On the other, have you ever tried suggesting to someone that they maybe, possibly, perhaps, now and then, make dumb choices with their money?

Universally in financial planning, of all the pieces in the initial information jigsaw that marks the start of a new adviser-client relationship, the expenditure breakdown is always the last one to be slotted in – if indeed it’s not declared eaten by the dog and gleefully abandoned altogether.

It’s not the homework, but what it reveals that’s unwelcome. I learnt the hard way that asking someone to contemplate what their spending says about their life inspires more terror than asking them to contemplate their or their partner’s possible death.

And yet, assuming you actually traded money for things that made your life better, wouldn’t reliving those moments bring you joy?

Step into Scrooge’s slippers. Embrace your present. Understand that all behaviour change is brain change. Put down the mouthy but trouserless self-help book, pick up your philosophical scalpel and let your ghosts guide you through your surgery.

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