Host Anna Borges (The More Or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care) hears from listeners about their relationship to money, whether it’s colored by guilt or generational shadows. Then, Anna has a chat with Mood Ring producer Jordan Kauwling about her recent reflections on how money has shaped her life—and her relationship to work.
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Anna Borges: There was a time when I was constantly debating quitting my job. If you've been with us here since the beginning of Mood Ring … you may remember a work-related breakdown I had on the shower floor? Yeah, that was this job. So week after week, I would go back and forth debating about whether or not I wanted to quit without anything lined up for the sake of my mental health.
Because here was the thing: I could. I could do that. I grew up with a lot of financial instability, so savings has always been really important to me. And by that point in my life, I was in a privileged enough position that I could afford unemployment for a couple of months if I wiped out my savings.
But, I just couldn't get myself to do it. Like, sure, yeah money could buy me freedom from a job that was making me cry every time I woke up and faced the thought of yet another day. But money was also buying my health insurance and rent and security and peace of mind and all of the things that I needed to buy in my life. And, I mean, I’d experienced what it was like before without a financial safety net. And I didn’t know what would be worse, like all the feelings I was dealing with at this job, or all the feelings that came with losing that security?
Which is all to say, oh my god, there are a lot of feelings to be had around money. The stress of the things we do to make it. The decisions we have to make about spending it. The shame of having it, the guilt of not having it. The attitudes we’ve adopted about it or inherited. I mean, grappling with privilege or changing financial circumstances. Just overall how money, or lack thereof, can make us feel vulnerable. Or judged. Or obligated. Or a million other emotions.
Anna: I know that’s something I say a lot on this show: things make us feel emotions. But…man [sighs].
That’s the thing: No matter where we’re at financially, there are always new feelings to wade through or new ways for our money baggage to show up.
So yeah, maybe money could help my mental health in one way, but there was always another problem that needed money thrown at it. So how much was money really helping my mental health?
I mean, a lot. A lot. Money helps my mental health a lot, and it would be bullshit to pretend otherwise.
But it’s still not that simple.
I’m Anna Borges and this is Mood Ring, a practical guide to feelings—both the feelings you can put a price on and the feelings you can’t.
Every episode, we’ll explore one new way to cope — with our feelings, with our baggage, with our money baggage, with our brains, and with the world around us.
Anna: Today, we’re talking about money and how sometimes it can buy—maybe, not happiness, exactly, but a whole lot of stuff that supports our mental health. Like, not just in big ways, like access to mental health care and being able to meet our fundamental needs, but also in small ways. You know, like, the ability to buy things like time, energy, and support in the form of things like…child care and meal delivery and time off work and all of these little things that support our ability to feel, like, slightly more well.
We wanted to tackle this topic by hearing from you about your relationship with money and kind of the connection between money and mental health and how you experience it. And your responses, you know, made the heart of the episode super clear, and it’s that unpacking our relationships with money and all our feelings about it is key to understanding the role it plays in our mental health. For better AND for worse.
Maybe you’ll recognize yourself in some of today’s stories, and maybe you won’t, but the point is to get to know your own story. You know, because this shit is complicated, and we have to meet ourselves where we’re at with lots of compassion.
Alright, so without further ado I just want to dive right into some of the stories we got from our listeners.
Kevin: My mismanagement of money has gotten me in a heap of trouble at home with my spouse. Spending beyond my means and really had to curb the amount of dumb shit that I buy, which has been helpful because I’m able to talk myself out of making purchases now and say, “You know what? That’s not going to help me. That’s not going to make me feel less depressed or less terrible. So I don’t need to do it.” And yeah, when you don’t have a lot of money it’s fucking stressful. Because you’re worried about how you’re going to make it to the next paycheck. You worry about spending your money on the wrong things. You worry about just like having enough to take care of an emergency if something comes up. Yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s rough when you’re already struggling enough as it is, tossing in thinking about finances and how poorly you handle them and poor decisions that you make and how people are disappointed with you when you piss away your money on dumb shit. That doesn’t make you feel any better. It makes you feel a lot worse and that’s, that is a one-way ticket to couples therapy.
Anna: Okay, raise your hand if our listener Kevin just echoed your internal monologue. We can judge ourselves SO harshly for how we spend our money—even if we’re doing it in the name of just trying to feel better.
At the same time, feelings hold information—and like Kevin and our next listener Ronald point out, sometimes they can help us figure out whether or not money is actually doing what we want it to do.
Ronald: I don’t know if, you know, ordering food on UberEats makes me happy. I don’t think it makes me happy. It makes me like satiated, for sure, but I don’t, I don’t know if participating in a system that is exploitative is necessarily nourishing for people either.
Anna: I don’t know that anyone really knows that. I mean I don’t! How do we even begin to untangle all the ways self-care has gotten wrapped up with consumerism, and all of the sticky, tricky ethical and human questions that come with it?
A similar theme that came up a lot? Guilt related to our financial circumstances.
