How much are you worth?

It’s a rude question at the very least, anxiety-provoking, and perhaps even unanswerable. Rude because many of us were taught that money is an unseemly topic and, frankly, our dollars are nobody else’s business. Anxiety-provoking because we are prone to view our finances from a deeply emotional place: the shame of too little or the embarrassment of too much in a culture that binds self-worth to financial worth.  And unanswerable because we tend to avoid dealing with it at all; we pretend that money just isn’t important or it’s too complicated and so we hand financial responsibility over to a spouse or an accountant or a money manager.

In her new book, Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money, Geneen Roth examines, with good humor and precision, the ways our insecurities display themselves in how we handle our finances and in how we define sufficiency in an acquisition-mad society.  She looks into our fiscal hearts, and finds that money is a source of suffering for both the wealthy and the poor and a cause of suffering in the careless ways it is invested and abused.

Roth, author of the New York Times best-selling Women Food and God, built her career on analyzing how our inner lives are revealed by how we relate to food; she found that our attitudes towards physical nourishment, pairing sustenance with restrictions or overindulgence, expose the holes in our souls.

After she and her husband, and a number of their friends, lost all they had to Bernie Madoff, she discovered that her own feelings about money paralleled her lifelong struggles with food: shopping binges mirrored eating binges; budgetary belt-tightening mirrored restrictive dieting. And she realized that her obsession with acquiring a perfect item was inevitably followed by emptiness after the purchase, just as devouring forbidden foods was a temporary fix for deeper woes. Shopping simply served as a distraction to the more serious business of being near bankruptcy.  And her financial quandary was the result of her lack of awareness, her failure to take responsibility, her embrace of patterns of behavior steeped in childhood anxieties.

Roth says, “Since both food and money—nourishment and worth—are inextricably woven into the fabric of love and lack of love, they trigger feelings of deprivation, abundance, sufficiency, giving receiving, entitlement, needs, wants, pleasure, suffering—and survival  itself. And although there are many real problems about food and money, especially in third world cultures and here during the recent recession, most problems about food and money are not about either one.  Our relationships to both substances are expressions of unconscious beliefs, family messages, outdated convictions, and painful memories…”

Roth claims no expertise in financial matters, but she makes a provocative case for developing ongoing self-awareness, convincing us that we can free ourselves of old (and destructive) patterns,  preserve our precious resources, and end up on the right side of enough.