Geneen Roth was a successful author before she received what she now dubs "the call."
The call brought news that the financial adviser to whom she had entrusted her and her husband's life savings was a fraud. They had been ripped off by Bernie Madoff -- victims of his now-notorious Ponzi scheme.
The initial horror of learning that her financial adviser was a fraud brought on a range of reactions -- panic, terror, self-blame, rage.
Over time, however, Roth was able to struggle through the crisis and financial catastrophe to see another side of life. She came to the conclusion that "the real suffering was not living without money; it was living with this ranting mind."
Eventually, Roth put pen to paper. In Lost and Found: One Woman's Story of Losing Her Money and Finding Her Life, she describes the personal, financial and psychological journey that followed that fateful phone call.
A Financial Wolf in Savior's Clothing
Before Madoff was exposed, Roth and her husband were not alone in believing that he was acting as a good steward of their money to produce those steady returns. Many smart, highly successful people fell victim to his scheme. And it's no wonder.
In her research, Roth discovered that as important as money may seem to our futures, many people are embarrassed by it, would rather not talk about it, and often don't even want to think about it. So they look for "financial saviors" to take care of their money matters instead of accepting accountability for their own financial futures and decisions about where to park their hard-earned cash.
Madoff had the perfect cover -- a shroud of apparently trustworthy attributes such as his reputation for producing good returns regardless of market factors, and an impressive résumé that included a stint as chairman of the Nasdaq.
Only after Roth experienced her financial loss did she start to examine her own relationship with money. It was then that she discovered that it was very similar to how people relate to food -- a subject in which she knew very well.
You Can Never Have Enough
Although she wasn't an expert in finance, Roth found that this personal financial experience had a lot in common with her area of expertise -- the meaning and motivations driving people's emotional food issues. (Her book Women Food and God ranked No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list, and she's been interviewed by Oprah Winfrey.)
Both food and money gain emotional importance and meaning, much of which is illusory or even related to addictive and compulsive tendencies. With both, people begin to hinge their sense of well-being and sometimes even survival on obtaining more.
Roth's new fascination with money led her to talk to many people about the concept of "enough." One money manager said he'd never met an über-wealthy individual who thought he or she had enough; the final conclusion he'd drawn was that no amount would be enough for many people.
As Roth writes:
"It turns out the focus on me-me-me getting more-more-more leaves us empty-handed and poverty stricken." Equating "net worth" with "self-worth" can lead to negative outcomes and strong regrets. Plus, that line of thinking is what helps bolster the business of someone like Madoff, who was promising steady (and ultimately unrealistic) returns over time.
In the end, the situation isn't really about money, but emotions: "If you're trying to fill something that can't be filled with what you're using, the emptiness never goes away and you keep on wanting more."
Defining Real Value
It was when Roth began to realize that nothing of any real value had been taken from her that she turned an emotional corner.
"In this moment, when I began paying attention to what I did have instead of what I didn't, there was a constant, unavoidable display of gorgeousness everywhere, anywhere... in this exact moment, in the kitchen or backyard or car, there was no catastrophe," she writes.
Indeed, research shows that making exponentially more money doesn't make anybody exponentially happier. Once our basic needs are cared for, true happiness doesn't come from "an increasingly useless pile of paper," a quote Roth picked up from social psychologist Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness.
Beating the Madoffs of the World
Roth neither exalts nor demonizes money; instead, she encourages people to have a more healthy relationship with its place in our lives.
Her call is for awareness: The only way to stop having "an insane relationship with money" is a willingness to examine the relationship -- to be more mindful and accountable for the ways people spend and invest their money.
Embarking on that journey, she says, is a major victory against the thieves and con artists of the world who prey on those trying to turn a quick buck. "The Madoffs of the world profit because we let them," she said. Taking charge of our own relationship with money is a far more positive dividend than Madoff ever mustered.
For more from Alyce Lomax's interview with Geneen Roth, click here. If you're worried about a money disaster, here's your Plan B.