Gay Men and Money Management: How to Empower Yourself
When I told a friend I was writing about “gay men and money management,” he said, “Ha! That’s not for me; I don’t have any money to manage.” And maybe you feel this way, too. But here’s the thing: you don’t need to have a lot of money to learn money management and empowerment skills. This is not “wealth management” requiring a huge estate; that’s a different topic and service. But you need good money management skills at any income or resources level; how do you think the guys with big estates got there? Sure, some of them are trust fund queens, but not that many. Learning sound skills in money management and self-empowerment starts right now, wherever you are!
As a gay men’s specialist psychotherapist for over 29 years, I have to do a lot of explaining of what therapy for gay men is, and what it isn’t. For example, I almost never work with men on “coming out.” The guys I work with, whether it’s therapy or coaching, individuals or couples, have usually been “out” for a long time. And while I help guys with depression, anxiety, alcohol/drug issues, ADD, OCD, PTSD, coping with medical issues (HIV, cancer, MS, etc.) and all psychological, psychiatric, or “life challenges” (such as midlife), as well as all kinds of couples therapy for gay men issues, including gay sex therapy, many of the guys I work with want support for things that are just part of everyday living: Things like how to be more assertive at work. How to communicate better with a partner. How to maximize your sexual potential (I’m a nationally-Certified Sex Therapist with AASECT). There’s a big variety of topics, even under the “gay men’s specialist” umbrella of my practice (locally to Los Angeles, nationally, and even globally).
Often, what I do overlaps with the work of other professionals, like the mental health aspects of dealing with illness, sometimes in consultation with an MD. How to avoid substance relapse (usually alcohol or crystal meth), sometimes in consultation with someone’s Twelve Step sponsor (but also guys who are not in Twelve Step programs, because many of the guys I’ve worked with have overcome drug or alcohol problems “just” (and I mean “just” facetiously) with outpatient psychotherapy alone). And, perhaps surprisingly, helping guys with anxiety about money, sometimes in consultation with a gay-savvy financial planner.
Ethics demand that everyone who is a professional observe the boundaries of their “scope of practice.” I don’t presume to be a lawyer, a Certified Financial Planner, or a medical doctor. But the challenges guys can face can require input from several professionals to help them meet their life goals. This is why I think the role of the therapist or coach and the financial planner overlap quite a bit. Financial planners discuss what to do, and some of why or how; therapy for money management explores your internal motivations, value systems, behavioral patterns, inner conflicts, cultural influences, family influences, emotional connection to money, and your cognitive mind-set (often involving myths and sometimes outright risky assumptions).
Because next to love, sex, relationships, and jobs, money management is perhaps the biggest source of anxiety for many gay men. People don’t often think of your therapist as being a help for this, and I think they should. A lot of good can come out of this work.
Everyone has similar money anxieties, gay and straight. But for gay men, cultural economics (especially “visible economics”) of keeping a certain social perception of status and/or wealth is important socially, or at least we feel the community pressure to. You think straight people have the pressures of “keeping up with the Joneses?” Gay men have it worse. We’re a competitive bunch, physically, sure (hence the pressure to look gym-perfect at every age), but financially, as well.
According to John Schneider and David Auten, queer financial planners (https://www.forbes.com/sites/debtfreeguys/2017/04/04/talk-about-queer-money/?sh=1e8a52b080b2), the LGBT buying dollar was approximately 14 percent of all disposable income in the United States in 2016. And married/partnered gay couples make more than straight ones (details here: http://www.experian.com/blogs/marketing-forward/2012/07/20/sim-a-look-at-household-income-and-discretionary-spend-of-lesbian-gay-and-heterosexual-americans/).
But being gay carries a lot of extra stressors, such as the pressures to “be straight” or at least “act straight,” and a lot of gender-conforming-behavior pressure, not only of the expectation for boys/men to be heterosexual, but also to be breadwinners, too. Part of male privilege – that includes gay men – is that we tend to earn more than women in the commercial workplace. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we also have extra pressures regarding money, especially to “always” look good, and be perceived as “successful,” perhaps as a defense against being considered “less than” for being gay in the first place.
