Your Interview With Local Psychologist Dr. Matthew Bowen Part 1

Have you ever wondered why you behave the way you do with money? Perhaps if you haven’t you should, because getting and staying out of debt is all about your financial behavior. The way I see it, there are tons of “mathematicians” out there that are “in debt up to their eyeballs”.

In a recent article I wrote called Becoming Debt Free Is 99% Intensity and 1% Basic Math, I made the case for why becoming debt free was more about your behavior and attitude, than it was about doing math. So if you really want to get out of debt you have to change the behaviors that put you there. You have to think differently and that will take a complete paradigm shift to occur. How you think affects how you act.

Taking a peek at your own behavior patterns will give you a closer look into possible triggers so that you can avoid them. If you want something different, you have to do something different. What’s causing you to mismanage your money?

I decided to do an interview with my Psychology of Money and Wealth Professor, Matthew Bowen, PhD, to take a deeper look into why we misbehave the way we do with money. He graduated in Berkeley, California in 1986 and is a licensed psychologist.

He is the professor of the Psychology of Money and Wealth classes at PVCC. If you happen to be a local in Charlottesville VA and wish to learn more, be sure to sign up for his classes in the Fall. (Details listed below).

The closer it got to interview time, the more I thought about what you wanted to know. I came to the conclusion that the best way to accomplish this was to ask you, so I took to the virtual streets of Twitter and Facebook to find out.

I asked you, “What you would ask a psychologist specializing in financial behavior if you had the chance?”

The response was so overwhelming!! I literally received over 30 questions from you within an hour. THANK YOU! I decided that of the 32 questions, all of them were worth being answered, so instead of hand-picking a few and trashing the rest, I decided to do this in three parts. My hope is that this question and answer series will inspire even bigger conversation, because if you have a follow up question, I encourage you to head to the comments section below. Let’s dig in shall we?

To be clear, you don’t have to be the one that asked the question to have a follow up question.

Meet Dr. Matthew Bowen

Does stress in the 21st century primarily come from financial situations? The Minimalist Path

It’s natural to lose perspective and experience the time we’re in as unique. Financial stress is surely no more a factor in stress per se than it has been in other eras. Finance is and always has been a major source of stress for so many (perhaps most), and can safely be assumed to be a primary emotional burden alongside our relationships.

Are more people satisfied being financially stable or managing great wealth? Life Excursion

Very few people are prepared or even want to manage great wealth. While it is a common fantasy to be very rich, the fact is that the vast majority of people only want financial security and then enough to play around with a bit. People rightly fear that a lot more money than they need or are accustomed to can cause as many problems as pleasures.

What financial struggles are the toughest to psychologically overcome? @DavidDamron

There are two, and both come from the same mental source of self-sabotage in service of feeling unworthy of financial empowerment. And that surely isn’t as complicated as it may seem at first glance. First, people fail to allow themselves to move forward on plans to change their financial status. It’s easier to stay in the same habitual rut rather than make the effort to change and worse yet risk failure. The second most common issue is the compulsion to take on too much debt. In that regard people spend AS IF they were where they wanted to be financially, in conflict with themselves because they know they are denying the real situation and they are causing themselves more harm as well.

Do people comfort themselves with specific kinds of purchases or just any spending in general? Budgeting in the Fun Stuff

Both. And there can be pervasive or specific self-reward spending patterns in one individual. Like most indulgences, it only becomes a problem when it gets out of control. The basis for loss of control comfort spending can be rooted in long or short term emotional issues, or in some cases be a function of one’s particular brain chemistry. For instance, compulsive gambling has been found to be localized in a specific brain networks.

What’s the craziest impulse purchase you’ve ever encountered? Budgeting in the Fun Stuff

Probably the 65 year old gentleman who suddenly collected an original painting by a very famous deceased artist (Georgia O’Keefe for you aficionados). He was being treated for bipolar disorder and was no doubt in a manic phase. He had to take out a second mortgage on his house to finance it, and died within a year. He had been a powerful person in his field, and between changes in his industry and health problems, at the time of the purchase he was rapidly losing his sense of the control and power he had had for so long. Indeed, a classic case of compensatory spending.

