The Money Question I Didn’t Expect

Posted on September 12, 2017

What I learned about the personal side of money by becoming the customer I design for


I’d like to share a story with you about how I uncovered some of my beliefs about money when I decided to do a Money Coaching session at our Capital One Cafe in San Francisco.

For those who don’t know, money coaching sessions are one-hour meetings with a professionally trained coach. Your coach walks you through questions to help you figure out how to accomplish a financial goal that you bring to discuss.

I’m an experience designer at Capital One, and with every decision I make, I remind myself that money is incredibly personal to people. If you would have told me before my session, “Money coaching might feel personal,” I would have responded that everything we do is personal, so money coaching would be no exception.

But the tables turned when I became the customer we design for. Now I really get it.

I first thought to sign up for a session because one of my superstar teammates poured her heart into helping to design the experience, and I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone: I’d check out what sounded like a really cool work project, and I’d learn something about money too. So, I set up the money coaching appointment for a Tuesday afternoon after work. What happened wasn’t exactly what I expected. In fact, It ended up shedding light on who I am as a person.

In my money coaching session, my coach—a warm woman named Janaki, whose demeanor told me she was also a disciplined woman—walked me through a series of questions to help me understand the “why” behind my goal and why I was seeking help with reaching it. You know, get to the root of my road block. My goal, by the way, was to get more comfortable talking about money with my husband, Brian, by getting a better handle on the specific details of our finances and long-term plans.

So, Janaki picked out an activity, or tool, to guide us, and she started with a clear, but deep, question:

“What beliefs do you have about money?”

I found I didn’t have a response. I should have this answer, I thought. Especially because I work for a bank. Especially because I’m married to a bonds trader-turned-economist.

Also, I consider myself a very independent and confident woman who knows herself. But I was dumbfounded.

“I … don’t know. What do you mean? Could you explain the question?”

She asked, “Well, what was money like in your family during childhood?”

It took me several long seconds before I blurted, “There was never enough of it!”

There was never enough of it.

I started crying and began wiping my tears away, because I was embarrassed with how I was responding to a simple question. I was unprepared for this. I mean, I was sitting in the middle of a cafe. I was still wearing my work badge.

Janaki reached across the table for the strategically placed pack of tissues and handed one to me, and asked, “What do you mean by that?”

“Well, my mom’s got disabilities, and I was sick a lot, and my dad was an artist who didn’t make a lot of money, and we just … always had bills.”

What I wasn’t mentioning was the flashback I had with her question, not just to all the arguments about money and disappointment about money, but the teasing. I remember during the 3rd grade I had two outfits that awkwardly fit that I wore throughout the week, every week, for several months, because we couldn’t afford to keep buying clothes to keep up with my growth spurts. For the most part, kids didn’t notice or care, but I did field a few comments like, “Why do you keep wearing that?” or, “Your pants are too short.”

I didn’t dare dwell on this with my parents though. This is because my mom told me stories throughout my childhood of what it was like growing up for her: she and her four sisters would split a can of corn for lunch, and they were often mistaken for each other because they took turns wearing the same outfits throughout the week. So, I wasn’t exactly going to say anything about my embarrassment over a couple inches of pants.

And, this was just part of our fabric.

All my grandparents were immigrants from Lithuania who used what money they had and sometimes sponsorships from others to come to the U.S. My dad’s father watched his parents get shot and killed by Nazis on their farm; he hid and fled the country. My grandmother cleaned factories. My other grandfather immigrated at the age of 18, without a degree and without parents but with eight younger siblings in tow.

Financial strife was the norm in our family. Although I can say that my mom was the only one of her sisters to get a degree—an associate’s nursing degree. Unfortunately, when she was 24, she was in a major car crash that broke her back, and she’s struggled physically and mentally ever since. She had to leave her nursing career behind. But, she married my dad, who was an amazingly talented artist—lettering, painting, sculpture, art restoration, you name it. He spent a lot of time working on a printing press.

But let me be clear: we were lower middle-class, and this was an accomplishment. There was always food on the table, and as we weathered my growth spurts and the constant medical bills, I still had more Barbies® than most girls in my neighborhood, which had gang fights that spilled into our front lawn, but was grounded in similar immigrant history.

So here I am, present day. I’m not an immigrant. I’m not a struggling artist—not by a long stretch. I’m not plagued by medical bills that drain our finances. I recently moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, a place that, let’s face it, you don’t move to for value or without financial stability.

But there I was in my money coaching session, facing Janaki, and telling her point-blank:

“I feel like there isn’t enough money. It’s ridiculous to say I’m struggling, but I feel like I am. I’m able to drink $4.60 cappuccinos every day—a luxury—yet I feel like I probably shouldn’t be drinking them.“

“But, there is enough money,” Janaki said. “It’s OK to say that.”

I’m acutely aware I have disposable income. But saying aloud, “There IS enough money,” draws a clear distinction between my family’s story and what’s become my own. And that’s difficult. Because I want to be a part of my family.

But I can let go of my family’s baggage.

I do have enough.

I’m not my grandparents. I’m not my mom and dad.

I just need to work on owning my own narrative as I get comfortable saying, “I have enough.”

And Janaki, in the middle of a Capital One Cafe in San Francisco, helped me realize that.

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Sara Zailskas Walsh, Content Strategist and Designer
Sara Zailskas Walsh is an experience designer for CapitalOne.com.

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