Mental Health Aspects of Gay Men’s Money Management
Earlier I mentioned some of the things that therapy for money management for gay men can address. Let’s look at some of these:
Internal Motivations – When gay men work, and earn money, we can be motivated by many things. Like others, it’s about supporting ourselves and survival, with food, housing, clothing, and way-of-life necessities like transportation. We can be motivated to feel good about ourselves by feeling productive through work, and deriving some of our self-esteem but what we do as our professional contribution to the world, and what we earn doing it. We can be motivated by an urge for comfort, or to surround ourselves with things known to be social indicators of “good taste,” such as our appearance, clothes, car, or house. We can be motivated to show up the people who underestimated, criticized, and devalued us in our past for being gay. We can be motivated to match what we saw mom or dad earn. We can be driven by a sibling rivalry, or to compete with friends or school alumni.
It’s important when we think about money to consider what we are the most motivated by, and to think about why we might have those values. Bringing those into our conscious awareness helps us to feel like what we are doing is deliberate, empowered, and chosen; not that we are controlled by some unconscious force “making us” dance just because the music plays. Too many of us feel like pieces of machinery in work; we are cogs in the wheel, working for The Man, and living out our working lives not for ourselves, but because some “social ideal” or even family pressure tells us we have to. That’s baloney. As grown men, even gay ones, we have the right to have the life we want, and that includes professionally, financially, and socially.
Jack Canfield, author of one of my favorite supportive, motivational books called The Success Principles, asserts that we basically choose our socio-economic status by choosing (as much as we can) our choice of professional field, and some of those just pay more than others. And they each have sacrifices, and rewards. Being an accountant can sound dull, but when it affords you a lifestyle of a certain kind of house, car, wardrobe, and fabulous vacation photos you can post on social media, some guys choose this. Or medicine. Or law. Or real estate. Whatever.
Now, there are elements of privilege in there. Guys who are taller, more traditionally handsome, White, American, naturally intelligent (or talented), or come from wealthier families from birth do have advantages that anyone outside of those categories doesn’t have. But success in life is not solely related to privilege variables, but how you leverage the “gifts” you’re born with, and how you overcome any social challenges that get in the way, as best you can. Women, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, plain or homely people, and people from poor families have all been known – many in fact – to thrive, while we also must acknowledge the reality that social privileges are a social problem that we all must fight against.
So, sometimes in therapy, the discussion is about the therapist helping you identify, clarify, and evaluate your internal motivations, and then discuss how you can harness those to your own advantage, combined with the other considerations, below.
It’s no secret that behavioral patterns will affect your relationship to money, and your relative success with it. So-called “bad habits” like consistently over-spending, or living above your means, will create a chronic deficit or dig a hole of debt that’s hard to get out of. Sometimes therapy is about identifying the self-sabotaging habits you would have to come to terms with in order to be more stable financially. Lots of things can get in the way of good habits – depression, some kinds of anxiety, ADD, OCD, fatigue, physical/mobility hardships, intellectual challenges, social disadvantage, etc. But when you can very bravely self-reflect on your own behavior – especially behavioral patterns that persist over time – you can start to decide very proactively what habits serve that you want to keep, and which ones you want to work with your therapist on to eliminate.
Examples of bad habits behaviorally that undermine your financial health could be:
1) Consistently over-spending for your income (not just the occasional splurge)
2) Believing that prosperity is for others, but not for you (self-esteem)
3) Spending in ways that don’t serve your most important values, priorities, and goals in life
4) Failing to learn the best ways (skills) to take care of your financial self over your lifespan (my older article on that is here)
Examples of good habits behaviorally that support your financial health could be:
1) How to regulate your emotions so that you don’t often “impulse buy” things that really aren’t that important to you (“retail therapy”)
2) Making a regular habit (daily, weekly, monthly) of saving a portion of your income (usually a solid 10-15 percent after taxes)
3) Believing in yourself and your abilities, being confident that you have something to offer the commercial marketplace at every phase of life that pays you an income
4) Learning how to invest your savings in ways that make your money grow over time (there are many books on this, and I’ve learned that it’s really not all that hard or complicated, once you earmark at least some of your income for this purpose)
Behavioral patterns that are consistent is key. One of the advantages of working with a therapist over time is that that’s how real, permanent behavioral change happens. If you just attend one lecture, read one book, or have one session, you’re not likely to break bad behavioral habits that undermine you. That’s the same with learning a new skill (like a language) or going to the gym for weight loss or fitness/bodybuilding. Those kinds of gains happen over time, with the consistent “pressure” to adapt (look at how much an Olympic athlete has to train and practice to become so skilled that they can compete on a global level). Therapy can help you identify the behaviors, practice them, and troubleshoot what gets in the way of them becoming permanent behavioral change.