Harper: I have immense financial anxiety that is disproportionate to my circumstances. And I have a lot of I guess like financial survivor’s guilt about that. About the fact that I have all these resources and yet I still feel so unsafe and I feel so guilty that I have this much when others do not. I also have a lot of child of immigrants’ guilt around it because my family came from so little, they gave me so much. And whenever I am unable to succeed it feels like I am failing multiple generations. When I was a kid a hate crime happened to my family and we were able to move and that was because of the way that my parents had made their financial choices and the financial standing that they were in, that they were able to do that. So that’s just really emblematic, I guess, of what money has meant to my family. When I, when I got laid off from my first job, I had had a lot of money saved because saving was always really important to me, and I felt really confident because I also had a really great resume full of great internships and good experience and I felt like it would be a couple of months and then I’d be fine. And then that ended up not being the case and thus began the major financial trauma of my life which is that I had spent several years after that being unemployed, underemployed or fully employed at places that were really abusive. And so I burned through all of my savings and then I had to rely on my parents after that. I felt like “wow, there is no amount of money that I can save that will ever keep me safe.”
Anna: Like I said at the top of the episode, that point about safety is so important for me, too, and for so many of us. And when we start to feel like no amount of money will keep us safe, what are we supposed to do with that?
I mean, I wish we had answers, but in talking to people in our circles and hearing from our listeners, sometimes we have no choice but to just kind of…keep on trying to make it work the best we can.
Ronald: You know I am the child of immigrants. My parents kind of came here via the Refugee Act of 1980. And I think for a lot of those immigrants you kind of navigate poverty the best way you can, usually by like leaning on the community that you … you’re living in and your fellow immigrants and then you find a way to kind of straddle, class straddle into the middle class. And that, you know. My mom is a CNA at a nursing home. And I would say, you know, my aunt works in the medical field. My dad was a respiratory therapist. And so, you know, you kind of do what you can to survive and then you find a very steady work where you’re usually like … taking care of dying rich people.
Harper: I feel like all I’ve ever wanted to be able to do is three things: I wanted to have enough money to be safe, I wanted to have enough money to have a decent margin of error for when I made the wrong choice, not just for when circumstances screwed me over, and I’ve always wanted to have enough money to be able to be generous. That’s really all I want, and I have been able to do those things at different points in my life, but I really don’t feel like I’ll ever have enough to truly be safe. And that scares me.
Anna: That scares me, too. A lot. I feel like these days, I can’t open Twitter or talk to my friends or anything without hearing jokes about the shitty existence under late stage capitalism—and those jokes are funny, but beneath those jokes, beneath all of them, all I hear is genuine fear that money won’t ever NOT define our lives. Whether it’s not being able to afford your basic needs or staying in shitty jobs so we can, it’s hard not to feel like money is the one thing standing between us and any number of fates. And that’s scary—and also not a very satisfying solution, especially when we’re usually here to talk about dealing with feelings like fear.
But, I mean, if it were that easy to reach a satisfying conclusion about money and mental health, we wouldn’t be having this conversation I guess. Which, yeah okay, not exactly a comfort, but I did promise that we wouldn’t try to find easy answers on Mood Ring, so here we are.
Thank you to listeners and friends of the show Kevin, Harper and Ronald for sharing their stories with us for this episode. Like, we know this is some vulnerable shit and we really appreciate it every time you guys share your stories with us so thank you again.
After the break, we’ll chat with Mood Ring producer Jordan Kauwling about money and a recent major life decision.
Anna: Hey, welcome back to Mood Ring. I’m Anna Borges. Before the break we were listening to messages from YOU about the impact that money has had on your own lives.
Next up, is a conversation I had with my producer Jordan Kauwling, and I have some kind of sad news and by kind of I mean very, which that this was actually the last episode that Jordan and I were working on together. Jordan is moving on from Mood Ring and she is going to be so dearly missed for a million reasons that I will not begin to enumerate because then this episode will get very, very off topic, but she has been such an asset to the show and it just so happened to line up that this last episode that we were doing together was a topic that was really really close to Jordan’s heart and my heart, and it just seemed like the perfect opportunity to sit down and talk money trauma together. So I’m just going to let the conversation speak for itself.
Anna: When we were developing this episode, I know that it was one that really resonated with you, Jordan. And it also happens to be your last episode. So it does feel perfect in a way for us to have this conversation, but it's also a little bittersweet.
Jordan: Yeah, it's definitely bittersweet. When we had our production meetings and we decided we wanted to do an episode about money, I immediately felt something in my spirit stand up and say, this is an episode that is meant for you to be a part of. So I'm so glad that we're able to have this conversation today.
Anna: And I know so much of your connection to this topic, like at this time and space in the world is related to you going on sabbatical soon. And I, I'm curious actually, cause I feel like we figured out this episode a while ago, did you know at the time, or was it just general money stuff that made your spirit sit up?
