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‘90s FAMILY : Tackling the Last Taboo: Money

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Do you hear what I hear?

It sounds like a collective “aaarrrrggghhh,” as dysfunctional spenders everywhere attempt to tighten their belts.

It’s not only the live-now, make-minimum-payments-later credit card addicts making New Year’s resolutions. Bills are also rolling in for weak-willed parents who overindulged in toys, clothes and electronic equipment over the holidays. And surely, the unpleasant, unprecedented thought of having to cut back must be keeping elected officials in bankrupt Orange County up nights.

Cutting back hurts. In fact, it hurts so much, experts say few people will do it until a crisis drives them to their knees--and even then it hurts.

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The reason is that in most of us, money produces a deeply ingrained, irrational response traced back, according to one theory, to the greedy, acquisitive nature of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Stockton psychologist Timothy Miller explains in his book, “How to Want What You Have,” (Henry Holt, 1995), that we hunger for wealth and status because they helped our ancestors achieve reproductive success.

Now, that impulse has become a belief that our well-being comes from material goods. And we can never acquire enough, Miller says.

Miller takes a rather Zen-like approach to altering generations of such thinking. He suggests people develop more compassion, attention and gratitude in order to live within their means. Spiritual approaches, sadly, haven’t had much success in coping with primitive urges.

Financial coach Marilyn August of Newport Beach recalls having a physical sensation when she used to walk through the women’s section of Nordstrom or look at a Mercedes 250SL: “It was an urgency in my tummy, like a stressful thing, like ‘I’ve got to have it now, there’s no tomorrow.’ ”

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Eventually, because of what she calls “financial dysfunction,” she had to file bankruptcy.

The shock forced her to teach herself new ways to spend and manage money. Now, she’s a consultant at the nonprofit Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Orange County and has written a workbook, “How to Achieve Money-Health.”

People can begin to turn themselves around, she says, by recognizing emotional hooks about money and making a single, conscious decision to change one behavior--such as paying cash, rather than writing checks.

To clients with both large and small incomes, August also offers practical solutions such as developing shopping guidelines, a spending plan and a tracking system of income and expenses posted in a public place, like the refrigerator.

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Parents, particularly, have to learn to say “no,” she said. In her classes, she sees plenty of parents who spend the rest of the year paying off their Christmas bills.

One creative mother, tired of having to say “no” to her demanding children, made signs saying “Yes” and “No” to hold up in response to their requests. “The kids thought it was a great joke,” August said. “It took all the emotion out of it.”

Most important, August said, are open discussions among family members about money. It helps to have regular financial meetings, including children if possible, to discuss the tracking sheets and plan for upcoming or unexpected expenses. Because the subject is so painful and volatile, it also helps to have ground rules, such as, “No complaining or blaming” and “Tell the truth.”

The problem with money, she said, is that it’s one of our last taboo topics, which makes communication troublesome and sometimes impossible. Despite the warnings of potential problems, no one in Orange County wanted to confront Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert Citron “as long as the cash was coming in,” she observed.

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“Plenty of my clients say ‘Why aren’t you working with Orange County?’ ” she said. But, August said, “Our county debt, our national debt is reflective of personal indebtedness. We have to start at home to take responsibility.

“We’re going to see more of this if we don’t say ‘Enough is enough.’ ”


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