Q&A: Scaling down could become new normal

Just ask Joe Lowrance. Or more accurately, tell Lowrance. The Atlanta psychologist has spent the last decade — arguably one of the more economically exhilarating and exhausting decades in recent memory — listening to and counseling people through the hail of financial bullets and insecurities. It hasn't been an easy conversation.

"We're much more ready to talk about sex or addiction than to have an involved conversation about money," he said. "It's OK to talk about how to make more money or complain about taxes. But more substantial conversations about our relationship with money and the role money plays in our lives are more difficult because of the social prohibition to talk openly and honestly."

Our relationship with money, Lowrance says, plays a significant role in our ability to develop and maintain healthy spending, saving, investing and giving habits.

The former home builder ventured into the mental health field's no man's land about 15 years ago to satisfy his own curiosity about people and their tenuous relationships to money. "In our culture, a lot of people measure themselves and others by material goods," he said.

As we emerge from the biggest shopping hangover of the year, Lowrance offers his take on our flighty money habits and the sobering decade from which we've just emerged.

Q. That's quite a career change you made, going from building houses to getting people to open up about money. What were you thinking?

A. I'd always had a long-standing interest in psychology and I decided I wanted to do something more people-oriented and I just decided I wanted to make that shift.

Q. Was it a difficult shift?

A. I went through a breakup of my marriage. I got into therapy personally [to deal with the divorce] and it rekindled my interest in psychology. It was at a time where I wanted to re-create my life and I decided I wanted to chart another course for myself.

Q. And then you had to go where most mental health professionals don't dare to tread — people's wallets. Your timing is impeccable.

A. I became interested during the course of my graduate school program. I really got curious watching CNBC when they talked about the psychology of the [stock] market. As I explored that, I began to learn more about money psychology.

Q. What did you learn?

A. I realized we all have a relationship with money. Our relationship with money is a part of our developmental process. Another thing I learned is money is very symbolic. It represents a lot of things — security, power, love, freedom and self-worth. As I was beginning to explore this, I realized how underserved money psychology is. It's not an issue that has historically received a lot of attention. ... It's almost an emerging area in the mental health field.

Q. The last two years have been unspeakably hard on many people. What have you noticed about people's attitudes about money? Have they changed?

A. This [recession] was a real shock to the entire population. ... People are still very concerned about their financial positions and what the future holds. Having said that, there's been a period of acclimation and digestion. My experience is that people have adapted to the economic climate in their personal situations to some degree. They realize this is a nationwide experience. So they're not alone in this. So there's not quite the pressure to consume like there was three or four years ago during the holidays. We're kind of in a new norm right now.

Q. How are people adapting?

A. They're not buying as much. They're not buying as expensive gifts. The kinds of parties and holiday get-togethers are more low-key and less elaborate. There's not the expectation among family members that the gifts be what they were three or four years ago.

Q. It's after the holidays now, which is often the big let-down for people.

A. People struggle in a variety of ways during the holidays. Some people struggle in anticipation of the holidays. So they enter into the holidays struggling. Once it's over, there's a period of relief. There's another group of people who get caught up in the holiday excitement and lose themselves in the spirit of things. They distract themselves in that kind of way. And once the holidays are over, they do kind of come down from all of that.

Q. How are people's attitudes about money different now than when you started your practice almost 10 years ago?

A. People felt wealthier than they do now. A lot of people felt [the good times] would never end, and they developed a lifestyle that was not necessarily prudent considering the intermediate- and long-term. So there's been a lot of spending practices that are beginning to haunt people now.

As a country, we have not done a particularly good job as savers and caretakers of financial self-care. ... Just as it's important to eat a healthy diet and get exercise, it's important to tend to your financial condition, and what that really means is to be able to take care of yourself in the short term and long run. To prepare for these goals is not an easy thing to do. So much of this comes back to our relationship with money. Are we able to stay rooted in these more fundamental needs we have versus getting caught up.

Q. Is there a certain group or personality that does better in rough economic times?

A. It really gets down to the individual. There are some people who grow up with frugal parents who adopt similar behavior, but others who grow up similarly who rebel and spend more freely. At the end of the day, in working with clients, you have to explore their history to help them understand the role money plays in their lives. It's multifaceted.

Q. This recession seems to be a perfect opportunity to teach our children about money. Are we doing that? Are you seeing that in your practice?

A. My impression is that some of the discussions are being fostered by the children. Children are very intuitive. They typically can sense when something's problematic in the household. A lot of kids are being impacted directly and indirectly. You hear that we're entering into an era where people will be more frugal. It'll be interesting to see if that's true. That may be a good thing if that's the case.

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