Mind Over Money – Hoarding Excerpt

Published on 02 June 2010 by

Category: Excerpts, Updates



The animal kingdom gives us many metaphors for human hoarding, including “squirreling things away.” But squirrels often lose track of just where those treasures are buried and so we at least get new, nut-bearing trees out of the deal. Human hoarding has few such benefits.

Compulsive hoarding is another example of an otherwise positive behavior—saving—taken to unhealthy extremes. It’s good to save money, but it’s also necessary to spend it. It’s also good to have extra toilet paper on hand, but not stacked to the ceiling. Hoarding behavior can take various forms. For some it is enough to simply hoard money; others have a compulsion to hoard various—and oftentimes bizarre—objects.

Some compulsive hoarders are overspenders or compulsive buyers, but the key difference is that it is the accumulation of the stockpile of objects, not the act of buying or spending, that provides the hoarders with safety, security, and relief of anxiety. No matter how useless the objects seem to others, compulsive hoarders are emotionally attached to their possessions—be they magazines, $100 bills, or Mickey Mouse figurines—and become anxious or overwhelmed at the thought of getting rid of them. If you know a hoarder, you probably know how hard it is to get them to throw or give anything away. Even while the clutter and out-of-control accumulation may cause embarrassment and shame—since hoarders are aware that their anxiety and hoarding behaviors are unreasonable–objects become stand-ins for love, affection, or whatever is missing in that person’s life. This is why hoarders feel such irrational attachment to their possessions. For the hoarder, these are not just objects. They have emotional meaning.

Hoarders may protect their possessions by creating “secret stashes” hidden from family, or they may refuse to allow anyone inside the house to see—and judge—the mess. Hoarders also feel a kind of responsibility toward their objects, believing that simply throwing the stuff away would be an act of treachery. In the hoarder’s home, the clutter of accumulated objects intrudes on the simple actions of daily living. At its extreme, hoarding makes a home unsafe and unusable: beds and chairs inaccessible, doorways blocked, floors entirely covered.

It’s difficult to pinpoint a definitive cause of compulsive hoarding. There’s some evidence that it has a genetic component, and can be a symptom of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Among the people we see in our practice, hoarders often have a history of childhood scarcity, childhood abandonment or betrayal, or both. For instance, hoarding behavior is common in foster children who come into their foster or adoptive homes from situations of extreme deprivation. We have worked with many foster and adoptive children who kept food hidden in their room, despite having unhindered access to full refrigerators and pantries. Their early experiences taught them that there was never enough to eat, so they developed anxieties over running out and going hungry—anxieties that persisted even after this was no longer a rational worry.

One child had a more unusual hoarding compulsion. He collected and stole over a dozen cell phones from friends and family members and hid them in his room. Many of the phones were broken and none were activated; they were useless to him as phones, but in his mind they were extremely important nonetheless.

Remember Bridget from the introduction? Abandoned by her mother, she was adopted into a loving but unstable family. As a child, she demonstrated classic hoarding behavior.

bridget: As a small child I would hide money in places around my room. If I got money as Christmas presents or birthday presents, it was always a very small amount and I would squirrel it away. I became very miser-like in my dealings with money. At the same time, I became very suspicious of people who had money. My parents were always very critical of people who had money. They would assert that those people got their money by some less than desirable means.  They would make comments like, “They can act that way because they have money.” Or, “Oh, the only reason you’d want to be friends with that person is because they have money and you don’t.”

Bridget outgrew her childhood hoarding behavior, as many children do. But even though she was longer compelled to keep a stash of hidden coins, her emotional relationship with money remained troubled; she associated money with both security and shame.

Like financial disorders in general, hoarding behavior can be triggered by events far less dramatic that parental abandonment. Lewis had a privileged upbringing, yet he often felt emotionally distant from his parents. As a child, he learned that he could connect with them through their interest in collecting. As an adult, this comforting emotional association with objects continued. Lewis’s collecting soon outdid his parents’, to the point that his friends and family teased him about it. He collected everything: art, sculpture, old sinks, old mirrors, used furniture, used pots and pans, walking sticks, newspapers—everything.

lewis: Mother and Daddy collected things. They took me with them out into the country or antique shops and I was a little bitty boy, pretty rambunctious, and so they started me collecting little glass jars that mustard used to come in. They sold for a nickel or a dime. That gave me something in the store to look for and kept me busy and out of trouble. It always felt relaxing to me as an adult to go collecting things. It was a good way to unwind. So I took collecting to an abnormal level.

I believe that stems too from my father being sort of a hoarder. During World War II there were things that were hard to find, sugar or canned pineapple, things like that. Throughout my life my father always bought things in bulk, toilet paper, canned goods and that type of thing. He never talked about running out. His behaviors were just accepted, though other people in the family would make fun of his habits behind his back. Just like my family made fun of mine. I think I learned some of those behaviors from him.

Though Lewis himself didn’t experience the tumultuous and economically strained years of economic collapse and wartime scarcity, he was still influenced by those times, since he observed and imitated his father’s behavior. As we discussed in chapter three, the economic experiences of childhood form the financial habits we cling to into adulthood. The Great Depression and the wartime shortages that followed created many compulsive hoarders: people who washed and saved used aluminum foil, stashed hundred-dollar bills in coffee cans hidden all over the house, and mistrusted and avoided financial institutions for decades. Let’s hope the current financial situation doesn’t end up creating another generation, or more, of compulsive hoarders.


No Responses to “Mind Over Money – Hoarding Excerpt”

  1. Neil says:

    I know a security guard who banked $75,000 in 2.5 years despite making only 12-13.5 dollars per hour doing some overtime. Despite his low pay, he banked this much by spending very little that he used soup kitchens, free tissue and toilet paper from McDonalds and Starbucks, going to food banks and couch surfing at various friends homes telling them that he is broke.

  2. Marigold says:

    I read this article because I think I may be a money hoarder. I don’t want to be like this. My children are starting to notice. They think I’m mean. I’m scared of money, too. If I do a job for someone I find if difficult to charge a fee. Te way I am makes no sense to me. I’d love someone to fathom this out for me.

  3. […] Mind Over Money Hoarding Excerpt | Your Mental WealthJun 2, 2010 Hoarding behavior can take various forms. For some it is enough to simply hoard money; others have […]

  4. […] Mind Over Money Hoarding Excerpt | Your Mental WealthJun 2, 2010 Hoarding behavior can take various forms. For some it is enough to simply hoard money; others have […]

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  6. DANA says:

    My father has destroyed his health working so hard for more money. I have been out of work due to an injury. I haven’t received a payment from short term disability in 9 weeks. My father was extremely angry with my mother for paying my power bill and spending $80.00 for groceries. My children were warm and had food to eat, but that didn’t comfort my father. He felt like my mother was stupid for helping my family. We have always known he was extreme with his views on money, but I had no idea that it mean more to him than his grandchildren. This disorder destroys families.