Redefining Your True Net Worth



by Deborah L. Price

What we must decide is perhaps how we are valuable rather than how valuable we are. -Edgar Z. Friedenberg, The Vanishing Adolescent, 1959


We live in a culture where the terms net worth and self-worth have become synonymous. Yet they have entirely different meanings. I have always been interested in examining language and words for their hidden meanings. Often, if we look closely enough, a far greater truth lies within words than we had imagined. For example, if we separate and dissect the words net and worth, an entirely different picture comes into view.

According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, the two most common definitions of the word net are 1) anything that catches or traps; ensnares or 2) a net amount, profit, price, or result; after all considerations; final. The word worth means "monetary" or the "value of something measured by its qualities or by the esteem in which it is held." The word self means "one's own person as distinct from all others."

Upon considering these words, we discover that most of us have been "trapped and measured" by money, leaving the self rather alone and unaccounted for. Since we often do not feel good about our net worth, our self-worth has become devalued and our self-esteem deflated. This is because we have not properly appreciated ourselves for being intrinsically valuable in our uniqueness, separate from our net worth.

Over the years I have asked hundreds of people to do net worth statements (their financial assets minus their financial liabilities), and without fail, it is the most difficult task to get people to complete. Many clients simply have refused to do one. Others have only done one if I did it with them. Those who have willingly completed the task were few and far between. This resistance was so prevalent that I began to realize that it was not the task, but the emotional turmoil it caused that was at the root of the problem.

When it comes to our net worth, most of us feel that we never quite measure up. Thinking about how much we have accumulated as proof of our value is a painful experience. In our culture, our wealth is the ultimate measure of who we are. We have become defined by it. Those who have little net worth feel a corresponding lack of self-worth. But they are not alone. Many of my clients who have a high net worth also experience similar feelings of low self-esteem. The difference is that although they have plenty of money, they often do not feel worthy of it. They appear to have everything, and yet they feel they are nothing.

I believe this lack of self-esteem is caused by a profound spiritual bankruptcy that is so prevalent in our culture. Having lived a life in pursuit of money and material gain, we have often neglected the self and its inherent longing for spiritual connection. As human beings, we alone have this need. I do not believe this need is simply evolution at work. Rather, it was intended that we value and nurture this dimension of our self above and beyond all else. Without this connection to the self, our true worth is diminished, and life becomes an endless search for substitutes to fill the void.

We have become ensnared in the net, caught in the money trap. I cannot help but believe that we will not escape until we begin to value ourselves above money and material gain. We need to create a new paradigm for living, one that is different from the one we have inherited and maintained for generations out of habit and lack of consciousness.


More Money May Not Be the Right Answer

We live burdened by thoughts of lack and limitation. We have not been taught to think beyond our historic point of view. Yet we are so much more than simply the sum total of our experiences. There is a truth in each of us that is deeper than any biography of our lives could ever tell. Yes, we are greatly influenced by our backgrounds and experiences, but defining ourselves merely by those is much too limiting.

The story of Ellen, one of my clients, is a good example of this point. As a child and young adult, Ellen was poor and lived in constant fear. She came from a violent, dysfunctional family, and survival was a core issue for her on many levels. But survive she did. She went on to become successful in almost every way. Money and success flowed into her life in great abundance. She was not, however, a happy person. When Ellen first came to see me, she was severely depressed and in therapy. We talked specifically about her money issues. She told me that she needed money to feel safe but that it caused her difficulty in her relationships. Actually, it had destroyed every relationship she had ever had.

Attractive, intelligent, and rich, Ellen easily attracted men. The problem was that over the years Ellen had built a fortress around herself, and no one ever really got in. She was not able to trust anyone enough to be truly intimate. With her therapist's help, she was able to work through her feelings about the abuse she suffered as a child and the pain and anger she felt toward her parents. However, the money issues continued to interfere in her relationships. There was still something she needed to understand that was getting in the way of her happiness.

As we looked at Ellen's past and tried to pull together the pieces, we found that the only time she could ever remember feeling safe was right after her father brought home a paycheck. Because for a while, when there was money, her family was happy, and the abuse would stop. Although Ellen had forgotten this, the memory embedded in her subconscious was played out in her daily life. Ellen spent most of her time working and knew she was a workaholic, but she always said it was because she liked her work. Her workaholism was one of the major problems in her relationships. The other was that although Ellen had a lot of money, she was frugal beyond belief. She didn't enjoy spending her money, and she wasn't good at sharing it. Ellen was a mixture of the Warrior and Tyrant money types.

In looking at her relationships, Ellen began to see how she had pushed the men in her life away even though they had truly loved her. Although neither of the men she had married had as much money as she did, they were successful in their own right. That was the other missing link. Since she was more successful than they and money was her safety net, subconsciously she could not stop working so hard because in her mind her husbands weren't financially reliable. They might not bring in that paycheck, and then what would happen? That left everything up to her, and subconsciously she felt betrayed, and so she sabotaged her relationships.

After about a year of our meetings, Ellen began to see that in working so hard to create her safety net of money, she had never really looked at who she was and what made her happy. She had neglected her self. She always loved art but never considered doing it. She loved children but never had them. There was never time for that. Then one day she called me and said she needed to see me right away. That afternoon Ellen came in and said, "Well, I did it. I've solved my money problems. I gave all my money away."