That’s where inner conflicts come in. Common inner conflicts I’ve helped guys with, through both cognitive-behavioral and insight-oriented (psychodynamic) schools of therapy about finances include:
1) Can I still “honor” my parents, family of origin, and culture if I become more well-off than they ever were?
2) Can I earn a lot, when I don’t think that highly of myself?
3) Can I still be a socially-responsible person, even as a well-off person, when so many people in the world are hungry and suffering?
4) Can I earn more than my partner/spouse and still not make him feel inadequate?
5) Can I remain gracious, hunble, and nice, even if I earn a lot?
6) If I earn a lot, will I just be one of those “privileged A-gays” that everyone likes to hate, or that used to mistreat me?
7) If I earn a lot, will I just grow old to be one of those superficial old queens in a caftan with an alcohol problem and a twink houseboy?
The conflicts can be varied, but it’s a good bet that everyone has at least some.
There are many cultural influences and considerations that we might be affected by, that we have tn navigate. Gay men have so many pressures about money, and always have. In the classic 60’s gay play by Mart Crowley, “The Boys in the Band,” when a particularly effeminate character is criticized by his peers for having a lot of grooming and beauty products, he theatrically and grandly points out in his defense, “the creams are paid for.”
Gay men are under a lot of cultural pressure to “have good taste”, including expensive homes, cars, furniture, cars, vacations, and escort boys. It’s about peer status, a competition. Men are competitive animals going back to the cave man days, and gay men are still men. We might not be competing for the attentions of a woman (or even another man), but we compete whenever we are near another man. The great (and hot; let’s not forget hot) sex researcher, Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D. once said in a workshop that research has shown that men will have a higher sperm count, and will shoot greater ejaculate volume, when in the presence of another man. Men compete on that physiological level with other men even when we aren’t consciously trying to do it. (I’m not sure how they got that data, but it sounds like a fun way to enlighten the field of knowledge.)
And it’s not just gay culture. We might compete geographically, based on living in a tony neighborhood like Beverly Hills or West Hollywood in California, or the Upper West Side of New York, or Chelsea in London, or the Marais in Paris, and so on (you tell me; I don’t get out much). It might be just “expected” that you compete with your neighbors, and this can be true even in a more modest suburb, like a planned or gated community.
Certain nationalities might be associated with wealth, such as Saudis or Kuwaitis. We all know the awful stereotype of Jewish people as “the bankers,” which is a myth that in part fueled the Holocaust, and still fuels anti-Semitism the world over to this day. Or Presbyterians. Who knows. There are many cultures that seem to pressure us to be wealthy – or at least look it – that we might be from.
Therapy about money can be about examining our cultural influences critically, so that we can join the ones we like, but we can tell the ones we don’t like to get lost. This kind of therapy is about the self-empowerment to consciously choose how you want to “look” in how you appear to others, but always with the option that you don’t have to adhere to any cultural influence that you can’t or don’t want to comply with.
Family “messages” from parents or others about money needs its own attention. Most of us either are doing OK with our relationship to money because we were taught good values about it, but some of us had neurotic influences in our Family of Origin that make us confused or conflicted to this day. In my own family, I witnessed class divides between my father and my uncle, my parents and their own parents, even to some degree with my sister, and certainly with a family history of having some especially well-off people in it and feeling a pressure to match or exceed their historical legacy (my really historical ancestors include English dukes and earls). And those family influences can do a lot to enhance your confidence, or stoke your insecurities.
