A conversation with Georgia Lee Hussey on how to align your spending with your vision and your values.
I was not in the warehouse for July’s We Myndful Morning – I was sweating it out in New Orleans on a work assignment. However, I did have the pleasure of watching Georgia Lee Hussey share her money stories with all the wonderful early risers who joined the We Myndful community last month (PSA: we have a budding YouTube channel! You can peep past We Myndful Morning sessions here). I finished watching July’s We Myndful Morning conversation feeling 1) deeply regretful that I had been out of town 2) enthralled with this concept of money stories and the idea that our assumptions about money are, to varying degrees, inherited and culturally engrained, and 3) convinced that Georgia Lee Hussey should add “Damn Good Storyteller” to her job title, right next to President and Founder of Modernist Financial.
WHAT’S A MONEY STORY?
I had never heard the term before, however Georgia began July’s We Myndful Morning with her own – one that I felt a summary would do injustice and thus deserved transposing:
“Once upon a time, there was a 16-year-old girl living in rural Eastern North Carolina. In was 1947 and she had a dream. She wanted to get married to a kind man, a gentleman, and a rich man. Because it was 1947 and her family was sharecroppers, they didn’t have a lot of money. And she was the sixth daughter in that family. This is a money story. Now, she pulled it off, she married the richest boy in the county. And she also loved him. This is definitely a money story – Jane Austen, basically every money story ends this way. What she didn’t know was that her new father-in-law was a gambling addict. And what had seemed like a lot of wealth and a lot of prestige was actually just income from a family business that was constantly being shuffled to pay family debts. This is a money story. By the time her daughter was 16 years old, the family business was gone. All she had was a mink coat, a couple of diamond rings and a pair of pearls she found out were fake, later. This is absolutely a money story. This is my grandmother’s money story. This is my great grandfather’s money story. Now it’s my money story.
When my mother went to college it was 1968 and she had been reared with this very strong money story that her job was to be the most beautiful, elegant, most gracious ornament that she could possibly be so that she could marry a wealthy man. Problem was, its 1968 and a lot of things are shifting. The Civil Rights Movement is happening in the South and the social order is completely upended. Feminism is happening and she’s being told that not only can she have love, she can have it all; she can have a career as well. And the Vietnam War is happening and so is the protest to that war. So the idea of authority is really being questioned at a cultural level. She tried to pull off this money story – of having it all, being the ornament and shuffling money like she had learned from her grandfather. Didn’t work out so well for her. By the time I was 16 she was divorced and basically a single mom.
But when I turned 16, she gave me this diamond ring and said, “Honey, if you ever need any money, you can hawk it.” Because that’s what I had grown up with. She had worked multiple jobs. She had known her primary goal was to get me as educated as possible, be the best ornament I could be, be the best career woman I could be, which was very much being defined at that point in the 80s. And that was how she managed all of that – by hawking her jewelry and working multiple jobs and shuffling money like she had learned from her grandfather. Now this is my mother’s money story, my great grandfather’s money story, my grandmother’s money story. These are my money stories – I carry them with me every day.”
As CEO and Founder of Modernist Financial, Georgia thinks of money stories for a living. Understanding our own personal money story allows us to become clear about the emotional relationship we have with our money. This understanding is important because of the impact that this relationship has on our decision making and determining what moves to make with our money.
“As a white woman of means now, it is very important to acknowledge the privilege that I carry but also the complications of money stories. As a woman, I have a very specific set of stories that I’ve been told by our cultural around what I can do around money.”
We pick up money stories from different points in our lives. As Georgia pointed out, money stories are diverse. We have historical money stories, gendered money stories, religious money stories, cultural money stories, political money stories, racial money stories and romantic money stories. Money stories are inherently intersectional, complicated and often polarizing.
