A psychotherapist discusses money and attitudes toward it

June 02, 1991|By Neal Lipschutz

IF I THINK ABOUT MONEY

SO MUCH, WHY CAN'T I

FIGURE IT OUT?

Arlene Modica Matthews.

Summit.

269 pages. $19.95.

There are a lot of adages about money: It makes the world go around and it's the root of all evil. Money talks and time is money. All this attention attests to the overwhelming importance we place on money. It's not just to provide us with the things we need to survive. It also plays a large part in the picture we form of ourselves.

In this book, psychotherapist Arlene Modica Matthews delves into the mind's relationship with money, finding layers of internalized lessons that explain things like the behavior of this woman, as recalled by her grandson: ". . . she and my grandfather had worked more or less incessantly in their tailor shop all their lives [but] she insisted they'd never made a profit. For 45 years she had lived in a pretty bad neighborhood in the same rundown apartment, never spending on anything but bare necessities. The she died, leaving over a quarter of a million dollars in a passbook savings account. . . ."

Though few of us have witnessed money-related maladies this severe, Ms. Matthews is on target when she asserts that most of us have monetary peculiarities -- be it neglect of our checkbook balance or a propensity to tip too much or too little.

The book is competently written and the snapshot "case studies" of money problems often are intriguing, but it's hard to know exactly for whom this book is written. Ms. Matthews posits psychological underpinnings for unusual money behavior, but some of the theories don't go beyond what most people probably already know.

An "anal" personality is likely to be tight-fisted as well as orderly and stubborn. People who follow the mob in investing ("pack-think" is Ms. Matthews' term) are likely to do poorly. And, in a closing chapter titled "Smart Money," she offers strategies that seem too general to be of real aid to people with severe money problems, such as chronic spenders who have buried themselves in credit card debt.

Ms. Matthews breaks down what she calls the "money complex" into five layers. At the bottom, level 1, is Sigmund Freud, who is cited as saying that the unconscious mind equates money with the "basest sort of filth imaginable -- excrement." After this "intrapsychic" layer that stretches back to the emotional foundations set in our infancy come our families, forming and malforming our attitudes toward money.

Ms. Matthews illustrates this with a telling anecdote about a young man whose family's "unspoken messages" about money "contradicted virtually everything that was said on the subject." After graduating from college, he expected to be supported with family money. His rude awakening was that there was no trust fund. He had to find a job and start repaying student loans.

After our parents get through with us, we are subject to the messages of society at large, often transmitted through the media. Layer 4 consists of the "techniques and technology of money," which the author says are "inextricably bound up in money attitudes." Psychological predilections aside, it's certainly easier to spend ourselves into the hole in an era when we're regularly bombarded with offers for credit cards and loans than when we actually had to have the means at hand to pay for our indulgences.

Layer 5 is the aforementioned "pack-think." It may be psychologically soothing to run with the crowd, but Ms. Matthews notes that this need for security means "most people are prone to buy near the top and sell near the bottom."

This book is well reasoned and logically presented. It's just that you don't come away from it feeling that you've learned very much, even if you wouldn't articulate your ideas within a psychological paradigm.

Mr. Lipschutz is a writer living in New York.

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