At first I was disturbed, but as we talked I realized that she had made a good decision. She knew exactly what she was doing. She told me, "Money was my safety net, my protector. But it also kept me from living my life. I had to cut down the net so that I could be free." For Ellen, the net also served as a barrier that kept her from becoming more of who she was. Today Ellen lives on a modest income, paints in her spare time, and works with children. Perhaps most important, she has time to be in touch with her self, with who she really is. She has a real life now and is at peace with her past.

The possibility and potential of each of us are far greater than the sum of our past experiences. Ellen had lived most of her life enmeshed in her history. Although she had succeeded financially, she was not experiencing prosperity on a personal, emotional, or spiritual level. We have to move beyond our personal histories to see our true value and worth.


Your Money Is Not Your Life

It is no wonder that we suffer such lack of self-esteem. Our life's "balance sheets" (financially speaking), if we're brave enough to examine them, often look pretty bleak. Meanwhile, we feel continually pressed to answer questions like, "What do you have to show for your life?" "What does your financial picture look like?" "What are you doing to secure your financial future?" These are not questions that most of us really want to address.

I have a friend who is one of the most capable, intelligent people I know. He runs two businesses, is involved in the community, and is well liked by just about everyone. Recently he attended one of my Money Therapy seminars and told me afterward that he felt deeply ashamed about his finances. When I asked him why, he spilled out a story of how, many years before I knew him, he and his wife had major financial problems and had had to claim bankruptcy. He said, "Every day I think about all the people I never paid back, and every day I worry that it might happen again." I told him that bankruptcy is a choice that deeply affects people's self-esteem, because in the eyes of the world, suddenly you are nothing, you have nothing, you have failed. But that is not the truth about who you are. You are a perfect human being, but that does not mean you don't have problems or won't make mistakes. Bankruptcy is about forgiving debt and letting people start over. But you have to be willing to forgive yourself. You have to be willing to let go and move on, which my friend had been unable to do. Instead of starting over, he carried his shame with him, and it became a far greater burden than any debt he'd ever owed. I offered to help my friend further, but he could not face the depth of his shame. His net worth and self-worth had both become bankrupt, because he could not see his true value, the value of his self.


Money Therapy Life Inventory

Since dealing with our financial histories and money in general can be so difficult, I developed an "accounting" system that has helped to make the process more positive and pleasant for my clients. I call this system doing a "life inventory," and I have my clients do two types of accounting. One is a traditional process involving a financial review of assets and liabilities; the other is an accounting of one's life. I have come to the conclusion that doing an accounting of one and not the other is unkind and unjust to us as human beings - not to mention the fact that I can actually get people to do some accounting this way and to have fun with it.

Investment professionals are famous for lecturing their clients on the time value of money. This concept basically means that while you have the time, you had better make good use of what money you have (also referred to as the value of compounded dollars). For example, if you are thirty-five years old and want to retire at age sixty-five, you have thirty years to use the money you make today grow into your retirement tomorrow. If you don't take advantage of the time you have now, you will need to save more money, take greater financial risks, or wait longer to retire.

While this is a very valid financial concept, and entirely worth consideration from a logical, financial standpoint, it is not the only perspective. The other truth we need to consider above and beyond our financial net worth is what I call the "time value of life." Unlike money, which we can always find ways to make more of, our life bank only has so many hours in it...and we don't get the privilege of knowing just how many hours we have left. Consequently, we need to consider the value of our life's currency and how well we are spending it before anything else, including money, can have any meaning at all. If all we do is focus on money - making it, spending it, and saving it for the future - we take the very real risk of running out of time. Without this understanding, we will always live in a state of poverty that no amount of money can save us from.

Perhaps if we had a currency with denominations of time printed on it that we actually had to physically spend as we use time, we might value time as much as we value money. Then we would consciously have to spend time dollars with every purchase. We would be compelled to first ask ourselves, "How many life hours am I going to have to spend paying for this? Do I really want or need it that much? How much of my life am I going to consume by my lifestyle?" Or more important, is your "style" robbing you of your life? These are questions we greatly need to ask ourselves in our search for understanding our true worth.


Exercise: Your Net Worth

In determining your true net worth, first you need to conduct an inventory of your life bank. Answer the following questions:

1. How old are you?

2. How many life hours have you spent? (Formula: Twenty-four hours a day x 365 days a year x number of years/days you have lived. For example, on your fortieth birthday you will have spent 350,400 life hours.)

3. How have you spent your time?

Now do an accounting of how you have "spent" your life. Account for everything that is meaningful to you. When you are done, write a list of all the things you still need to do with your life dollars, things that would fulfill you as a human being. Finally, how many life hours a day are you spending toward meeting this goal? If you feel brave, go ahead and do a financial net worth statement too. It's not only a good exercise, but it will give you some useful perspective on how you've used your time versus your money.

If you can't quite muster the courage to do an actual financial statement, at the very least ask yourself the following questions:

1. How many hours a day do you work?

2. How much money do you make per day (average)?

3. How much money do you need to live on per month?

4. How many life hours does it take to make that much money?

5. How much money have you saved?

6. How much money do you owe?

7. How many life hours will it take you to pay it off?

8. How much life does that leave you with?

9. Is your lifestyle worth it?



From Money Therapy, by Deborah L. Price. Copyright by Deborah L. Price. Excerpted by arrangement with New World Library. $18. Available in local bookstores or call 800-972-6657, ext. 52 or click here.