Inspired living

How your attitude towards money and food reflects your mental state

Woman buying food in a cafe

Credit: Unsplash

Several years ago when bestselling author Geneen Roth picked up the phone and was told that her entire life savings, her retirement nest egg of over $1,000,000, had been lost in the infamous Ponzi scheme, she didn’t believe it. This didn’t happen to people like her; she was one of the special ones, immune to such disasters.

With her book Women, Food and God catapulted to Oprah book club fame, and enlisted as Oprah’s personal “mindful eater” coach, Roth was an international speaker and luminary on how we engage with food. Her bold premise, that the relationship we have with food is in direct correlation to our sense of ourselves, our self-worth and our spirituality, struck a strong chord with women. Sharing her story of 17 years of dieting and anorexia, Roth told readers how becoming aware of the underlying reasons for her dysfunctional eating — low self-esteem and a need for love — was a doorway that shone a light on all the ways in her life that she lived unconsciously.

Food, according to Roth, brings the world to your plate. For her, it was an “unexpected path to almost everything”. Everything, it seemed, except money. In the subsequent weeks of shock and grief and questioning after the bombshell, Roth painfully realised that it was perhaps her even murkier relationship to money that led her to entrust 30 years of savings to a conman and that, through confronting this shady arena, she found riches beyond what she had lost.

Roth acknowledged that, while she had healed the binge-and-diet food patterns, they resurfaced in binge spending and reactive over-budgeting.

In her latest book, Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations about Food and Money, Roth takes us with her on the journey down the rabbit hole, exposing all the ways in which she used money, as she once did food. She acknowledged that, while she had healed the binge-and-diet food patterns, they resurfaced in binge spending and reactive over-budgeting. The same childhood belief of never having enough that used to manifest in over-eating was present still in the way she hid, stockpiled and accumulated wealth, in how she turned a blind eye to where her money was invested despite her publicly espoused ideal of ethical choices.

She found the same guilt-ridden attitude attached to money that used to accompany food: that she wasn’t meant to have it or spend it. Spending money on herself felt like she was breaking the law, akin to the feeling she had when stuffing granola into her mouth when suffering anorexia. Down that dark tunnel Roth realised that, just as she formerly looked for love in food, so did she similarly equate her self worth to her net worth. It was a tough way to learn some good home truths.

Unsurprisingly, Roth found she wasn’t the only one. Just as she claimed that nearly all Westerners have a “shtick” with food, her forays into people’s pockets found that so too do we often harbour quirks with money in parallel with our food habits.

So what is your “schtick”? Are you a swinger, indulging in periods of excess spending and eating followed by deprivation? Do your bank balance and waistline fluctuate simultaneously? Are you a hoarder, stockpiling the larder and the bank account for the rainy day that never comes? Do you budget your money as tightly as the bread on your plate? Do you fad binge, eating and spending according to the latest fashion? Does a trip to the shops turn into a supermarket sweep similar to a good “tidy-up” of the fridge?

According to Roth, while there are as many ways to use and abuse food and money as there are chocolate biscuits on the supermarket shelf, it can broadly be whittled down to two types of compulsive tendencies: permitting and restricting. While permitters numb themselves in a fog of overeating and overspending, restrictors search for a sense of control by curbing food consumption and spending, with the pendulum often swinging between extremes.

Sales assistant Olivia finds that her compulsive “grazing” with both food and money creates the illusion that she isn’t really consuming past her means. “I am constantly slicing the tiniest edge off a cake, or eating the broken crumbs from a biscuit tin, telling myself they don’t count, in the same way that I spend money on small items or pay off lay-bys in small increments. Somehow this makes me feel like I’m not eating and spending continuously — but my credit card bill and weight tell another story!”

Jane, a primary school teacher, experiences the same emotional high when she is eating food she deems contraband, as when she is buying something she doesn’t need. “My heart will literally be racing as I anticipate buying and wearing the piece of clothing or handbag I am trying on. This high lasts a few hours until I get home and then when it wears off I’ll find myself looking in the fridge for something to give me the ‘up’ again. It’s like I’m addicted.”

So why do we do it? For Roth, it can all be traced back to an absence of love, to a devalued sense of self worth. Through food and money we often play out all the ways we weren’t given love, or affection, or attention, or nurture — substituting shopping and eating for the real thing. We may feel we deserve to have the best because we weren’t given it as a child and so over-indulge or vice versa. If our lives are empty of purpose and meaning we try to fill them up with chocolate donuts and bags bursting with new shoes.

“Our economic system is centred around growth and actively encourages people to spend. ... From very young, our identities are caught up with what we do or don’t own — the perfect breeding ground for a spending habit.”

