The author of New York Times bestseller Women Food and God lost her entire life’s savings in the Bernie Madoff scam. Since then, Geneen Roth has come to realize an ugly truth: For years, her relationship with money had been just as unhealthy as her relationship with food. She always wanted more of both, and yet no matter how many chocolates she ate or new boots she bought, they were never enough. The truth, she discovered, is that few people truly understand the real reasons they feel compelled to shop or eat, and that no matter how much one consumes it’s quite possible to still feel empty inside.
In her new book Lost and Found, Geneen Roth describes her own painful journey in the aftermath of the Madoff scandal, and offers insights as to why so many consumers just can’t help buying another pair of UGGs or hitting the fast-food drive-thru again. She answers my questions below.
Do you think the average person has a genuine understanding of why they buy the things they buy? How disengaged do you think people are to the real reasons they feel the need to buy shoes, or a sports car, or an iPad?
Geneen Roth: In the same way that we use food for emotional reasons, we use buying things to fill something that we can’t quite name. It takes some time to realize that we are attempting to buy something–self-esteem, rest, reassurance, contact with another person, to be left alone, etc–that can’t be bought at the store or on the Internet. So I’d have to say that no, most of us don’t understand why we buy what we buy. But although we really are disengaged from the real reasons we believe we need to have yet another pair of shoes or an iPad, we also know, from having bought “It” thing after “It” thing for years, that there really is no thing that is going to fill the hole. And I have great hope that once we name what is going on, it can change. Because if what we really want is happiness or contentment or rest, why not bypass the detour of spending and go straight for what we really want?
(Read: Q&A: Bad with Money? It’s Not Your Fault)
What do you think about the tips offered in many diet and personal finance books? Which, if any, do you personally find effective? What are the limitations of these books, or any tips for people hoping to improve their bodies or finances.
GR: Much of the financial advice is sound, effective and smart. The problem is not how good the advice is, but that, as with diet and nutrition advice, we can’t follow it until we become aware that we are using money (or food) for emotional reasons. When linear objective advice meets emotional needs, the latter always wins.
I could list the tips I find most effective, but then I’d be joining the ranks of advice-givers who assume that just because something makes sense, it’s easy to follow. As I wrote in Lost and Found, I’d been given good financial advice for years, but because I was guilty, fearful, and ashamed of myself around money, I couldn’t follow it!
So many problems seem to arise out of the fact that people are unaware of why they consume (either food or “stuff”). So how does one become more aware, more conscious of what’s truly compelling you to feel the need to hit the drive-thru or go shopping.
GR: The best place to start is where you are right now. Believe it or not, most of us aren’t interested in becoming more aware or conscious about what’s truly compelling us to turn to fast food or buying UGGS. We are afraid that we would find out things we don’t want to know or else, we’d have to give up doing what we believe brings us huge comfort. So we don’t want to know what we don’t know. Starting the process looks like being kind to yourself, and being curious about why you don’t want to know. And telling the truth about what you find out. If you can learn to be curious, kind, and honest, your whole relationship with money will change.
(Read: Q&A: The Year of No Clothing Purchases)
There are many comparisons in your book regarding what made you a problem eater and what caused you to make financial miscues. Do you think that you (and people in general) felt the need to binge on food for largely the same reasons you felt the desire to binge on handbags or clothing or new designer glasses? If the reasons are different, how are they different?
GR: For some, the reasons may be different, but for most of us, they are the same. We are one integrated system, and we express the things we believe through the various actions we take–like shopping, spending, and eating. If someone feels a lack of self-worth, this will manifest in many different areas of his or her life. Someone recently wrote an email to me saying: “I was feeling lonely so I ate a piece of cake, and that didn’t work, so I bought a new sweater, and that didn’t do it either. Now I don’t know what to do. Help!”
(Read: Q&A with Kate Bingaman-Burt, Artist and Author Behind ‘Obsessive Consumption’)
Why, when it comes to money, is it so easy for people to sacrifice their values by, say, investing in a company with dubious ethics? How is it that people can live so purposefully and morally in most of their lives, but then essentially endorse something they don’t believe in by steering their money in that direction?
GR: Most of us believe that the world of money and finance is so “out there,” so complicated and heady and out of our control, that we feel helpless and small and powerless where investing is concerned. We’ve bought the Wall Street credo that the bottom line is everything, and have forgotten that it’s our money–and more particularly, many hours of our lives that we spend making the money–that we then throw away in investments that don’t match our values. It’s as if we are living in a trance or a financial haze where we separate money from meaning, which allows us to make insane financial decisions. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The way I figure it is that if I, who lost every dollar to BM and had quite a crazy, abusive and painful relationship with money, can connect the dots and break the trance, anyone can! If one person can do it, each of us can do it. And since we seem to be on the brink of financial and ecological disasters of every kind unless many more of us wake up, the time is now.
(Read: Q&A with Andrew Benett, Author of ‘Consumed’)
Finally, what’s the latest on you and other Madoff investors getting any of your money back? What’s it looking like?
GR: Worse and worser. The majority of Madoff people I know were “indirects”–people who invested in funds. Anyone with $5,000 could invest in our fund, and no one I know is getting a dollar back.