The Cost of Chasing Money

The Dalai Lama, when asked what surprised him most about humanity, said:

“Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

By Roberta Keller

I’ve worked in the financial services sector for most of my career. For big and small companies, from Wall Street to London to Richmond. The same theme emerges over and over again: Money is not about money – it’s about desire.

None of us escapes this truth, whether you’re a business owner, yoga teacher, corporate employee, grandparent or child – or a money manager and financial planner like me. We all have a relationship with money that is tied to our desires.

Your primary desire may focus on security: “Will I have enough money to provide for my family and myself?” Or maybe you’re driven by the desire to explore: “Can we afford that trip to Paris next year?” Sometimes, our main desire is to align our source of money with our values: “When will I have the means to leave this job and start my Etsy business?”       

Making choices only based on money can cause tremendous stress and lead to making less-than-ideal choices. For example, we might accept a torturous job because of a high salary, or marry someone we don’t truly love out of a  desire for financial security.

Although they were very different, my parents’ desires about money had a significant influence on my  relationship with money. I focused more on my Dad’s messages because I wanted most of all to please him and win his approval.   

Dad’s money messages fell squarely in his desire for security and to provide for his family.  His main messages were “work hard” and “money doesn’t grow on trees.” As the breadwinner in our family, Dad left for work early every morning only to return in the evening looking stressed and haggard. As a result, the primary message I received during childhood was “work hard, even if it makes you sick and tired, because money doesn’t grow on trees.”  

These messages became a common thread throughout my life. They began making a significant impact after I graduated from college and fumbled around figuring out what I wanted to do career-wise. I moved to Manhattan to work for an architectural design firm, with thoughts of going back to school to become an architect. When I quickly became bored, Dad suggested, “Why don’t you go work on Wall Street and try finance?”  His message came through loud and clear. “Sure. Why not?”, I thought. “I am pretty good in math. Dad will be proud of me. I will work hard. The work will provide me with plenty of financial security.”

I spent the next decade working in in institutional money management - for big banks on trading floors, for a hedge fund, and for a European private bank.  I worked hard, made plenty of money… and, like Dad, ended up stressed, haggard, and eventually, very sick.

While my mind was “happy” to be occupied with stimulating work that kept it busy, my body and soul were suffering. But my overwhelming desires to please my father and have financial security kept me stuck in this work for ten years. Yes, ten. I stayed in a career that was literally making me sick because of self-imposed desires.

It was my traditional Chinese doctor, Amy Tseng, who finally got through to me. After treating me for more than eight years, she turned to me and said, “Roberta, there is an ancient Chinese proverb that says ‘Smart people learn from observing other peoples’ experiences, normal ones learn from their own experiences, dumb ones never learn. You are falling into the dumb category!’”

After my Dad, Amy was the person I most respected at that time in my life…and she had just told me that I was making dumb choices. She went on to say that my yoga and meditation practices, acupuncture treatments, and Chinese herbs were like “polishing the hood of a car.” What I needed was to “work on the engine.” I needed to get to “the root of the root of the root” of who I was and examine what I personally valued, not live according to the expectations and desires of others.

After Amy’s strong words,  I let it all go -- my career, my focus on money, my then-fiancé, my life in London -- and returned to Richmond to heal and start again. It was at this time, after ten years of suffering, that I came to learn that much of my physical suffering was due to a very treatable thyroid issue.

During the two-year healing period that followed, I became very quiet and still. Through stillness, silence, and self-reflection, I finally began to see the impressions, stories, and habits I had developed over the course of my life -- many of them money-related -- and how they affected me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I started to work on “my engine”  to understand what values drove me, and began making life choices based on these values.

I spent a few years teaching yoga then pursued consulting work, which was a step in a better direction. But when the Financial Crisis of 2007-2009 occurred, I saw my purpose unfold: to align my experience in institutional money management with my values. My path was clear: I would build an investment approach that aligned with my values AND minimized catastrophic losses associated with stock market declines. Also, I wanted help people to avoid making the same money-related mistakes I had made.

We all have painful patterns around money, desires we think money can help us achieve, and money fears and insecurities. But over-spending, over-working, accumulating debt, avoiding reviewing our investment statements – these are just symptoms of a deeper need or desire. 

The good news is that we all have the power to shift our relationship with money. We can:

  • Assess our true desires and true purpose. 

  • Understand if and how we are using money as a substitute for getting our desires met.

  • Identify “the root of the root of the root” of our money relationship. What’s driving our money habits and attitudes?

My wish is for all people to be in the “smart category,” or at least the “normal one” to avoid making the mistakes that I made. To look at their “money why,” not just the “what.”  And through the lens of money mindfulness, lead a more abundant and purposeful life.

Roberta Keller is founder and CEO of Alexis Advisors, a local, fee-only financial advisory firm that offers financial planning and investment management services.  Roberta and her team share a passion for supporting individuals and families in leading purpose-driven lives, while offering a proprietary investment approach that strives to focus on risk mitigation and social responsibility. Roberta serves on the Board of THE INNERWORK CENTER.

Emma Peugh