MONEY, MONEY. What an all-purpose container, what a dump. Upon this dumping ground we play out the mortal combats of marriage, the rages of divorce, the lusts of power and vengeance, the lifelong grievances of childhood, all those fevered games, and we insist that the currency is dollars and cents. Sometimes we even believe it; we do not like to see ourselves in metaphors. Yet nothing else is so rarely about what it is ostensibly about as anything that is ostensibly about money.
Consider the cheapskate: a subject of jokes, an amusing figure in our culture, unless you have to live with one. Cheapness significant enough in its degree and its consistency to be generally recognized as cheapness has far more to do with the psyche than the wallet.
A friend recently told me this story: A man whom she and her husband had often entertained, and who had never himself been known to pick up a check, suddenly invited them out to dinner. He took them to a posh restaurant, ordered lavishly and then when the check arrived announced that he had forgotten his wallet. Stunned again. Never mind, they said, wanting only to be done and out; they would take the bill. "And then he said, 'Well, OK. But if you are paying, please be sure to leave a good tip because they know me here.' That cheapskate."
Dedicated cheapskatery on this scale often has a kind of pathology wrapped in it, though there are forms that seem culturally conditioned. Someone who was born and raised a kind of Old Rich, as in Boston Brahmin, may have a pride of frugality -- a mind-set going back to the Puritan idea that it is sinful to spend and buy. Someone born poor and raised poor may never have been able to break the habits of poverty. But such people can exercise strong moral discretion: My father would drive miles out of his way to save 2 cents on a gallon of gas, but he would have given all he had to help a friend.
Then there is strategic cheapness -- a behavior used in certain situations, such as a job or with certain people, such as a former spouse, to convey feelings too hot for words.
But for the hard-core cheapskate this is no situational strategy. It is a strategy for life and such people typically hoard not just money but everything, including their sympathy, their praise, their love, "doling out to others with a coffee spoon," as psychiatrist Willard Gaylin, president of the Hastings Center in New York, says, "because they themselves have always felt deprived, shortchanged -- insufficiently nurtured in some way. They feel they have little to give because they themselves were given so little."
Gaylin recalls such a patient, a man who kept insisting through treatment that he had never gotten a fair share of anything in childhood, his brothers and sisters always having been given more. "Once he brought in a faded picture, dating back to when he had been 4 or 5 years old. He wanted me to see, as proof of his complaint, that his brother's Easter basket had been bigger than his own."
These are typically people whose hands freeze when the check arrives; who borrow money and forget to repay it; who often accuse other people of miserliness; who frequently say, "I am always giving," and who even more frequently say, "It is not the money, it is the principle of the thing."
The principle of the thing, largely unconscious, may be one of entitlement: I should not have to pick up tabs, the world owes me. Or it may be one of dependency and hostility: I need to be taken care of because nobody ever took good care of me, and you will pay for it.
"It is an aggressive act carried out passively," says Dr. Edward D. Joseph of Mount Sinai School of
Medicine in New York and president of the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. "The tab gets laid on the table and these people do not move. That is passive behavior, but look what is achieved! They are maneuvering, controlling, getting the better of an opponent -- but at the same time being taken care of."
Feelings of dependency and entitlement are often forced into the open early in psychotherapy through the very medium of money: the doctor's bills. "The way the patient pays or does not pay -- or pays reluctantly, with an attitude of resentment: 'Why should I have to pay for this treatment? I deserve it, I need it, I want it' -- all this is a symptom of underlying issues," says Joseph.
Cheapskates and their seemingly opposite numbers, big spenders, are a dinner date made in heaven, but they may not be opposites at all. Such compulsive generosity may be a way of denying a desire to withhold. Joseph makes a comparison to anorexia and obesity: They look wildly different, but a therapist may find the same inner conflicts, as is often the case with seemingly polar-opposite behaviors.
There is also the endlessly acquiring type of big spender, "building the $20 million houses," says Gaylin, "filling up a dreadful hole of anxiety with mountains of security. Or we find another dynamic -- the compulsive spender may feel guilty for having been a depriver, having been more nurtured than his siblings. Such people may become very generous -- to compensate."
All this is mostly outside of consciousness. Compulsive spenders usually see themselves as benign, if not innocent ("Why?" I once asked a man who had 12 nearly identical and very expensive gray suits hanging in his closet, and he had the grace to say, "Because it makes me feel good"), and most cheapskates manage to see themselves as commendably frugal. But therapists find that exploration often leads to the symbolic meaning of money in this person's life: holding, withholding, loving and being loved.
Cheapness tends to become more so with age, and here the metaphors circle like buzzards: I have not got that much left, I had better conserve, I had better close down, if I run out of money I have had it. "Others say, 'Look, what am I saving it for? How much longer do I have? I might as well spend it,'" says Joseph. "The difference is that those who feel more bereft, who feel their losses more keenly as they age, are the ones with a shakier self-image." And these are the ones more likely to tighten their aging knuckles around their money.
In strictly Freudian terms cheapness is all about what psychoanalysts call the Potty Scenario. But hardly anyone analyzes anything anymore in strictly Freudian terms. "A growing body of thought connects such behaviors to constitution, genetics, temperament," Gunderson says. "We think of the temperamental part of the person . . . someone who is just naturally tight, constricted, orderly, as opposed to someone who is more effusive, outgoing, open, expressive . . . and these kinds of genetic differences may be more determining than the issue of retention." Probably, he says, it is an interaction -- as therapists seem to say so often these days -- between the environmental and the biologically predetermined.
And biology is not, in this sense, destiny; temperaments are not static. "Looking at character types is like looking at a caterpillar," says psychiatrist George E. Vaillant of the Dartmouth School of Medicine in Hanover, N.H. "Just looking at them, knowing nothing about them except the way they now behave, we do not know what they were before or what they may become. A miser may die with his money still hidden in the mattress. But who knows? He may become Andrew Carnegie late in life. People change, people grow."
So, then, frozen hands may thaw out; hell may freeze over; the fellow who stuck my friends with a check may one day become a big spender. But, big bettor that I am, I am not betting on it.