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(Joe Raedle/2008 Getty Images)
(Joe Raedle/2008 Getty Images)

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I need financial therapy Add to ...

A few weeks ago, I went to one of my favourite clothing boutiques to look for a new winter coat. The lining of the coat I'd worn for four years had torn in so many places that it would cost nearly as much to repair as to replace. I quickly found a coat that fit well - a dove gray, knee-length number - and it was priced right at 50 per cent off. As I went to pay, proffering my credit card to the saleswoman, panic set in.

I felt a rush of fear at the thought of spending money I've been trying so hard to save. Perhaps I could find a cheaper coat elsewhere. Or I could make do with my old coat for another year. Maybe, I frantically reached, I could learn how to properly sew and reline the coat myself.

The new garment had already been wrapped in hot pink tissue paper, but I couldn't complete the transaction. I actually found it a little hard to breathe.

Leaving the store empty-handed, I was relieved but concerned. Do normal people have panic attacks at cash registers?

I called my mother to verify my sanity. She commiserated. She had many panic-stricken shopping outings when she was around my age. "There was always something I needed to buy for my growing kids, so I would put off buying things for myself."

I remember those days well. When it was time to shop for new clothes, my normally relaxed mom would get anxious, her expression becoming tight and pinched. She treated trips to the mall like dangerous missions from which we might not safely return.

Upon reflection, it's not hard to see how my mother's spending fears left its mark on my psyche. I know it's unfair to blame our parents for our neuroses. Yet I can't help but wonder to what degree our adult relationships with money are shaped by our childhood experiences.

A friend of mine is convinced she's been financially scarred by her mother. Their mother-daughter shopping expeditions were fraught with guilt and terror.

"If my mother was paying for the clothes with a credit card, she would tell me that she wouldn't be able to pay the statement that month," she recalls. "It was worse if she paid with a debit card. Then she would say that all of her cheques would bounce."

Today, my friend is unable to spend more than $200 at a time and has to rely on her husband to manage their household bills. She knows her attitude is unhealthy and regrets its effect on her own young family, but she can't shake the fear of spending.

Many of us have dysfunctional relationships with money, suggest Dr. Brad Klontz and Dr. Ted Klontz in their book Mind Over Money: Overcoming the Money Disorders that Threaten Our Financial Health.

The father and son doctors believe that our irrational financial attitudes aren't our fault - they are a product of subconscious beliefs and thought patterns rooted in our childhoods.

"When we see the people around us reacting to money in certain ways, we internalize that information, which leaves a lasting imprint on us, especially in our most impressionable years," they write. These early experiences shape the way we deal with money our entire adult lives.

According to the Klontzes, our money disorders, such as financial infidelity or compulsive shopping, cannot be cured through well-intentioned advice from financial professionals. We need financial therapy. We must learn to recognize our negative and self-defeating patterns of thinking, and replace them with better, healthier ones.

I'm curious as to how the good doctors would diagnose Bernie Madoff or the bankers who came up with the sub-prime mortgage concept. Maybe their parents were too stingy with their allowances.

In any case, I'm pleased to report that these days my mother is much more comfortable with money. She spends more on herself now, taking pleasure in new clothes and shoes. She was even kind enough to buy me the dove gray coat for my birthday. Perhaps I just have to wait to outgrow my financial neurosis.

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