Jordan: When we were having this production, this pre-production meeting about money, I was thinking about my godmother. My godmother, I reconnected with her in 2019 … right before the pandemic when I moved back to LA. She lives, she lived in Santa Monica and she unfortunately passed away from cancer in 2020. And so when we decided we were gonna do this episode about money, all I could think about was my godmother, this woman who had worked her entire life to work herself out of poverty and who died penniless. And then it made me reflect on my own life, my own path that I had been on of overwork throughout the pandemic. But to answer your question at the time that we had this meeting, I had no idea that I was gonna need to, that I was gonna need to take a break.
Anna: So would you mind sharing kind of how, I mean you had that realization that you needed a break?
Jordan: Yeah, sure. I, I feel like my body was slowly letting me know that it was time for me to, to take a break. My godmother passing away at the height of the pandemic in 2020, not being able to say goodbye to her other than via Zoom, having to have an outdoor funeral, really instead of taking what happened to my godmother as a message and reflecting on it, that I needed to take a pause in my life, that I needed to stop working so hard and overworking myself. I took it as a message that I needed to work even harder because I never wanted to end up in a similar situation as her. I took, so I, I started working even harder, to the detriment of my own emotional, mental and, and, and physical health. Because again with the pandemic, so many of us were out of work. I felt so much guilt because I was one of the few people in my friend's circle. And in my family circle, who was able to work from home, who was able to continue to work full time and to bring in an income. And so many people around me were not able to do so.
Jordan: So I took on the responsibility of helping people pay utility bills. Helping people pay tax bills, helping people, you know, buy groceries. And so, because I felt like I was privileged enough to continue to work, it pushed me to work even harder until I reached a point where I physically could not work any harder. I emotionally could not work any harder. And I started longing for vacation time. And I realized that, in my life, I've never gone on a vacation. So I started researching, you know, if I were to go on a vacation, where would I go? And I, I fell down this YouTube rabbit hole that eventually led me to the idea of what if you took an extended vacation, and what if that vacation was, you know, not just two or three days or a week's time, what if it was something that was, was restorative to all of the things that have been stripped from you in the past few years?
Anna: The story of your aunt, even though, like I've not had an experience like it, feels so familiar to me because so much of my drive to make money is like avoiding a certain fate that I've witnessed, you know? And like, we don't bring in stuff such as like work life balance and actual like wellness into that conversation. All I knew is I wanted to avoid my parents' financial fate, that's it. Not like I wanna avoid my parents' financial fate and also be like a human who is well and doesn't wanna die. I was just so concerned with the money aspect of it, even through our conversation and listening to, to our listeners who were, who were speaking to this as well, is how much of like, can money buy happiness? When I think like, hell yet can, like, what I'm really thinking is like money can like buy me out of one specific type of unhappiness. But I don't know that I've really considered holistically what money is doing for my mental health.
Jordan: I've, I’ve come to a place hopefully of peace or of better peace with money. Money can buy happiness. It can buy, buy me time. Hell it can buy my mom a new house, hopefully one day. But you know, money is like water. It flows in and it flows out. But if you're not careful, it can, can drown you. So…
Anna: Holy shit, Jordan! Where did that come from?
Jordan: I don’t know! [laughs]
Anna: Clearly there’s no easy answer here. I mean, there isn’t even a simple question that we were asking. But we knew all that going in.
And I think what stood out to me between Jordan’s story, my own story, the stories that we got from Ronald and Harper and Kevin, is we can put so much hope into money. Like, so many expectations on it. And in some ways that’s totally right! Money does in a lot of ways bolster our ability to take care of ourselves on a very fundamental level. And we also look to it for security or to avoid a certain fate or to buy things that can ease the burden of life’s everyday bullshit. But, I think what’s standing out is it can be hard to predict like whether it’ll actually do what we need it to do or if it will just cause more problems, literally or emotionally.
Digging into all of the like personal nuances of using money to address mental health is complicated, as we heard from all of you. And… I mean we can make 6 million episodes out of this. But it’s a good place to start, you know, like we can unpack our money baggage. We can reflect on the underlying needs that we’re trying to address with money and whether money can actually address those needs. Because sometimes, that can lead us to say, “You know? Actually, I won’t get what I need from this,” and then we can use it as an opportunity to find something else. Like something better.
But at the same time what do we do when the answer is, “Yeah, money would really help here” and we don’t have it? Or our feelings or our histories interfere with our ability to accept that help or use it in that way?
I guess that’s when we find ways to soothe and manage the feelings that come with that. And share our stories so we don’t think that we’re alone in them. And short of that, I’m really holding out on marrying rich.
If you have more thoughts to share on money and mental health, you know we always want to hear from you. Just because the theme of the day is over doesn’t mean your stories are over. So tag me or the show on social, call our toll-free number and leave a message, submit through our website.
And in the meantime, I hope you treat yourself to something nice—whether that’s self-compassion or a small purchase that will give you the hit of dopamine when you need it. You know, whichever works.