Psychologically, what is the one thing that undoes a person the most with regards to personal finance? Free From Broke

The belief–usually out of their full awareness–that they are unworthy of, or unable to attain, a better financial situation. and we must bear steadily in mind that our relationships with money are most often learned in our family of origin. It can make them feel selfish or guilty to exceed their family members–or spouse of significant other or friends–financially. It can lead someone to feel they will be resented, isolated, or only wanted for their money.

How do you condition your brain to stop spending? What exercises can help with it? Deliver Away Debt

It isn’t easy. Spending becomes a very ingrained pattern that is often quite compulsive and out of our conscious control. Again, with a long-term pattern, it can be a factor of early familiar (psychosocial) experience, brain chemistry, or a combination of the two. And thus like any mental condition, the first step is to determine the primary basis for the behavior that needs to be changed. Change will require an intervention that needs to be tailored to that unique person. Depending in the nature and degree of the problem, the person will need or not need to rely on outside help and a long-term plan. Unlike simply suggesting weightlifting for strength or aerobics for slimming, I cannot suggest an exercise per se that can be applied to the population of destructive spenders.

Money is so taboo. Our parents never talked finances with us & we don’t talk about it with friends. How do we get past that? Heather Sokol

While it isn’t necessarily so that money was (or is) “never” discussed with family or friends, it is quite likely that you haven’t had the chance to give it the air time you would like or need. It seems that nowadays the topics of sex, health and all manner of relationship dramas have a more common open forum than finances. On the one hand, if our financial status is sub-par or frankly terrible, then we feel inadequate or ashamed. But on the contrary, if we’re financially “flush”, we are going to be concerned about being resented, and even perhaps justifiably paranoid that others are going to come after what we’ve got. So from the interpersonal standpoint it becomes a no-win situation with money; damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You can probably be more comfortable among friends letting it be known that your love life is going great than that you’ve just had a financial windfall. After all, someone is a lot less likely to ask if they can join you in bed than they are to ask for a loan (and we all know that a loan request from a friend or relative is nothing more than a gift assumption in fool’s clothing).

Why is money such a sensitive issue for so many of us? Money Obedience

The subject of money is both at the core of your family history and an unavoidably strong and enduring thread throughout your entire life. Many patterns in families and junctures in life where outcomes were less than desired and wounds run deep are often due to money as a major factor: your older sibling got the dental work your parents said they couldn’t afford when you then needed it; you had to work your way through all 4 years of college but your younger sibling got a break because your parents were better off by then; someone else got the car or the vacation paid for that you didn’t get; grandma left more in her will for one heir than the others because of favoritism; you supported your spouse through school but they didn’t fulfill their end of the bargain when you wanted to go back for a career change. Needless to say the possibilities for money being a source of resentment or stress are absolutely endless. The bottom line is that money is the ultimate tangible by which complex intangibles (relationships and emotions) are measured and determined. There are few clearer means than money for manipulating relationships and expressing feelings toward others. As the saying goes: For few things have the power above, that of money to determine love.

What is the #1 personality trait that best predicts whether or not someone is a spender or saver? @Jen_Saunders

There actually isn’t research that defines the answers to this question with a specific reliable model. However, drawing from clinically established personality and mood syndromes, I’ve identified typologies that lend to understanding this very question. For spenders, there is a spectrum. One can habitually spend as a means of compensating for bouts of depression or chronic low-esteem; you feel blue and go out and treat yourself by way of medicating with something new and fresh, giving yourself the sense of deservedness the world may be denying you. Then there is the manic end of the mood syndrome; consider the case example already given in describing the most crazy impulse purchase. Finally, there is the narcissistic personality type. This implies a self-absorbed and inflated sense of self. Such persons compensate for inner feelings of inadequacy by grandiosity. It follows that they would be compelled to need to “buy the best.” Alas, when one is driven to do so beyond their material means, it readily becomes a problem of debt. The narcissist will then blame others for the inevitable consequences of their over-indulgence.

