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What's the Meaning of Money?

You earn it, save it, spend it, and give it. Money changes hands every day of your life. But what exactly does money mean to you? And why is it such a loaded issue for many people?

"Because money plays such a key role in day-to-day living, it is often closely entangled with our core psychological issues, challenges, and wounds," says financial therapist Bari Tessler, founder of Conscious Bookkeeping in San Francisco.

How you deal with money depends a lot on your upbringing and cultural influences, which may leave you unhappy with the way you handle it. Good thing that you can change your relationship with money. It requires taking an honest look at yourself, exploring your values, and making new choices. Doing so helps you practice healthy money habits.

Never just money

Whether you're rich, poor, or somewhere between, "money is never just money, a tool to acquire things and accomplish life goals," says Olivia Mellan, a money coach and psychotherapist in Washington, D.C., who wrote The Secret Language of Money. Money holds power, expresses love, provides independence, and triggers insecurities. It affects nearly every aspect of life.

"Most of us consider whether something is worthwhile or not by how much money is involved," says Jacob Needleman, Ph.D., a philosopher in San Francisco and author of Money and the Meaning of Life. "That sometimes includes people."

When you learn that your best friend inherited the money that bought her that lovely home, you may act differently toward her. And your unemployed brother who can't even hold a minimum-wage job? You hate to admit it, but he embarrasses you. Finally, if you and your husband have one more fight about family finances, you tell yourself, you're going to file for divorce.

"Money is always one of the top two reasons for marital discontent and tension," Mellan says.

Your feelings on money may form as a young child. Parents impart their attitudes about money "often unconsciously, through their emotions and behaviors, and we follow or rebel against them," says Tessler. Our culture also kicks in, flaunting celebrities' wealth and encouraging people to rack up debt.

Four types

As a result, you may develop unhealthy behaviors around money. Mellan identifies four basic types:

  • Spending—you splurge when you're broke.

  • Hoarding—you deprive yourself when you have plenty.

  • Worrying—you fret that you'll end up on the street.

  • Avoiding—you put off paying your bills.

"How someone deals with money reveals a great deal about his or her character," says Dr. Needleman. Yet money is so personal, Tessler adds, that most people would rather talk about their sex life than how much they earn and what they do with it.

Good money health calls for "a balance with money, which means not ignoring it or giving it too much attention," Tessler says. "Spend based on your needs and values. Give in places that are meaningful to you. Plan and save for whatever dreams you have, and goals you want to accomplish."

Finding a balance

In other words, live in the present with an eye to the future. You can't meet your long-term goals without putting some money away, but you can't enjoy short-term pleasures without shelling out a few bucks.

For a healthy relationship with money, examine what it means to you. Compare your values with your actions. Are they aligned? Then, learn to manage your money.

This "results in more clarity around money, intimacy with your emotions concerning it, knowledge about the mechanics of money, ease in working with them, and success in achieving your financial goals," Tessler says.

The positive results ripple out into other areas of your life. And that's something you can't put a dollar value on.