Financial Epiphany

My 9/11: A Financial Epiphany

It has been 14 years, and yet I feel my emotional scar, healed, yet still tender to the touch. Tears still well up. Unfortunately 9/11 was just the first in a series of events that led to my life-changing discovery about money. This is what 9/11 taught me.

I was in Manhattan that week for the Merrill Lynch Financial Services Conference (an ironic coincidence…maybe.) It was held at the Pierre Hotel where we listened to bank management talk about their strategies for gaining a “greater share of consumers’ wallets.” I walked out of a morning session to see footage of the second plane hitting the tower.

The destruction of the World Trade Center had such a powerful symbolic significance for me personally. If a small group of “nobodies” from the other side of the globe could strike at the heart of a major financial (not to mention economic and military) power, what does that say about our safety? What does being safe really mean? To me it meant the wealthiest country on earth couldn’t ensure the safety of its citizens. Money cannot make us feel safe.

I still recall so vividly my dinner with friends that night in SoHo. A couple that lived near ground zero dropped by with their backpacks full. Their flat was damaged and they didn’t feel safe staying there; worried about looting and such, they grabbed what was most important and sought safety for the night. There was so much chaos and such a grand mobilization of effort to create some sense of safety. It was impossible to leave for a week. I went to the airport a couple of times only to be told, “the flight is cancelled.”

It was the beginning of a major life shift in how I thought about money. It would be a number of years before I would actually “get” the full importance of the lesson. In fact it took some other significant events for me to see. In late 2006, I lost my job. My comfortable salary that supported a family of four in Marin was gone. I’m embarrassed to recall how scared I was. I thought it was my greatest fear, not having an income. In fact, the greatest fear for me remained to be faced: having to spend my savings to survive.

Fast forward to early 2008. I still hadn’t found a job. The only logical thing to do at the time was to start my own business. It was what I knew and was good at – managing investments and creating financial plans for people. In retrospect I can’t help but smile at the silliness of it…2008, yeah right!

I was still struggling to make ends meet and draining my savings when the financial crisis hit. My backstop, my Plan C, was a huge line of credit at Washington Mutual. I had started to draw on it to prevent dipping into retirement accounts. I still recall sitting on the porch as I picked up the Sunday New York Times to read the headline: “Banks Stop Honoring Lines of Credit.” I nearly heaved into the bushes. The blood seemed to have left my face and I felt as scared as if a bear were in my front yard. What would happen if my line of credit were gone?

My epiphany (a story for another time) was that I had spent most of my life using money as a source of security. I worked hard, was thrifty and a good saver and investor. My unconscious belief was that every dollar I saved would somehow make me feel more secure. It finally hit me: money cannot make me (us) feel safe! We may think it does but when it comes right down to it, it can’t. We cannot satisfy emotions like the need for security and fear of not enough with a number in our bank accounts.

We all have our memories of 9/11. Mine is one of lost belief. As I sat there in the W Hotel drinking my beer, I realized that I had been worshipping at the altar of something that could not provide what I really wanted in life – safety and security.

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