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Mary (not her real name) was anxious. She and her husband had separated, and now she was going to have to manage her own money for the first time in her life. In all her years of marriage, she had never paid a bill or learned to balance a checkbook — and she had a history of emotional spending. She knew she needed help, but she had no clue where to start.

When Bari Tessler, founder of the San Francisco–based financial counseling company Conscious Bookkeeping, learned about Mary after one of her firm’s seminars, she recommended some private counseling sessions with a member of her company. After nine months of hard work, Mary, who is in her mid-50s, went from having zero money skills to skillfully managing her checkbook.

Tessler suggests that Mary is not all that unusual. Most of us keep financial secrets — from overdue bills to overwhelming credit-card debt to a dearth of basic money-management skills — because we’re afraid we’ll be judged as immature, irresponsible or worse. As a result, these harmful financial habits can become unconscious, and thus even harder to break.

Because these patterns have such a powerful influence on our behavior, Tessler suggests that cultivating a more conscious relationship to money is the best way to avoid financial trouble. For her, financial awareness is both personal and practical — it involves studying your own money history, as well as learning strategies for better bookkeeping habits. If you’re notoriously averse to bookkeeping and want to change your ways, this program’s holistic approach to money management might be just the place to start.

Consciousness Raising

With a graduate degree in psychotherapy, Tessler left Naropa University in Boulder, Colo., in 1998, having scrutinized her own life and her relationship with her parents and siblings. She thought she understood herself thoroughly. Then her $60,000 student-loan bill came due. Working a job that paid $11 an hour, Tessler quickly realized she couldn’t afford to repay her debt, work in her field and support her larger value system. The one relationship she did not understand was with money.

With her debt looming, Tessler knew she had a lot to learn. So she went to work teaching herself basic financial skills and launched her own bookkeeping service. Then, in 2001, she founded Conscious Bookkeeping to combine what she knew about psychology and basic accounting —  and to pass that knowledge on to others.

As a bookkeeping training service, Conscious Bookkeeping has the practical objective of teaching people how to manage their financial resources — they offer everything from coaches who will train you in the computer bookkeeping programs Quicken and QuickBooks, to consultations with advanced financial coaches. But its broader mission is to help clients better understand their personal relationship with money so they can overcome self-defeating patterns and manifest their money-related goals.

Tessler believes our relationship with money is emotional — connected to our feelings about the past, present and future. So, a full third of the Conscious Bookkeeping program is devoted to financial therapy, or sorting through past and present beliefs to understand why we relate to money the way we do. Bringing these unexamined beliefs to light can be the first step to transforming stubborn patterns, like overspending on credit or bouncing checks.

An unconscious relationship to money also removes us from the present moment, she explains. The shame that can result from owing back taxes or a late charge on a credit-card bill will trap at least some of your energy in the past. In these cases, Conscious Bookkeeping counselors might suggest reframing your perception of the bill to recognize its present value — maybe college loans helped you get the job you love today, for instance. This new perspective can turn a feeling of entrapment into a more comfortable and energizing sense of acceptance or appreciation, making you more likely to pay the debt.

One grateful client who’s paying off a batch of long-ignored back taxes credits this systematic cleanup of past “blockage” with helping her feel “caught up to the present.” She says she wasn’t aware of how much her debts had been depressing her energy until that burden began to lighten. Better yet, it was her own evolving skill set that was making it all possible. Trading ignorance and procrastination for financial awareness and action wasn’t always easy, she says, but it was worth the effort. Soon she’ll be free to focus solely on present bookkeeping and future visioning.

Mapping Your Intentions

Conscious Bookkeeping courses also include training in life visioning, because organizing finances is a lot more appealing when it’s visibly connected to our present and future desires. Rather than designing a budget, coaches help you create a “map of intention” with categories that represent your personal values.

Instead of conventional budget categories, you might have columns called “physical health,” “comfortable home” or even “living in the present,” where you place your current expenses and old debts, reminding yourself that each expenditure is an investment in something you value.

Every time you do the books, you get to measure your investment in your own value system, balance your real-life priorities and track your progress toward future goals.  Daily spending becomes more intentional, less reactionary. Some clients even claim that the once odious process of bill paying has become fun.

Finding Your Balance

There are as many kinds of fiscal success as there are different kinds of people, says Tessler. For some, it’s growing a thriving business, while others define it as a sense of financial ease.

Similarly, there’s no single correct formula for doing the books and no end product that’s right for everyone, which is why the firm offers a variety of approaches — from group classes teaching basic bookkeeping principles to individual consulting focusing on one specific area. The company also offers phone sessions for private coaching and consulting, as well as free introductory telecourses for anyone outside of California.

Mary, the woman who had never paid a bill, began working with a Conscious Bookkeeping financial consultant and coach, and nine months later she was successfully managing her own finances. Her newfound confidence allowed her to reconcile with her estranged husband, with whom she eventually reunited.

Having overcome her financial helplessness, Mary no longer used money as a tool to punish her husband. The family’s finances instead became a shared responsibility. Her conscious relationship to money — while not making her rich — did make her feel more empowered and happy, which freed her to be an equal partner in her marriage.

For many of us, taking a more conscious approach to our finances can balance a whole lot more than the books.

For class listings and more information visit www.consciousbookkeeping.com.

Mindful Finances

Conscious Bookkeeping proposes a threefold path toward a more engaged, mindful relationship with money:

  1. Financial therapy. Many of us “check out” when it comes to financial matters because of unconscious beliefs about money we developed as kids, like scarcity thinking or a fear of appearing greedy. Working with a counselor who can help make these beliefs conscious can significantly improve your money-related decisions.
  2. Bookkeeping Training. Using a system like Quicken or QuickBooks — bookkeeping programs for your home computer — is a pragmatic way to track your income, spending and investments, and to stay awake to what’s happening with your money. If you need it, Conscious Bookkeeping offers over-the-phone training to help you learn these programs.
  3. Life Visioning. Manifesting your goals requires lining up your resources to support them. Reconceiving your budget as a “map of intention” helps to keep your values and goals aligned with your earning and spending.

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