More Than Money
Issue #37

Money and Community

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories”

Money Talk: Fostering Community Connections

By Christopher Mogil

Christopher Mogil is a co-founder, with Anne Slepian, of More Than Money. He is a nationally-recognized writer, consultant, and presenter on issues of wealth and philanthropy. He also directs True Story Theater, a community-building theater company.

My father was from a working class family, and my mother grew up wealthy. As a child, the differences between my grandparents sometimes left me puzzled and sad. I loved my Friday-night sleepovers with my father's parents in their one-bedroom apartment in Queens, but was pained by their frequent worries about money. I loved it when my mother's parents took me with them on one of their annual overseas trips, yet I wondered why Margaret, their live-in housekeeper-whom I also loved-didn't join us in the dining room after serving the meal. My birthdays were among the rare occasions that all of us were in the same room. Our "togetherness" went only so far. And we never talked about why. We never had money conversations.

After college, I stumbled onto a group that changed my life: a residential social action community started by Quakers. There, we were encouraged to think of ourselves as life-long "social change agents" and to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to effect social change. Part of our homework was to look deeply and critically at different aspects of our identity. What does it mean that I'm a white, secular Jewish, U.S. male from an upper middle class background? How do I both accept who I am and reach out to other people who are different from me? That was when I began to have "money conversations" -with myself and others.

The national gatherings of this community were paid for via a remarkable, experimental group process called "cost sharing." Everyone at the gathering met in small groups with people of similar economic background. There, we were encouraged to disclose our past, current, and probable future financial situations. Knowing the average cost of the gathering per person (in 1980, about $200 for the week) and roughly how many people were in a given economic group, we were each challenged to come up with an amount that we judged as our fair share. Over several rounds of reflection and feedback, people of lower economic means were usually encouraged to decrease their pledges, while people of higher economic means were often challenged to contribute more. One woman was persuaded to withdraw her pledge of $100 and instead be reimbursed $100 as a token amount toward her childcare costs and lost wages. Another person increased his pledge from $400 to $2,000. I seriously sweated during this process. I wondered: If I were really giving my fair share, how much more should I be chipping in? I felt excited by the honesty and depth of these conversations. At the same time, I wasn't sure I ever wanted to do the process again. It brought up sticky questions about money, fairness, and how accountable we in this community were to each other.

After inheriting some money, I began to receive requests for loans, gifts, or grants-both from people I knew well in the community and from some I didn't. When was it OK to say no? When and why would I want to say yes? I found a few others in financial situations similar to mine, and we started to have more money conversations. Our meetings evolved into an occasional but ongoing discussion group that helped all of us feel less alone and clearer about what we wanted to do.

Another member of the group and I decided to write our "money autobiographies." We summoned up our courage and sent our few pages of prose to the other 140 people in the community, with an invitation to enter into more indepth discussion about class differences. To our surprise, many others sent out their money autobiographies, too. We read the money stories of people across the socioeconomic gamut: poor, working class, middle class, and wealthy. It was a powerful outpouring of personal stories that most in our community had not heard before. (Later, it was no scarier for me to speak of these same issues on Oprah than it had been to do so in this close community!)

The experience of living in an economically mixed community became a template for my adult life in the Boston suburbs. Twelve years ago, my partner, Anne, and I invited people in our immediate neighborhood to join us in an informal barter system. We began to organize monthly potlucks at people's homes, seasonal events (such as an annual talent show), and a neighborhood association to look after the local park, which had deteriorated. We have enjoyed organizing activities in our neighborhood that cost little, and so are accessible to a wide range of folks-events such as a free, shared-leadership dance class at the local church; or swaps to exchange clothing, meals, and child care. Such activities have transformed what felt like a neighborhood of strangers into what now feels like a community of friends.

Over time, not only have I grown more comfortable relating to people of different socio-economic backgrounds, I've also grown more able to discuss money and related issues openly as they arise. These conversations are not always easy, but they almost always strengthen my relationships. Whether I am in a community of place, affinity, or action, I've found that money is often an unspoken presence. Being able to talk about it with others has paved the way to more authentic, trusting, and enduring relationships.

Money Conversations How do you have a money conversation?

  • You may want to start by clarifying why you're having this conversation. (For example, "Janet, before we discuss your request for a personal loan, I'd like us to talk about what this brings up for each of us and how to protect our friendship. Our friendship is really important to me and I'm worried about what might happen between us if you're in a position of owing me money. Can we talk about that?")
  • Share your own feelings and experience.
  • Invite your conversation partner(s) to discuss their concerns and goals.
  • Discuss where you might go from here. How will you address any issues that were raised? Share relevant stories, tips, and resources.

Resources for Writing Your Money Autobiography

How Much Is Enough? Harness the Power of Your Money Story-And Change Your Life
By Pamela York Klainer, Ed.D.
(Basic Books, 2001)
Includes more than 30 thought-provoking questions to help you write a money autobiography.

A Woman's Book of Money & Spiritual Vision: Putting Your Financial Values into Spiritual Perspective
By Rosemary Williams and Joanne Kabak
(Innisfree Press, 2001)
Offers tools for creating an action plan-including writing a money autobiography-for aligning money, values, and spirituality.

Worth Living
Financial advisor Dick Wagner of Worth Living, LLC, offers an online Money Autobiography Questionnaire to help you understand your relationship to money. He suggests selecting three or four questions to write about. Available at: www.worthliving. com/forms/WLMoney.pdf

Ministry of Money
The Ministry of Money offers a free pamphlet titled "Guidelines for Writing your Money Autobiography." Available upon request by phone or online. 301-428-9560

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