Again with this, therapy can help you critically evaluate which family influences (often from parents) were adaptive, inspiring, comforting, and empowering, and which ones you want to rid yourself of in the current generation. How generous were they? Were they exploitive of others? Were they humble, or were they superficial or snobbish? What about money in your family is something you admire, and what things practically traumatized you, either from the presence of it, or the (sometimes traumatic) lack of it?
I once worked with a client who was a big Hollywood executive, who earned a lot, but came from a painfully poor background. He was driven and ambitious, but he was also a liberal and a champion of the poor, even when he wasn’t one of them for quite a while. But he never forgot what it was like to not have enough to even get by. Another client was a wealthy professional, but he came from a poor background, but he realized at an early age that his intellectual talent and determination to apply it was his ticket out, even if his family tried to guilt him later. Having the opportunity to “process” these experiences clinically can lead to peace of mind.
Our psychological defenses can sometimes be a real detriment when it comes to our financial health, especially about denial. Denial of the realities that almost everyone has to work in a capitalist society, or denial that it’s up to you to handle your financial life as an adult, can be especially risky.
To combat the harms that can come from primitive psychological defenses, we use education to empower ourselves. Since I was not taught good money management from my parents (see family influences, above), when I grew up, I had to take it upon myself to learn. Fortunately, money management books became popular just about the time I became an adult. We all know now the high-profile (lesbian) TV personality and author, Suze Orman, who is a master (mistress?) of putting people’s mind at ease in financial self-empowerment. Another author, Jane Bryant Quinn, also has a compelling series of books, and I can get benefit from reading works from both of them. Dave Ramsey has some good books, but I’ve bought those used because I don’t financially support figures who have been reported (from reliable sources) to be anti-gay, which is one of my many financial values (I boycott a long list of people, places, and brands due to their anti-gay stances, such as Chick-Fil-A, Urban Outfitters, Dubai, Indonesia, Barilla pastas, (despite their carefully-crafted PR efforts to the contrary) etc.).
If you weren’t taught sound money management as a kid (some of my clients were, and it’s fascinating to hear, like my client who started buying stocks with his allowance at age 12), then you have to empower yourself to learn it as an adult, through books, seminars, or videos.
While these are practical skills (how to invest, learning the vocabulary of investing, how to budget, how to plan for retirement, etc.), the mental health angle is largely about reducing your anxiety, and increasing your self-confidence. Psychological resources like self-esteem, self-concept, assertiveness, and self-care can all be enhanced by learning practical skills that help prevent anxiety, insecurity, worry, embarrassment, etc.
While the books address practical skills, your therapy can include discussions about how you feel on financially-related topics like sacrifice, entitlement, delayed gratification, self-discipline, “selective hedonism” (letting yourself break the rules once in a while to feel carefee), resentment, and ambition. All of these take on different meaning with gay men, because while straight people can feel these things, too, gay men always have a cultural context about what we sacrifice versus what we experience as reward (not the least of which is that we tend to sacrifice our sexuality for “keeping up appearances” of “being in the closet” and deny our own bodies the pleasure of sexual awakening generally longer than straight guys do.) When we make that kind of sacrifice early in life, it’s no wonder we might feel entitled to some hedonism (and its related costs) when we finally have true adult autonomy (ever been on a gay cruise, or to a gay resort? Yeah, that’s what I mean).
Adding It All Up
So while many (most) gay men can go through all of life without having money management or financial issues be a course of therapy, it can have value, especially for coming to terms with your feelings and behaviors about money, which will be a constant in your whole life (as will food, clothing, and grooming products).
Just like therapy for any other kinds of life emotional, behavioral, or situational challenges, therapy (and certainly some forms of life coaching for gay men) can help you strengthen your confidence and self-empowerment in this area. And that sets you up for long-term success.
If you would like support for your specific experiences in these areas, consider reaching out for help via therapy or coaching, either from me or other providers at GayTherapyLA. We are here to help, and make these kinds of ideas tailored to help you as an individual, beyond the general discussion here. For information on those, call or text 310-339-5778, or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com.