Part One Complete…

Dr. Matthew Bowen thoroughly enjoyed answering your questions and is very excited to hear what you have to say. Please continue the conversation by sharing your thoughts, and please feel free to ask any follow up questions you may have related to the questions in this post.

Again, if you are a local to Charlottesville VA and want to learn more, don’t forget to sign up for BUS-195 classes starting in the Fall at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

About Brad Chaffee

25 Responses to “Your Interview With Local Psychologist Dr. Matthew Bowen Part 1”

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  1. Forest says:

    “It seems that nowadays the topics of sex, health and all manner of relationship dramas have a more common open forum than finances”…. Never thought about that, very interesting! Luckily blogs seem to be changing that and we can talk openly about money, how rich/poor clever/stupid we feel we are with money and all help each other out…. The internet brings an amazing support network to our fingertips.

    Looking forward to the next two parts.

    • Jesse says:

      I agree Forest, sex used to be the taboo, but that’s just big business now and money is the new taboo. It’s bad etiquette to discuss money matters in just about every situation, apparently. I’m glad I found a way that I can talk about money in an open manner.

    • Brad Chaffee says:

      I definitely like the fact that I can blog about money and have often wondered why people are so protective of their finances. In my opinion, we’ve all done STUPID with it and the fact that it is considered a hush hush subject could be more of a reason for struggle. It’s hard to fix something that is in the dark, and it isn’t until you shine a light on the matter that real progress can be made. Think about it. Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, other meet groups do better when they are open about their personal issues on any given matter.

      Thanks for your comment Forest! :D

  2. Abigail says:

    I definitely agree with the doc’s point about resentment for different treatment of siblings. Tim’s brother is an addict, so his parents indulge him financially a lot more than they ever have Tim. They simply expect more from Tim. Which is rational, but hurtful. It’s definitely affected his outlook on a lot of things.

    That said, I think the doc missed one very big point here (and who can blame him, given that he was answering a lot of questions and you may have had to pare down his responses for space). That point is society’s judgments based on money.

    This society tends to judge people based on wealth. If you aren’t doing well financially, it reflects, somehow, on your character rather than a host of factors. If you’re doing well, you’re better, smarter, etc.

    Of course, arguably, this is changing to the reverse: Rich people are increasingly resented and seen as out of touch, corrupt etc, while poor or working-class people are seen as honest, “real” or whatever. It’s an interesting dynamic but it has a profound effect on how we feel about ourselves and others — and how we deal with/talk about finances.

    • Brad Chaffee says:

      Thanks for the comment Abigail.

      Good point about how people pass judgment on others based on their financial situations.

      I’m not sure things are exactly changing as you mentioned as much as they are just more apparent in times of economic distress. I think that depending on which circles you run with, you are likely to hear both sides of that dynamic. I wonder if there hasn’t always been the resentment of anyone with wealth by someone who is poor It just seems like it is a common thing to resent someone because they have something you want but don’t have.

      BUT, I do see a growing number of college-aged kids that seem to be more pronounced in their belief about the rich and the wealthy. I think that is a product of college professors implanting that thought into the minds of young people. But as I was saying, I am still unsure about whether or not this was something young people always felt and liberal professors made it more vocal among them. Very interesting topic!

      • ctreit says:

        This is a great idea for a post. Psychology and money are so entwined that it makes sense to shed some light on our emotional responses to “money”.

        I am not so sure that one can blame “liberal” college professors on the thoughts of young people. For one, professors may know a thing or two about facts like inter-generational social mobility in the US, which can be measured quite easily. The data says that your parents’ wealth is the single most determinant of your own wealth. Your own hard work, education, etc. does not even come close. If professors include such studies in their courses (economics, sociology, statistics, scientific methods, etc.), I don’t think that this could be considered an act of introducing ideology. Second, from what I can tell many students come to college with very firm beliefs and are not open to question their own beliefs even in the face of contradicting data. Therefore, I wonder what actual influence a liberal or conservative professor could have on a student. But I don’t have any data on this latter point. This is just my suspicion based on anecdotes I hear from friends who are professors.

