A sober friend once told me that her relationship with food used to reflect the relationship she once had with money. At the time of our conversation, my behavior and thinking around money had me wearing overstretched undies and a tattered bra long into my recovery from an unhealthy relationship with food and alcohol. So, needless to say, I wasn’t surprised by my friend’s statement. 

The funny thing was that at the time of the conversation, I had a great job, owned a home, and was successful. And yet I was in constant fear that I wouldn’t have enough and that, if I could only get enough, then I could stop worrying and start living. It reminded me of my old mindset around food and my body. If I could just lose enough weight, hit the right number on the scale, I could start living, I thought. It was ironic, really. I was depriving myself in order to have a chance at a more fulfilling life while I was actually the one making my world smaller. To put another way: I was under-living in hopes that my under-living would somehow make my world larger. 

I was under-living in hopes that my under-living would somehow make my world larger. 

For decades, my relationship with food was messy and incredibly time-consuming. Either I was on a strict diet, calculating every calorie and compensating for it, or I had officially hit the “fuck it” button and truly believed, like Pac-Man, I could eat the world. I’ll start over tomorrow, I’d promise myself. And while I did start over, food continued to dominate me until I stopped trying to control it and instead focused on having a relationship with it. 

The same could be said about alcohol, and now it seems it could be said about money. But here’s the thing: In recovery, I’ve become wary of anything I try to control — especially when that need to control is driven by fear. I have also learned that the very thing I am obsessing over is never the actual issue but rather my relationship to it. When I focus on controlling, I am making my world smaller. It’s the very thing I wanted to end in my recovery. 

So I did what I knew best to do; I started to find ways to rebuild my relationship with money, just like I had previously done with food and alcohol. 

I first pursued recovery because my world had become so small that I couldn’t breathe. The eating disorder was dictating my every thought and killing my dreams in the process. I was under-being and under-living.

Under-living is not what I want my recovery to be about. So I did what I knew best to do; I started to find ways to rebuild my relationship with money, just like I had previously done with food and alcohol. Until I became willing to interact with money differently, it would always have an unhealthy hold over me.

I called my sober friend and asked her what she did about her food/money realization. These are the five steps that I used to build a healthier relationship with money and to start intentionally living.

1. Gain clarity on monthly expenses.

It’s important to note that clarity is different from control. Clarity is based on non-judgment of the truth. Control is about dominating the narrative so we feel better. For several months, I started keeping track of everything I spent. I didn’t stop buying anything or even question my spending — for now, I was just keeping track of it. 

2. Review spending.

After I had kept track of spending for a few months, I had a clear understanding of what our family spent our money on, and what we didn’t spend money on too. I learned that we spent most of our money on food and our mortgage. I found that I spent very little on self-care and entertainment, only bought clothes for myself if they were for work, and had no real savings plan. I also learned what it took to really run a household of four, which in turn encouraged me to ask my employers for more realistic compensation. 

3. Say “no” to restricting and bingeing.

Over the years, I have created a budget that includes cosmetics, clothing, vacation, education, even Botox. I do not spend what I do not have, but I do make sure that my needs and wants are covered. If I can’t afford this every month, I have a savings plan in place so I can buy something just for myself every three to four months.

4. Commit to living debt-free.

My friend advised me to not throw all my money at debt to get rid of it. For so long, I had the mentality that if I could just pay off the debt, I could then spend all the money I had been putting toward debt on things I wanted. Kind of like a diet, it doesn’t work. I’d binge before the diet had a chance to work. Instead, my focus shifted to not acquire any more debt. I’d add my debt to my budget, just like I did the education and Botox. 

5. Add joy to the budget.

My budget has become about so much more than money. It represents how much I am willing to grab hold of life and live fully. It represents balance, as opposed to an all-or-nothing mindset. No matter how big or small the amount of money we have, there is always room to include joy. See #3 for some of the things I added to my budget that bring me joy.

Over the years, the above steps have helped me get out of debt, go on many cash-only vacations, and travel the country with my family, plus wear nice underwear. But mostly, these steps have helped me to intentionally live, and live big. 

Just as my friend once shared the correlation between money and food, I’ll add the following to her statement and say: Our relationship with anything or anyone will tell us volumes about our relationship with ourselves and our current state of living. At any time, we get to build a different relationship to money, and in turn, create a richer existence for ourselves — one we ultimately went into recovery to find.