While this coupling is well recognised in eating disorders, money diets have been given short shrift in the media and therefore often go undetected. While Jemma’s long-term bulimia was being treated by health professionals, no one noticed she had developed into a financial bulimic.

“I would go into stores and buy hundreds of dollars worth of clothes and techno gadgets and then get home and feel incredibly guilty and return them the next day. It didn’t occur to me for years that this had just replaced the same binge and purge pattern as my bulimia. Both impulses arose when I was feeling empty. Shopping and eating would make me feel temporarily alive. There was the excitement of the hunt, whether a chocolate bar or shoes, the pleasure of buying or eating, and then the bone-crushing guilt that would follow with the realisation of what I had just consumed.”

Psychologist Peter Chown concurs with Roth’s theory that these patterns with food and money are coping mechanisms to help deal with emotional distress and manifest in a variety of often paralleled ways. “Binge spending and eating usually stem from a desire to fill an internal emptiness, a lack of meaning or purpose. Portion control and budgetary deprivation is more driven by anxiety — making decisions about food and money give them a sense of control over their lives that they may unconsciously feel they don’t have.

“Both are expressions of using food and money as a form of protection from emotional vulnerability, as a distraction from the underlying issue,” continues Chown. “They are crude ways to self-regulate or self-soothe a difficult emotion. They are both, in the end, forms of addiction, just like drugs or gambling.”

One key difference between the two, according to Chown, is that overspending is a much more socially sanctioned form of addiction. “Our economic system is centred around growth and actively encourages people to spend. Working mainly with adolescents I see the enormous social pressure on them to have the right clothes and technological gadgets. From very young, our identities are caught up with what we do or don’t own — the perfect breeding ground for a spending habit.”

According to Chown, the first step towards healing is to admit there is a problem and begin to look beneath for what is fuelling it. With the help of a health professional, the emotional material can be explored, as well as alternative methods to cope. “Even mild forms of addiction are deeply entrenched defence mechanisms and so there is a tendency to deny there is an issue because we don’t want to face what lies beneath.

“Once you take the first step and talk to family or friends, or a health professional, often facing the underlying emotion is not nearly as bad as the suffering caused by the obsession itself. Issues around food and money can actually be a great opportunity to heal and grow by initiating an internal self-examination,” says Chown.

It has taken artist Emilie over a decade since her anorexic teen years to be able to accept the gifts that her issues with food and money have opened for her. “I’ve always ridden an emotional rollercoaster — massive highs followed by deep depressions. Binge eating and spending were a big part of how it manifested. I would spend and eat to fill a hole, to give me a sense of control that I could do something to improve my life. The irony with compulsive overeating is you think at the time you’re taking control but you really aren’t; you’re losing yourself in unconscious patterns.

“The difference now is that when I am doing it, I am aware that it is emotionally driven, that it is a replacement for love. I’m aware that I’m trying to eat love, intimacy, God, family. With money it is the same: I am trying to invest in all these things and yet I know that I just want to be loved.”

The shift for Emilie came with her decision to practise acceptance of herself, “warts and all”, leading her to a much deeper level of self-awareness and self-appreciation.

The shift for Emilie came with her decision to practise acceptance of herself, “warts and all”, leading her to a much deeper level of self-awareness and self-appreciation. Without any effort, Emilie’s patterns have started to shift. “A few months back, I latched onto the latest fad for vital greens. But I didn’t just go and buy one bottle — I bought barley greens, spirulina, kelp, algae, everything. At the check-out it came to hundreds of dollars and as I was pulling out my money I knew that I was trying to buy a solution for an emotional problem. But I just laughed at myself and the guilt disappeared. At least when I overspend it’s usually on my health!

“I’m accepting myself so much more now and that’s where the real healing is. Rather than beating myself up that I’ve made myself sick or I’ve spent all my money, I look for love and joy in my life. Less food, more God.”

The cataclysmic event of losing everything has also been a cloud lined with silver for Geneen Roth. Realising the horror and grief she experienced in the following weeks was actually a product of her mind engaging in “what ifs” and disaster scenarios rather than any real suffering caused by the loss of money itself, Roth returned with fervour to her spiritual practice of present centredness.

“In this moment, when I began paying attention to what I did have instead of what I didn’t, there was a constant, unavoidable display of gorgeousness everywhere, anywhere,” she writes. Choosing to be wholly in every moment, Roth found renewed appreciation for her husband, experienced heartfelt gratitude for friends and family and began a practice of giving money away.

“When we spend as much time investing in our inner lives as we do in getting and having more, how we live on this Earth and inside our bodies will change.” Although she has had to learn the hard way, Roth concedes she is now living proof of the statement by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh that out of the garbage comes flowers — the more garbage is revealed, the more flowers can grow.


Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild, available in bookshops and online.