Six Steps to Financial Flow

Six Steps to Financial Flow

Help for when everything falls apart.

Illustration Credit: Faye Rogers

Stuff happens! We divorce, we lose a job, our parents die, our best friend is killed by a drunk driver. Often these challenges come when we feel least able to deal with them. We’re overwhelmed by responsibilities to family, friends, our community, and all we want is to scream, “I give up!”

This is the time when life has emptied us of all we’ve known ourselves to be. We worry that if there’s one more fall we won’t be able to get back up, or even care if we get back up. And if we do fall, we may lie there, too tired and wary to cry, and it’s then that we may suddenly realize that crying doesn’t help. We may even become bored with our thoughts of “Why did this happen to me?” and “Why doesn’t anyone understand my pain?”

In my experience, when we are felled by suffering, we have two choices: we can give up, surrender, and shut down; or we can give up, surrender, and open ourselves to our suffering and the reality of the suffering of the world. We can realize that, yes, life is raw, but we can allow that rawness to be our friend. We can realize that everyone is dealing with suffering. We can let go of judging others because we realize that judging and feeling sorry for ourselves is not useful—and we can get up and get on with our lives.

What to Do
So now, still raw, we wonder what to do about the financial mess that accompanies our fall. What about those credit cards? Will we eat cat food or ramen noodles the rest of our lives? Will we lose our homes? Can we get a job even though we look and feel like a wreck? We realize we could have done things differently in the past to avoid the magnitude of this mess, but what can we do right now?

1. Watch Your Thoughts.
First, realize that your desire to be happy is good, grounded, a positive directive. Then get over past mistakes. Don’t blame yourself or anyone for the mess. Memorize these three lines: A person who blames others has not begun her education. A person who blames herself has begun her education. A person who blames no one has finished her education.

Do not let envy enter your consciousness. The recent announcement that 85 people own 50 percent of the world’s wealth got many people worked up. Those 85 could render us all envious or angry. But as Buddhism teaches, craving and grasping cause discontent and dissatisfaction, which equals suffering—and we can do something about suffering. We can live a spiritual life where responsibility, gratitude, right action, and no judgment—nothing good, nothing bad—guides us.

2. Physical Security.
Before money, you need to ensure your physical security. When I was going through my divorce, I remember thinking, Gosh, I might end up homeless. What if I lose everything I own? Where will I sleep? Then, in my mind’s eye, I saw friends and family who would surely welcome a good cook, a neat housemate, a hardworking man with two young kids into their homes. I counted 100 couches belonging to people who I thought would help.

3. Count Your Assets.
What are your capabilities? They are your assets. After my divorce, I realized I could work. During and right out of high school, I drove a garbage truck, sold insurance (yuck), and did other odd jobs. I realized I still could do that sort of work if I had to because I loved my kids. So my ability to work and my love for my kids were my main assets. I knew we would be fine.

4. Try Something New.
My mom used to counsel people, and occasionally I would overhear her exclaim, “What’s the worst that could happen?” to somebody paralyzed by fear. Somehow, acknowledging our fears helps us to put them in perspective, and we realize that they aren’t as formidable as our emotions had led us to believe. After my mother would let the client articulate such fears, she’d typically tell the person to assume those fears came true, to “kiss the ugly.” Invariably, she would then be able to say, “Now, that’s not so bad, is it?”

Get busy, jump into life, be productive, have fun, go for walks, volunteer at a crisis center, do stuff. If you need to, take a crappy job and give it all you’ve got. Pretend it’s the best job in the world—that it is your mission/calling to have that job. (Wherever we are is where our calling is at this moment.) Then, if you want a different mission/job, look to upgrade by searching, getting more skills, being an apprentice or intern. If it’s hard to be happy, fake it. If it’s hard to be nice and smile sincerely, pretend. In the 12-step way, “act as if” and you may begin to sincerely feel happier. Confide your dark feelings to willing helpers, but commit to not infecting your work relationships with toxic stuff.

5. Work toward Financial Flow.
Your goal is for your finances to support what you want your life to look like—for the import and export of funds to be balanced—so:

If you have debts, take responsibility for them and get them under control by not adding to them and by managing them responsibly.

Budget your time and resources to support your life and your goals, consistent with your reality and your budget.

Learn about and get good at “this financial stuff.” It’s all common sense. But there are lots of resources that you can hire, rent, borrow, or buy. Get help for your finances if you need it. If you can afford to, hire a fee-only adviser to guide and help you in creating your financial to-do list. If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, or if you’re broke with more time than money, get a copy of The Virtue of Wealth from your library. If your library doesn’t have one, email me its address and Spirituality & Health will donate a copy.

Start saving as fast as you can. No law is more powerful than the law of karma: “As you sow so shall you reap.” To expect a financially secure life without effort and savings is like a farmer expecting crops without planting, weeding, watering, and critter protection. How much should you save and invest from your earnings? Ten percent is the magic number. Need inspiration to help you save? Read The Richest Man in Babylon, by George S. Clason.

6. Community, Community, Community.
We all need people, and if you don’t agree with that statement then you really need people.

Find practical, levelheaded, compassionate, honest, responsible, successful friends who you can support; share your skills and resources with whoever will hang with you and help. If you’re still stuck, get professional help and find a spiritual guide, a priest, a pastor, a chaplain, a therapist, a rabbi, or a levelheaded friend to chat with.

The Gifts of Failure
What was great about my divorce was that I learned what a real friend was. During the worst of my ordeal, a few friends showed up out of the blue. They helped me to heal, and none would put up with any whining or “woe-is-me” talk. A woman I met at a seminar became a close friend, and from her I learned a new and deeper appreciation for what I had. She was a bit of a foot fetishist, and almost daily she would tell me, “Ya know, Paul, I felt sad about not having any shoes until I met someone who had no feet.” But her favorite foot story was about the man who finally got his first pair of shoes and was proudly walking home in them when, squash, he stepped in dog poop. Smiling, he said, “I sure am glad I got these new shoes to protect me from the dog crap.”

Paul H. Sutherland is chairman of the Utopia Foundation and president of Financial & Investment Management Group Ltd. His most popular financial titles include: Zenvesting: The Art of Abundance and Managing Money; Twelve Steps to a Carefree Retirement; AMA Physicians’ Guide to Financial Planning; and The Virtue of Wealth. He is also the author of two illustrated children’s books. Write to him at [email protected]

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