        • Brad Chaffee says:

          I don’t want to get too far off subject here, but I have to respectfully disagree ctreit. Around 80% of America’s millionaires are first generation rich. I’m not saying that professors in colleges have everything to do with how college students think but I can tell you from my own experience in college that 4 out of 5 of my professors have clearly had left-leaning ideology and they weren’t afraid to turn their beliefs into assignments. My public speaking classes were probably the worst and almost every lecture we had revolved around global warming, anti-capitalism, corporations are evil etc. Speaking to college students about money has made it even more clear to me that college at least has a little bit to do with their thought process. You can even go even further back to public school these days which is why many parents are opting for private schools and homeschooling as alternatives to public schools.

          When it comes to money you could at least say that the youth is at least influenced by schools, media, and of course their parents. Thanks for the great comment! :)

  3. Craig/FFB says:

    Great questions. I always felt that personal finance was real easy theoretically but difficult in practice due to our minds and how we view things.

    • Brad Chaffee says:

      I agree Craig! Behavior has everything to do with how we act with money. This is something that can be easily seen by examining the financial situations of some finance graduates. Knowing what to do is a lot easier than actually doing it. Temptation, social pressures, and a sense of entitlement have a huge impact on how we act out financially.

      Glad you enjoyed this interview! I think the questions were awesome and the doc’s answers were great!!:D

  4. Aaron @ Clarifinancial says:

    I thought the first answer was very enlightening. I simplify certain parts of my life intentionally to reduce overall stress, so I can focus on more important things. It would almost seem that “back when life was simple” there were none of these money stressors, but you point to a recencty bias.

    Even before we had money and currency, we still had commerce. Our lives may have been more basic, but our financial stress wasn’t. Are we creating or maintaining financial stress as a society in an effort to achieve a higher order of needs?

    • Brad Chaffee says:

      My first thoughts about this question were the same. I’m not even sure it is because times were simpler back then. I think that even though financial stress has and always will be a stressful subject, It seems like back then it wouldn’t have been so bad because our grandparents and great grandparents saved more and had much less debt. I think that alone drops the stress factor when it comes to money, but I still don’t argue that financial stress is basically stressful overall for anyone and everyone. I do know that I myself am a LOT less stressed about money now that we are debt free but there are still times when life happens that stress is still a factor although we have the means to handle whatever life throws at us.

      Great comment Aaron, and I will leave the follow up question for the Doc. He will be around later to respond to additional comments related to these questions.

  5. J$ says:

    This is dope man – WELL DONE!!! I’m sad I missed question time…

    • Brad Chaffee says:

      I know man, I knew you would of had an awesome question to ask too. I was surprised that you didn’t respond to my email asking the question. Don’t let that stop you from asking a follow up question though. :D Thanks for stopping by my friend!

  6. So, is the consensus that it is healthier to discuss money than leave it in the shadows? Psychology and money seem to go hand in hand, so would it be therapeutic to talk openly about it like other psychological problems? If so, I feel a lot less weird about how open I am about our finances all the time…

    • Brad Chaffee says:

      not sure if there is actual consensus but it does seem logical to believe that talking openly about something would yield better results than bottling it up. I know how you feel too. When I started this blog people thought, and some still do, that it was too personal to share my details on a blog. LOL I feel it is therapeutic and it keeps me somewhat accountable for my actions with money. :D

  7. Len Penzo says:

    Great article, Brad! I can’t wait for the next installments. On money being taboo, I don’t think it has to be. It all depends on how open we are willing to be about the subject – and I see those barriers rapidly being broken down, especially by bloggers who are pretty open to discussing most everything about their personal finances.

    All the best,

    Len
    Len Penzo dot Com

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