Money stories generally tend to play out in stereotypes – we have ladies who lunch and bossy broads; silver spoons and bootstraps; spin thrifts and tight wads; starving artists and sell outs. As Georgia pointed out, there’s no middle ground here and there’s very little room for us to imagine who we can be without checking one of these boxes. Can we get a little nuance?!
TAKE THE MONEY (STORY) AND RUN
When I think of financial planning and investing, terms like net worth, retirement, dividends and 401K flash before my eyes and I’m filled with panic at the thought that I don’t know enough and as the saying goes, am leaving money on the table. Georgia had an explanation for this, one that is largely culturally rooted in the way that our financial industry, and Americans in particular, perpetuate the idea that money is logical. As Georgia put it,
“If you just have the right pie chart or graph or numbers you can know exactly the right decision to make. The issue is, the research tells us that our financial decisions are 100 % emotional. But the story is that you can just make a rational decision.”
This is where mindfulness comes in. By formulating a deeper awareness of who we are as emotional beings, we can better understand our decision-making tendencies when it comes to spending. Research shows us that storytelling is an extremely effective tool for inspiring behavioral change. If we can picture why it is that we do what we do, or the result that we hope to achieve, we can align our actions with our motivations. In the context of money, developing mindfulness around an end goal helps us to align our spending with our vision and our values.
“Money stories are often very vulnerable. I’m not supposed to tell you that my great grand-daddy was a gambling addict. I’m definitely not supposed to tell you that my mother hawked her jewelry to pay for college and catholic school. But as a queer kid growing up, closets are really bad. We do not want closets. They are full of shame and fear and sorrow. And if we can step out of the closet with our stories and come from a place with awareness and self-kindness, again mindfulness practice, we can envision different lives for ourselves.”
As Georgie shared, talking about money takes vulnerability. Money is so closely tied to ideas of worth and success, yet our society has systematically disenfranchised people of minority status, therefore when we keep our money stories quiet, we’re missing an opportunity to change the conversation. By speaking up and saying “This is my experience”, we’re able to put a face to the injustice around us and identify the behaviors, or societal structures, that need change. As we develop an understanding of who we are as financial beings and how we can embrace our values to make better decisions about who we want to be and what we want to do in the world, we can align our spending to make these goals attainable.
LET’S TALK TOOLS
A key part of the financial life planning process lies in building emotional awareness through mindfulness. Georgia shared a few tools to get us going:
1. Think back. Look for clues in your past that will help you understand your current financial life. Starting with your childhood, what experiences have shaped your underlying beliefs and attitudes about money? What do your patterns of earning, saving, investing and giving tell you about you?
2. Complete the wheel of Life.
- Evaluate the different facets of your life - lifestyle, relationships, career, family, etc.
- Write one thing you’re grateful for in each facet and one thing that would make it a 10.
- Now take your lowest ranked facet and do the same thing. Identify one thing you’re grateful for and one thing that would make that facet a 10.
- Once you’ve done this you have a list of all your assets – all the things you’re grateful for – and all the things that make up your financial plan. Those 10s are the areas of what you want your life to look like.
* Pay attention to trends or patterns. For most people who work through this exercise, the “things” that would bring more fulfillment to the different facets of our lives often times are not “things”. They’re experiences, relationships, creating more time for ourselves, and so on. Georgia put it beautifully in saying,
“It’s usually not about acquisition. If we really observe the tone and patterns, through awareness, that it’s not a grasping culture of always wanting that we really want to participate in. It’s more about accumulating experiences and relationships.”
3. Establish the key elements for creating your financial life plan. Ask yourself, who do you want to be five years from now? Looking back to the Wheel of Life exercise, take the 10s and integrate them into a story about the future. Think about the feeling you want to have in five yearsand look to this as a north star. The next time you have a big financial decision, you can use this story as a mirror to measure if this decision reflects the vision you’ve laid out for yourself.
4. Make a list! Write down the key values, transitions to plan, concerns to address, worries of the moment and goals to achieve. Let this serve as a living document to check back into and use as a filter when making spending decisions.